Friday, July 1, 2011

On Food

Bar Federal in San Telmo.

I just now got back from my fave restaurant here in Bs As, el Café del Lector. Fave, I should emphasize, not because it has the best food ever (the Lector, bless its heart, does not), but fave in the sense that it’s become a weekly or so tradition for me to head over there, through residential side streets, up and down several Roman-feeling stone staircases, past typically Bonarense statuary and the British Embassy, to the Café itself, located in the shadows of the hulking Biblioteca National.

The appeal of the Lector is that it’s an ideal place if you want to eat while also spending several hours solo reading and/or working (something that would not be acceptable, or even possible, I suspect, in most other Bs As restaurants). That said, however, the moment seems ideal to at least briefly review my experience of and thoughts about food here in the SA antipodes.

These guys are everywhere selling various varieties of roasted nuts. I was not particularly interested in partaking in this fare, and never did.

Let us begin with an overview thought. People often remark at the mention of any foreign country, “The food there is delicious!” This is not right for two reasons. First, the food in any country varies, and one’s experience of the food will also necessarily vary with it. In Spain, for example, I had outstanding tapas and disgusting ones. Moreover, whatever regional variation there may be in a given local cuisine can be generally distasteful to one, in which case what’s “good” there may be gross to a given visitor.

So to the extent that one might ask “How is the food in Argentina,” my response would be “At its best, excellent. At its worst, forgettable.” And this statement is more or less true of any country one might visit, even the grand old EEUU. Hence this post seeks to review and describe my experience of, rather than uncritically laud, the food here in Bs As. That said, let us begin with

Steak. I have had many steakses since arriving here, and they’ve been generally very good. And for the amount I paid for them, they’ve been downright insane bargains. I don’t think I’ve paid more than US$20 for a steak since arriving, and many of them have been enormous and delicious for the same amount that might fetch you shoe leather at a Sizzler back home.

Bacon-wrapped bife de ojo at el Lector.

But my favorite iteration of the local red-meat culture has to be the parrilla. This is a term for BBQ that I might be misusing, as it could refer only to the BBQ itself and not to the food you get. Point being, restaurants that call themselves parrillas (and there are many) may serve steak, but they may also serve up the classic option, which begins with a buffet with salad and whatnot, and then proceeds to proffer up a gut-busting series of meats served successively on a platter. The parade of deliciousness typically begins with sausage (including my fave, morcilla, or blood sausage), and then includes things like ribs, T-bone steak, steak, additional steak, other kinds of steak, and concludes with steak. There is also chimuchurri, which is the closest thing one can find to spicy sauce in these parts, and for dessert there is often steak-based flan on offer. It is a self-consciously overdone spectacle, perhaps seeking to show off Argentine largesse with food, esp to foreign visitors.

Let us now speak of empanadas. These are turnovers, more or less, full of various things—some have cheese, or vegetables, or sausage, or spicy (“spicy”) meat, or non-spicy (“bland”) meat, or turkey. You get the picture. These are best experienced, in my view, as appetizers. An empanada or two with a drink is a great way, for example, to presage a parrilla (see above). As a full meal, they’re kinda heavy, though this did not stop me from consuming many full-on empanada-only meals at my fave empanada place, Romario, up in Palermo Jardin. Somewhat charmingly, you can tell what kind of empanada you’re eating by matching the edge of the turnover to the particular usage of the restaurant (see Romario’s, below).

Empanadas with handy guide from Romario.

The least obvious of the great Argentine triumvirate of food (or “chow” though not “chau”), as I’ve come to think of it, is Italian food. Well-nigh one-third of Argentines are of Italian descent, as a quick glance at the names of locals will make abundantly clear, and they’ve imported along with them many fine examples of their cuisine. I’ve lost count of the number of excellent pizza and pasta dishes I’ve had, though my fave place is just down Azcuenaga, a classic example of the Italo-Antipodean style called Quentino. My only reservation about Quentino is that the guy who always ends up waiting on my table is a damned mutterer, hence I can hardly understand a word he says, and I always leave feeling bitter about the state of my Spanish.

At this point it should be clear that the classic triad of Arg cuisine—steak/parrilla, empanadas, and Italian food—is wonderful and delicious at its best, but fails in two ways. First, this fare is muy rico, as the Spanish man sez, but it is in no way spicy. At Quentino, I asked the waiter for some red pepper to go with my pizza and he looked at me like I were crazy (and no it was not just the language barrier, as I confirmed by finding a pic of red pepper on my iPad and showing him). Nor is there hot sauce of any sort. Locals warned me of the spiciness of chimichurri, which was well-meant but really laughable since the local chimichurri packs all the picante punch of a liberal dose of black pepper.

