Archive for the ‘Argentina’ Category

Porteño food at Cafe San Juan

January 16, 2009

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This is my last post about Argentina.  It’s been a month since I got back, but I still think about it all the time—the things I saw, the people I met, and of course the food I ate.  So after the mildly snide comments I’ve made about Argentine food, it seems fair and right to write my last post about a delicious Argentine meal we ate that was not steak.

Café San Juan in San Telmo wants you to feel comfortable and cozy.  There are no menus, just substantial blackboards that the servers will prop up on your table.  One is devoted to tapas, the other to main dishes like rabbit and lamb chops.  (I love lamb chops but I love them even more when they’re called “chuletitas de cordero.”)  The kitchen is open, but not in the flamboyant way you see in the U.S., since it’s small and just pushed off to the side.  It almost feels more like the restaurant just didn’t want to separate the chefs from the dining room and vice versa.  The décor in general is quiet and unassuming, clean but a little bare.  The warmth of the room comes completely from the food and the happy people eating it.

We ordered two tapas and two entrees.  The waiter seemed a little surprised, and when the food arrived, we realized why.  The portions were huge, so that even before we started eating, we could see we were clearly in the New World.  We Americans, North and South, love our food big!

But I can’t complain that the roast pork tapas were too big.  I loved every bite I had, both my piece and the half I got from my friend.  Thick slices of roast pork were layered on a piece of good, crusty bread, with more than just a drizzle of a green cilantro sauce.  The gazpacho was served in its own shot glass, but there was nothing precious about the presentation.   I made a mess on the tablecloth pouring the gazpacho over my share.  I didn’t care.

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Likewise, the olives were speared onto equally thick and generous slices of cheese.  Simple, delicious, and totally satisfying.  The rabbit was also very generous—it looked like the entire rabbit was on our plate.   Though there was nothing wrong with it, we agreed there was something about the uniformly rich and braised flavor that didn’t really suit our palates.

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But what impressed me the most was the beautiful canelones de mollejas, or cannelloni stuffed with sweetbreads.  They were monstrous tubes of pasta, reminding me again of how the New World super-sizes everything from the Old World, but I wanted as much of it as I could get.  The sweetbreads had been mixed with a wonderful ricotta, and the pasta itself defied all my expectations with its firm al dente resistance.  The tomato sauce was incredibly rich, obviously full of some kind of fat, but it still added the tartness and brightness necessary to make the dish unstoppable.  I don’t know if sweetbread cannelloni is particularly Italian, but it felt very beefy and Argentine.

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My friend, who had found other Argentine desserts impossibly sweet, loved our dessert.  It was just a sweet little rice pudding with an icy mango sorbet and some very jaunty tuiles.

The Guía Oleo, an Argentine online food guide, describes the food at Café San Juan as “porteño,” the Argentine word to describe the people who live in Buenos Aires, even though I’d heard it described on Chowhound as Spanish.  Now that I’ve been there, I think the Guía is right.  This is true porteño food.

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Voulez Bar

January 12, 2009

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“Voulez” in French means, “You want.”  When you arrive at Voulez Bar, a French bistro and cafe in Buenos Aires, it’s pretty clear, yes, you do want.

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It’s not just that you might be tired of steak and excited to eat a little quiche/tarta with some fresh greens dressed in a very French way.  Of course, the space is beautiful, with large windows that let in the kind of light that makes the most lowly glass of white wine gleam and glimmer.  It is obviously popular, despite being a little expensive by porteño standards, filled with ladies lunching, businessmen dining, and a trio of Americans who seemed more like expats than tourists judging by their self-satisfied conversation.  (I would be self-satisfied, too, if I managed to figure out a way to live there.)

It’s just the magic that’s always in the best cafes.  It’s that perfect low-level buzz of noise that comes from the echo of voices and clinking silverware, and the feeling that you can sit as long as you want looking out the window.  You can be alone but have conversation surround you.

