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Argentines have many European origins. Since the country was only sparsely populated before the arrival of the Europeans, there is little indigenous cuisine. The biggest culinary influence is geographical rather than historical. The vast grassy plains known as the Pampas are home to Argentine cattle, and ranching there parallels our American West in many ways. Gauchos, or Argentine cowboys, are as legendary as their North American counterparts. Argentina's original pioneers, they dress in black and herd cattle, hunt ostriches and raise horses just like their ancestors. Their dinner is often a barbecue using sand pits filled with wood that cook many types of meat over red-hot embers, with guitar music being played by someone who has never heard Madonna do Evita.
Casing the Joint
In a space that used to house a restaurant called Napa, now both the outside and inside have been designed to give the feeling of a South American ranch house. A sign with a distinctive logo and a front porch lead the way into a wide room divided by logo-etched glass. I scout out the place first and the manager proudly leads me over to a large open wood-burning grill. Cut wood is stacked at the back door, and large boxes of Argentine beef surround the grill. The room is done up in wood and tile and has large, glass-domed chandeliers with an inviting bar. A guitarist and singer stroll and sing in Spanish.
What We Eat
Big sister, visiting from south Florida, has become more than familiar with many styles of Latin American cuisine and its various distinctions. She immediately identifies a jar of chimichuria relish made up of olive oil, vinegar, parsley, garlic and onion. We can't wait to taste it, so we dip the hot rolls into it again and again. An appetizer of sopressata and Argentine sardo cheesevery hard, parmesan-like stuff ($9.50), serves two and is very filling along with the bread. We pass on the marinated calf's tongue ($6.50).
If you want to eat like a gaucho, order the parrillada ($15.95), also known as the mixed grill. This signature dish includes pork chops, short ribs, chicken, skirt steak, black sausage and red sausage, tripe and sweetbreads. Tripe, which is cow stomach, and sweetbreads, which are heart and throats, are wisely omitted from most of our diets.
The meats come to the table on a sizzling platter over hot coals. The delicious steak, ribs, chops and chicken benefit from a marinade continually brushed on as they grill. Red sausages are more typical of the Italian kindperhaps reflecting the Italian heritage of many Argentines, while the black sausages are more like German blood sausages, loosely packed and falling apart when sliced into. Tripe and sweetbreads are fatty, chewy and not for the timidmaybe not even the brave. Along with the platter comes great fried potato rounds, which are better than the mushy mashed potatoes. A side dish of two fried eggs, huevos fritos ($2), is available for those trying to break that 500-point cholesterol barrier. Non-grilled specialties include bread and beef dishes cooked Milanese or Napolitana style($11.95-$14.95).
You know you're in trouble when the rest of the table is eating glands, organs and stomachs. Frankly, I'm surprised you're still at the table with these disgusting so-called friends of yours. But keeping with the multicultural influence in Argentine food, there is pasta. So, while your friends have hearts in their mouths you can try canelones or raviolies de espinaca, which are spinach canneloni or ravioli ($9.50), or lentil soup ($2.95). An appetizer called berengenas en escabeche con rusa ($5 por dos) is marinated eggplant with Russian-style potato salad.
Crepes ($3.50) contain dulce de leche, which is sweet milk paste. Having not had paste since kindergarten, I'm glad to be eating it again. It's a thick caramel cream that oozes out of the crisp crepe. We get the postre balcarce ($3.75) because it's described as a special dessertand it is: a big chunk of angel-food cake with thick sugar coating and custard.
If you get the parrillada for two ($27.95) and the sopresatta for two, your dinner is around $20 each. And there are a few nice bottles of wine, like the Chilean white, that go for only $13.