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One Great Dish

Served up: annals of the science of restaurant reviewing

The modern science of restaurant reviewing has several unproved theorems that might become laws if enough supporting evidence could be amassed. One of the most persistent is the One Great Dish Rule, which runs something like this: Every eatery, no matter how mediocre or just plain bad, has at least one spectacular dish—if only you can find it.

We had a chance to test the theory not long ago in Northern Boulevard's low Eighties, a region harboring a line of pretty Colombian cafés, snack bars, and windows-only fruit juice joints, punctuated by the odd Peruvian, Ecuadoran, and Mexican place. Trying to get into a Bolivian restaurant one Saturday evening, we were crestfallen to discover a crowd of cigar-chomping caballeros spilling out the front door. It seems the Colombia-Brazil soccer game was being broadcast, and inside it was standing room only. Ambling up the boulevard we spotted a quiet Argentine steak house known as La Cabana, offering the usual rustic room with the ends of wine barrels protruding from a brick wall. The only perplexing item of decor was an etching on a window by the front door. It looked like a boy in a straw hat launching a rather large sailboat. "Look, it's Huck Finn," I pointed. "No, you idiot," a friend snickered, "that's a gaucho tending a side of beef beside a campfire."

It was to La Cabana's detriment that I had revisited the great parrillas of central Queens earlier in the year—Corona's La Esquina, La Porteña in Jackson Heights, and La Fusta, located right across the street from the Elmhurst Hospital emergency room. It wasn't that the chow at three-year-old La Cabana wasn't good; it just couldn't match that of the older meat palaces. Take the mixed grill for two ($30.95). While the skirt steak was chewy and fresh tasting (South Americans prefer unaged beef), the flattened sweetbreads were somewhat lacking in flavor, the chitlins a shade skanky, the ribs tougher than one might hope for, and the blood sausage of such consistency that when you pricked the end of the casing, the insides sloshed out.

Steak out: Carnivorous Argentines can beef up their diets at neighborhood parrillas.
photo: Shiho Fukada
Steak out: Carnivorous Argentines can beef up their diets at neighborhood parrillas.

Since half the population of Argentina comes originally from Italy, most parrillas offer a menu that's half Italian, twisted in a way that most Europeans wouldn't recognize. Pasta sauces typically feature both cream and tomatoes, making for a mellow, salmon-pink topping that's used on almost everything. And the favorite pasta is not pasta at all, but potato "noqui," which Argentines eat on the last day of every month, when they're strapped for cash. Reflecting a new trend among Argentine restaurants, though, the pastas at La Cabana are European in style, including a tasty fettuccine Alfredo ($13.50) and a disappointing gnocchi mired in a sludgy red sauce.

But then we noticed the wood-oven pizzas. How apropos, we thought, for a gaucho hang to be generating campfire pies. The toppings generally paralleled the pastas, except for one pizza, "La Cabana" ($10.95). A hush fell over the table as it arrived, because in addition to a fine thin crust, good cheese laid on generously, and a discreet smearing of tomato sauce, it featured juicy strips of skirt steak, cut along the grain almost like pulled pork. The menu also mentioned sausage and prosciutto, but these were clearly supporting players. Not only was the pizza unusual, it was unspeakably delicious.

Now we could stop looking. We'd found the one great dish.

 
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