Killing Hunger at El Almacén
I've never really wondered what an Argentinean taco would taste like, but El Almacén ("The General Store") gave me a chance to find out nonetheless. This cozy walk-up restaurant is so close to the Driggs Avenue entrance of the L's Bedford stop, you could visit during a monsoon and not need an umbrella. The windows are emblazoned with the inscrutable words "Queseria" and "Fiamberia" (Spanish for "cheesemonger" and "charcuterie," respectively), causing some potential patrons to pause, scratch their heads, and go elsewhere. The interior evokes a remote South American past, with things like kerosene lanterns, battered wicker chairs, and hand-cranked meat grinders cluttering the ceiling, and rows of ancient grocery bins marching along one wall. A trash-strewn backyard promises long summer evenings sipping wine and nibbling cheese—if the restaurant's liquor license ever arrives.
While Argentine provender forms the core of the menu, Mexican dishes have been added for no apparent reason—though some of them aren't bad. The guacamole is properly chunky with avocado, but tastes more like lemon than lime. Priced at $8 or $9 per pair, and deposited in miniature corn tortillas, the bulging tacos are reasonably tasty, but omit the onion, cilantro, and crema that are their proper garnishes. Does this reflect the Argentinean mania for meat, meat, and more meat? You bet it does.
Nevertheless, one of the best dishes on the menu is Mexican—chile relleno ($14), renamed aji relleno. A huge poblano pepper, still crunchy, pours out cheese, corn, onions, spinach, and rice, and the entire mess sits atop a bed of tomatoes and beans. It's ugly, but tasty. Other entrées strike an Italian note. Argentineans—half of whom boast some Italian blood—are notorious for preferring gnocchi to other pastas, and bathing them in a cream-laced tomato sauce. Inundated with a brown oxtail ragu, El Almacén's papardelle ($15) flies in the opposite direction: The ragged chunks of beef have been braised in coffee by a chef who's chosen to get creative with a traditional Italian recipe. The only real bomb among main courses is the suckling pig: Lechon asado ($16) has been rendered as a sweet-and-sour salad of baby-pig frags mixed with black beans; in the dim light of the restaurant, you can't quite tell what you're eating.
557 Driggs Avenue Williamsburg, Brooklyn 718-218-7284
The menu has evolved since the place first opened six months ago, decreasing the number of taco options but adding ceviches. Originally, El Almacén was the only Argentine restaurant in town that wasn't a parrillada, or grilled meat specialist, even though the menu contained a small assortment. But recently, a much larger selection was introduced, with the characteristic meats offered as separate items. Served on a tree stump with chimichurri and an angry-looking knife, the ones I've tried have been on the money, especially the hulking beef spare rib ($15 each). An assortment of ribs, steak, and chorizo is also available for $38. It's plenty of meat for two to share, though you might prefer the lamb chops, pork chops, or squishy blood sausage instead.
Really, you can't go wrong in making a meal of appetizers and side dishes at El Almacén. Among the latter ($5 each), find wonderful avocado fries (crisp-on-the-outside green boomerangs served with a dubious "yerba mate ketchup") and papas provenzal (steak fries seductively sprinkled with paprika and vinegar). While the place is perpetually expecting its liquor license, you're not allowed to bring in alcohol, though it was permitted in the early months. This is sad, since the best things at El Almacén scream for a glass of red wine.
With the welter of Argentinean, Italian, and Mexican dishes, putting a meal together can be a headache. Accordingly, you might just stick with the stenciled words you saw on the windows when you came in. The cold cuts, in particular, are unimpeachable, swerving in Spanish and Italian directions. The $15 charcuterie assortment is a thing of beauty, including hand-cut Serrano ham with a splendid rim of fat, cured and cooked salamis, mortadella, dill pickles, a few stray olives, a pot of creamy mustard, and, best of all, a couple of slices of matambre.
What's matambre? It means "kill hunger," and is the nickname of a cold veal roll containing spinach, egg, and pimento, sliced thick. It's the South American answer to Italian porchetta. The dish was supposedly created for travelers who ventured across the wide pampas by stagecoach, and didn't have time to stop, get out, shoot one of the feral calves that were everywhere, and then spit-cook it over a wood fire—proving that even in 19th-century Argentina, folks felt strapped for time.
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