Abalone, No Baloney
The 2300 miles of mountains that separate Chile and Argentina prevent much culinary resemblance. While Chileans depend on seafood that rides the Humboldt Current, their neighbors remain obsessed with the semiferal cattle first loosed on the pampas by the conquistadores. And as Argentinean cuisine revels in Italian borrowings, Chilean dotes on the contributions of its aboriginal inhabitants. The lucky proximity of two restaurants in Elmhurst lets us savor these contrasts.
El Arrayan occupies a handsome four-story house in a neighborhood of curving small-town lanes, its dining room decorated with a relief map of Chile so long it's displayed in three segments. Starters include baked empanadas ($3) filled with a tasty seafood hash, and mariscal ($9.50), a ceviche of clams, baby shrimp, and gooey mussels that is not for everyone. Best of all, though, is locos mayo ($14), a stonehenge of abalone ("locos" refers to particularly large specimens), each obelisk surmounted by a pig's tail of yellow mayonnaise. The gray flesh is chewy and almost chickeny, and the quantity of gastropod at this price is astonishing even in Chinatown $30 buys only a small dose.
Reflecting Chile's Indian heritage, pastel de choclo ($9.50) casseroles ground meat, poultry, and raisins, topping them with crushed corn and sugar a real find for the sweet tooth. Guatita ($7.50), which bathes a big plate of tripe in a cilantro-dominated "color" (the mixture of oil, garlic, and paprika that's the basis of many dishes), is one of the best renditions of cow stomach I've tasted recently. Though not on the menu, outsize tamales studded with corn kernels ("humitas") are generally available.
Just across the Andean hump of the Long Island Rail Road lies Little Argentina, a short stretch of Corona Avenue whose undisputed anchor is the brilliantly lit (and partly Uruguayan-owned) La Esquina Criolla, where the menu is so beef-heavy everything else is peripheral. A glass counter displays large cuts of glistening freshness, and what other joint can you name where a huge electric meat saw is proudly displayed as an item of decor? Most popular is entrana ($10.95), a grainy, dark, and flavorful skirt, best ordered rare. Churrasco ($9.95) is a thin sirloin that flops over the sides of the dinner plate, while the boneless bife de chorizo ($15.95) looks and tastes like porterhouse, so big that a pair of huge fellas sharing one at the next table left with a doggie bag. The steaks come on a metal platter unadorned and ungarnished, with nary a sprig of parsley to distract you from the perfectly cooked meat. (The parsley is found in the excellent homemade chimichurri.) Each main course comes with a starchy side dish. Most diners pick Russian salad, cubed potatoes and mixed vegetables obliterated by clouds of mayonnaise you'll love it or hate it. I prefer the fried yuca, railroad ties of fibrous delirium.
Almost as an afterthought, the menu offers five pastas in a tomato sauce unexpectedly ruled by mild green chiles. Argentines grow misty-eyed about noquis ($7.95), potato-infused pasta nuggets that they devour on the 29th of the month to remind themselves of hard times, when the meat budget wouldn't stretch till the first. But they're great any day of the year, especially for vegetarians, and you don't have to be tapped out to appreciate their specific gravity.
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