And the quiche really is very good.

Chinese food, and the possibilities of life in Buenos Aires

January 4, 2009

For me, love comes with familiarity. So it was only in my second week in Buenos Aires, and my third week in Argentina, that I really began to love the city. I knew at least a few of the major bus routes leaving off of Avenida Santa Fe. I could carry a vague map of the city in my head. I had my favorite café, where I could drink a café cortado and eat medialunas all day and even plug my laptop into an outlet. (New Yorkers love Buenos Aires because it shows them life in a big city doesn’t have to be quite so hard.)

But what really moved me to love Buenos Aires, and to be able to imagine living there for more than a week or two, was the discovery of great Chinese food. Yes, Buenos Aires has great Chinese food. Great Chinese food is a good thing, wherever you are, but it’s particularly noteworthy when you’re in a country where the culinary standard seems to be a serious aversion to garlic, spices, and heat. (I try really hard to accept a country’s food on its own terms, but a Korean girl has her limits.)

Chinatown in the leafy, outer neighborhood of Belgrano turned out to be just a few blocks, but like all Chinatowns around the world, there were gold and red tchotchkes for sale and tourists and Argentines looking for exotic thrills.

The kind of thrills Zizou* and I were looking for, we happily found at a place called Lai Lai, from a Chowhound tip. It was very “Chinese,” to be sure—red lanterns, red walls, red light. There were postcards of Taiwan lined up in right above the tables all around the room, that made me wonder what the owners longed for, especially when Zizou, whose family is from Taiwan, told me the staff were speaking Mandarin with a Beijing accent. Unlike many of the restaurants we normally go to in San Francisco and New York, this restaurant could not be bare-boned. It had to prove its Chinese-ness to its non-Chinese clientele.

At the same time, the menu was oddly reassuring in its Spanish translations. There was very little in the way of bird’s nest soup or abalone, and the chicken, beef, and pork that was there was translated in a way that claimed, “This is very much like this that you already know.” Tofu was “queso de soya” or “soy cheese”; wontons were “raviolines.” It made me realize how flexible American culture is, that we happily learn new words for the new foods we eat, even if we might mangle their pronunciation. We say “panna cotta,” not “Italian custard,” and “taco” instead of “Mexican pancake stuffed with meat.”

In the end, what we loved about the food wasn’t that it was just like the mapo tofu I’ve had at Grand Sichuan in Chelsea, or the dumplings we’ve had at Koi Palace in Daly City. Everything we ate was a little unexpected, a little surprising, and all good.

Our appetizer of spicy dumplings was served in a hot, oily broth, rather than the pool of chile oil we expected, but the broth was so tangy and restorative, we spooned it up.

The lamb with scallions was a little tough with gristle, but the taste of the scallions was a joy, like chewing on springtime after all the vegetable-less dishes I’d eaten. The beef with Chinese broccoli had an intense flavor of star anise, but it was curious and interesting because it had a flavor that wasn’t one of the three dominant flavors in Argentine food.

The best part, though, was the mapo tofu. Not only was the tofu slightly firmer and more resilient than usual, it tasted of beef! Not pork! I’ve seen recipes for mapo tofu that call for beef, not pork, but it just seemed so appropriately Argentine to replace the most common meat in Chinese food with their beloved beef. We first were concerned it wasn’t red enough, but then we realized the red light of the restaurant was hiding the amount of chiles in the sauce. It was absolutely delicious.

At one point, Zizou asked me, “Do you think this would taste as good if we were in New York or in San Francisco?” Probably not, given that the food tasted the way I imagine manna tasted to the starving Israelites, but in a way, it didn’t really matter.

It was Chinese food, the Argentine way. And that is how I fell in love with Buenos Aires.

*Zizou, the alias of my privacy-seeking friend and traveling buddy.