Sort of related, the very riqueza of local food, in combination with its obvious heaviness, can cause it after a spell to seem enormously heavy. (At which point I should also mention that a possible fourth classic food worth mentioning is the milanesa: A piece of meat pounded flat, breaded, fried, and then covered in sauce and toppings. At my local fave joint, el Club de la Milanesa at Uriburu and Las Heras, they serve up a milanesa so delicious and so dense that it requires me at least a two-hour nap to recover from the inevitably ensuing coma.) In my time here, it took about two weeks of constantly engorging myself with pizza, pasta, empanadas, steak and the occasional milanesa to reach a point where I pined for the kind of light healthy fare one finds with such regularity in Californ-eye-ay. Broad Readership, I found myself craving a damned salad. Things were desperate.

Unrelated to the current topic, this is a guy selling "mates" which are gourds for yerba mate, which is a beloved local drink that is an herbal, though I'm told no less intense, alternative to coffee. I had mate in saquitos but it didn't really do much for me.

So what does one do when one hits the Argentine food-wall? There are options. Consider:

Sushi. There is a lot of sushi around here, and the quality of the fish is generally high. My only reservation is that there is a local desire to fill every possible sushi roll with an ample complement of cream cheese. This is not only kind of gross (not being a fan of the Philly Roll generally) but also kind of undermines the project of finding a cuisine light enough to offset the otherwise dense character of the Argentine diet.

Health food: Tea Connection. Oh, B.R., do I have a hot investment tip for you. Come to Bs As and open up a location of the chain “Tea Connection” (name in English), which serves relatively light fare, like chicken sandwiches and organic-rice stir fries, and mixed-fruit drinks. For while I found this restaurant a great change from the usual fare, I rarely went there because both of the two locations near me were so busy during all hours of the day as to almost inevitably require an awful and protracted wait outside in the freezing plein-air. But it seemed to me from my many many failures to eat at the invariably crowded TC that there is a real supply/demand mismatch here in Bs As, and that anyone who opened a location would be raking it in.

The polar opposite of what I'm currently writing about. This burger is on offer at local BKs and is called the "BK Stacker." It rises a full five patties high, and offers "Sabor 5.0" according to the ads. I actually first thought this was a joke mocking gluttonous Americans. But it's not. So the next time you hear a foreigner making light of our gross diets, cite the BK Stacker to illustrate that the only thing grosser than US fast food is the metastatic version of US fast food that people apparently consume with wild abandon abroad.

Vegetarian food: Happiness House. In my fifth week here, I found along Rodriguez Pena, totally por casualidad, one of like three vegetarian specialty shops in the entirety of Bs As. This one also has an English name, interestingly, and is a buffet where you can load up a box with all manner of Arg-veg specialty delights like empanadas, carne de soya, etc., though the overall theme was basically Asiatic, and the place was run by Asian folks who spoke perfect Spanish which always vaguely amused me for reasons that remain unclear. This developed into a very fun tradition whereby I would spend four hours in the AM at my really very fun and cool Spanish school, VOS, and would treat myself afterward to a cheap and delicious vegetarian feast at HH, which made whatever ensuing heavy dinner I’d inevitably consume seem not so artery-threatening as it probably still was.

And of course this entry would be incomplete without a reference to dessert, which in my case was always delectable and wonderful flan. Flan is not, of course, unique to Argentina, but what makes the experience of flan here so delectable is that it’s usually accompanied by dulce de leche, which is a scoop of caramel that has more … structural integrity than the caramel sauce one might get in the states, and is also much richer and delicious, so much so that I could eat an entire serving of it solo. And, embarrassingly enough, did—several times (record for portions of flan + DdL eaten in one meal = 3).

Flan with dulce de leche.

This list is necessarily incomplete. I’m reminded of many other memorable food experiences that I don’t have time to detail--eating at Fiselle, just across the street from my depto, and practicing Spanish with voluble owner Ricardo; grabbing choripan from carts off the street; those mobile nut-roasteries that smell intriguing if not particularly delicious and that I never got the nerve to try; long AMs spent writing over a desayuno completo (perfectly enjoyable but over-named); outstanding café y medias lunas at Martinez (the Porteno Starbucks but still excellent); and of course hours and hours spent at my personal fave, la famosa La Biela. But there’s much blogging to be done, B.R., and little time remaining, so I’ll have to leave the rest to your fecund imaginationses.