Ravioli and hot showers

December 28, 2008

Found in a sign-in book at the Cervecería Artesanal, a restaurant in El Chaltén:

Sunday 20th March 2005-
Dear Mr. Bar Man,

We came in this afternoon and noticed that you were really hot……
…….So we brought our friend back to meet you.

….Only to discover that there was a different (but equally hot guy) behind the bar….

From talking to you the night before we knew a bit about you so we asked the (new) guy if he was your friend and you were traveling together….

…..He seemed a bit confused and so did we…..

……until we realized that you are in fact
THE SAME GUY and must have had a shave!

Patagonia is magical like that.

Hot guys aside, there really is something strange, wild, and magical about Patagonia. Most of it is empty of almost everything but wind. There are no bounds to what you are looking at—the sky keeps going, as does the land. And then, in the midst of all this emptiness, there are the glaciers. There is no way to describe what a glacier looks like, only what it did to me to look at them and to feel some of the strongest yearning I have ever felt for something to exist and continue existing, no matter what were to happen to me.

But after gazing and hiking and yearning, you must eat. And the best place to eat in strange, wild, and magical El Chaltén is the Cervecería Artesanal, the very same restaurant in which we found this funny story.

You could almost miss it from the outside, just another wood-hewn building among others, with no clear sign indicating its name. We might have walked right by it the first day, if it weren’t for the hikers who looked so happy sitting outside drinking the home-brewed cold beer.

When you walk in, though, you can see immediately how much the owner loves her restaurant. The walls are papered in articles and photos, from James Dean to Leo Tolstoy, and there are sturdy, good-looking cakes on the counter. The aforementioned sign-in books are scattered on the tables, and you can spend a very pleasant afternoon flipping through the happy memories of people from France and Australia and Spain while the light streams in the windows. It is always a refuge, whether it’s hot or windy, and I’m sure even when it’s cold.

That same love and attention is obvious in the food. The salad is composed beautifully and creatively. Everything, the pears, tomatoes, celery, walnuts, blue cheese and cream, tasted clear and sure, cut and placed authoritatively in the bowl.

The lamb ravioli was firm and tender at the same time; no fear of sub-par Argentine pasta here. In classic Argentine fashion, you can pair any pasta with any sauce, but I think I did well in picking the light and tangy tomato sauce.

Bodegon is a good place to have a beer with some complimentary peanuts and popcorn at any time, but I highly recommend going there especially if you have camped for five days eating nothing but Knorr instant food.

That is Patagonia. Yearning for something you can’t even identify, and then finding happiness in a hot shower, a bowl of ravioli, and a quiet place to read funny stories.

Nuevo Hermann, or Buenos Aires-speak for very old restaurant

December 23, 2008

There is no shortage of hipsters in Buenos Aires, kids in high tops with surprisingly good-looking mullets. But there is also no shortage of restaurants like El Desnivel, or Manolo, or my favorite, Nuevo Hermann, restaurants that don’t seem to have changed in 50 years. It’s what makes Buenos Aires feel like a rich city, rich in a diversity of lives and memories.

We walked into Nuevo Hermann almost on a dare. It was just a block or two from our first apartment on Guemes in Palermo, it was our last night in Buenos Aires before we left for Patagonia, and I wanted to eat someplace that wasn’t listed in any of our guidebooks, just walk in blind. I was afraid to risk not just my stomach but also that of my friend Zizou*, but I had to try it.

The waiter was old and gruff. The menu was enormous. There were dishes that were vaguely German and dishes that were vaguely Spanish, and the usual gamut of Argentine meats and pastas. Milanesa, anyone? We asked him, “What would you recommend? What is the best?” And the answer was, “Everything is the best.” This was not said with much enthusiasm.

But it became clear why the question was so foreign to him as we watched the restaurant fill up with regulars from the neighborhood. Elderly and middle-aged couples came in, didn’t even glance at their menus, and ordered their dinners. One couple, according to Zizou, didn’t even order, the waiter just brought their food.

The restaurant was pristine and proud. It wasn’t being retro; it wasn’t even aware its time had passed.

So how was the food? Zizou’s pork chop was overcooked but still strong in flavor. But I was really scared when my Vienna sausage and ensalada rusa came out. I knew that my ensalada rusa, a classic Spanish tapa, would be full of mayonnaise and not in a good way, but I felt this perverse desire to order it. The sausage looked like my worst nightmares, so pink and clean and consistent. But it was delicious. The smoothness of its texture didn’t mean that it was lacking in character. And even the ensalada rusa was comforting and satisfying, because it was exactly as I had expected it to be.

That’s why everyone else was there, to get food exactly as they expected it. To be so sure of having one’s expectations met—that’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?

*Zizou, aka my friend and traveling companion, not Zinedine Zidane.

My favorite gelato in Buenos Aires

December 21, 2008

Scannapieco at Avenida Cordoba 4826.

Flavors like Crema Armenia, a boozy fig and anise, and limoncello, as light and refreshing as anything called “limoncello” should be.

It’s true, most Argentine gelato is too sweet, but it’s hard to fault a city where ice cream gets delivered by bicycle.

La Cupertina

December 16, 2008

There were moments in Buenos Aires when I thought, “Thank God, I chose to study Spanish in Mexico.” These were not the moments when I was dancing till 4 a.m. or eating luscious steaks for criminal prices. I missed small-town Oaxaca the most when I sat staring at my “ensalada caprese,” a sorry mass of tasteless arugula, hunks of “mozzarella” or pizza cheese, and the saddest, blandest tomatoes to ever bear the name. To be fair, I was at an all-night eatery, as Zizou* and I had few choices after getting back to BA late at night. But Argentine traditional cooking just can’t compare to the zingy surprise of a street emapanada de mole amarillo or the complex curiosity of mole negro.

When there wasn’t steak, there were Argentine empanadas, and as Zizou found, most empanadas were a doughy excuse to carry some meat around in an easy way. When she complained the dough was utterly forgettable, we imagined gauchos carrying them cold in their saddlebags, caring little for texture or flavor.

This is where La Cupertina came in, to make us more gracious towards our host country. Located in Palermo Soho, and specializing in food from the province of Tucuman, La Cupertina is a very pretty place—heart cut-outs in the wooden chairs, green plants spilling over an antique stove. The owner, whose fame is apparent in the framed articles on one discrete wall, clearly cares a lot about what she is doing. I love people who care, and I loved her food as much as I’d hoped as we sat waiting in the sunny dining room.

The empanadas were baked, the ham and cheese empanadas with sugar. The tamal, more meat than masa, was moist and so good we ordered another one after finishing the first. The locro, though, was my favorite. A traditional stew of whole corn kernels with white beans, beef, and sausage, there was an intensity and range of flavor that I’d been missing while chewing the excellent Argentine beef.

Their desserts, too, are beautiful to behold, and although they were as sweet as all Argentine desserts, they weren’t so singular in their sweetness.

(But to be totally honest, the best empanadas we had the entire time we were there were from El Mazacote, the corner pizzeria in Montserrat. Flaky, buttery, revelatory—Zizou felt vindicated—“I told you the dough could be flaky!”)

* aka, my non-“French soccer star” friend and traveling companion.

Learning to love food for what it is and not what you want it to be

December 15, 2008

Most people who love to travel are running away from something. I know this because that’s why I travel. That can be bad, when you’re avoiding persistent problems in your life, but it can also be good, when you ignore your preferences from back home and learn to accept things on their own terms.

In short, Argentinian pizza is quite good if you accept it for what it is. Not New York pizza. Not Neopolitan pizza. Not Chicago-style, nor New Haven. But Argentinian.

Our first pizza experience horrified Zizou,* and she didn’t even taste it. We had gone to Kentucky Pizza (what a name!) after lots of dancing to La Bomba de Tiempo at Ciudad Cultural KONEX with some new friends. I was so hungry I ate my pizza without comment or even consciousness, but Zizou could not forget it. “It was so thick and doughy! It looked disgusting!”

She wasn’t mollified when I ordered the above fugazetta, an onion-intense pizza at Bodegon, our favorite restaurant and local brewery in El Chalten. We had just come off five days of camping, where we ate nothing other than instant oatmeal, Frutigram cookies, and gummy Knorr-mix pasta. I was not going to complain about the crazy amount of cheese or the flatbread crust. It wasn’t the most delicious thing I had ever eaten, but it was good enough that I ate it cold for breakfast the next day.

When we got back to Buenos Aires, and I mentioned that my former boss’s grandmother had invited us to have pizza, Zizou looked scared. But it was she in the end who steered us, even before we went to dinner with Nilda, to El Cuartito, one of the oldest and most famous pizzerias in Buenos Aires.

The look of relief on her face when she bit into her slice! “It’s good!”

The cabresa was layered with cheese, many pieces of longaniza (essentially pepperoni), and a strongly tomato-flavored tomato sauce, which is not a redundant thing to say in Argentina. (For a country populated by Italian immigrants, they have sadly forgotten the taste of a true tomato.) The crust was crunchy, but not doughy. The famous faina, the thin chickpea flour pancakes Argentines like to eat literally on top of their pizza slice, was tasty, too. It must be a descendent of farinata, no? It wasn’t like any pizza we’d ever had before, but it had everything right-cheese, bread, and sauce.

El Cuartito itself is wonderful. It proudly declares that it began in 1934, thanking its customers, their parents, and their grandparents for their patronage. The walls are covered with memorabilia, except unlike TGIF, the memorabilia has age. Marilyn Monroe sits next to Diego Maradona, as well as Muhammad Ali.

But the crowning moment for Argentine pizza came on our last night, at dinner with Nilda, an 84-year-old former human rights lawyer who I would call feisty if that word didn’t sound so inadequate when applied to a woman like that. Sitting at her kitchen table with her pale gold hair, she watched closely as she asked us, “What do you think of Fidel Castro?” This is a woman who said, “Of course I am not Communist, just in my thoughts!”

The pizza she served us, urged on by my former boss, was from the family’s favorite pizzeria, El Mazacote, a neighborhood place in Montserrat on the corner of calles Chile y Jose. It was a revelation. The dough was yeasty, chewy, flavorful. The sauce and cheese were sharp with salt. We loved it, the Argentinian pizza.

*Zizou, a pseudonym for my good friend who wishes to remain anonymous, and not an indication my good friend is Zinedine Zidane.

Desayuno en Argentina

December 14, 2008

Medialunas (literally “half moons”) are the Argentine version of the French croissant, except they are very different and very delicious at the same time. They come in three variations—de grasa, de manteca, and dulce.

The first kind is my favorite, the skinniest, more of a thin crescent than a half moon. They’re almost crunchy while also being flaky and more than a little salty.

The second and third, I have to confess, I have a hard time distinguishing. They both flake in softer layers and have a shiny wash of sweetness.

All of them are small and lovely.

I had a bagel this morning in commemoration of my return to New York, but I miss my café con leche con tres medialunas.

Argentine cookies

December 9, 2008

You may have already heard my theory on how a country’s junk food reveals a lot about its culture. Ta-da, here is Argentina’s rendition of the Oreo:

An alfajor is two cookies bound together with a filling, dulce de leche in Argentina, and then covered in a thin layer of chocolate. Like all Spanish words that start with “al,” it’s derived from the Arabic word for “relleno” or “filled,” and entered Spain with the Moors during the time of Al-Andalus. Hmm, that would explain their extreme intense sweetness.

And then there are the chocolate cookies with beef fat in them:

And cows everywhere: