Friday, February 10, 2006

Throw Another Sheep on the Barbie


Dearest Karen,

On reaching Argentina, I was afraid that the monotonous gastronomic tune set by Peru and Chile was about to continue on for a few more baars. This fear proved to be well founded. Some of the notes sang a bit brighter and the melody warmed a bit, but the overall composition remained more same-same than different-different.

Detail-oriented readers of my occasional OC food rants (cuisine-obsessed perverts that you clearly must be) will recall that lunch is king in many South American countries. His reign extends into the Grand Duchy of Argentina. Other familiar traditions that carry across into Patagonia and regions north include the very light breakfast of coffee, bread, and jam and an extremely late supper. An evening meal before 10 is unpatriotic, before 11 simply gauche, before midnight unfashionable, and before 1 merely the subject of hipster ridicule. Diners linger over meals and a check is rarely (if ever) delivered unasked for.

King Lunch prefers to attend meals in the company of the Queen of Grilled Meat. Carnivorosity is taken to Jurassic proportions in Argentina. Every menu features numerous varieties of beef and only grudgingly gives up space for chicken, seafood, pasta, and salad. All of those are relegated to the back of the book and appear lurid and out of place like those ads for gay escorts in the final pages of The Economist.

The emphasis of red meat is not without reason In my experience, only Kobe beef outshines that of the Argentine pampas. But what would these hunks of quality raw meat be without out an artist to sculpt them? Tar tar - a meal fit only for the French (sorry Jean Xavier) and other weirdos (sorry Al). A top steak requires a barbecue ace and Argentina trains and reveres such artistes. In some restaurants, the grill man lives in a glass-walled Zen barbecue chamber with a small window from which he dispenses the tasty products of his burning altar. It's kind of like the little bullet-proof outhouse the Pope trucks around in but larger and with a huge grill in it.

All of the meat and heavy wine (see below) has predictable effects on digestion. The transition to an Argentine diet has a way of deregularizing one's reading sessions if you know what I mean. Erik posits that the unique design of plumbing in Buenos Aires may be a result of eating habits. The flushing action of a BA toilet is best described as powerful and continuous. Along the same lines, Jason theorized that the Argentine penchant for coffee and cigarettes (both literacy advocates if you know what I mean) could be inspired by the same dietary side effects.

A few other things of particular note:

Beer - Quilmes is the most popular beer in Argentina. Budweiser is the most popular beer in the US. They have more in common than just high sales.

Parilla - In this style of dining, you order a heap of meat for the table that is served on a little metal table heated by some enclosed coals. This way, your filet does not get cold while you are gorging on ribs. It is nice to have a bit of meat sizzling away nearby. The constant odor helps keep up the appetite for what can be a hard slog. There is one drawback to the parilla. Hidden among the pile of otherwise normal animal parts, there were always a few unidentifiable pieces or pieces that were best left unidentified. I like the occasional bit of liver or blood sausage but kidney, stomach, and thymus just ain't my thang. Fortunately, the mere presence of ofal is not enough to ruin an otherwise tasty (and cleverly presented) meal.

Soup - I can not recall ever seeing soup on a menu. I missed it. This is one department where Chile and Argentina could take a lesson from Peru. Incas make those Campbell's mofos look like a bunch of schmucks.

Salad - The crunchy offerings in Argentina are a bit more evolved than in Chile or Peru, but the still fall pretty short of gringo expectations. Some thought has been put into the vegetable pairings and sometimes an effort is even made to mix the ingredients together, but the cause of inter-species plant harmony is not quite won.

Sides - You say papa, I say frita. Although they are available mashed, boiled, and scalloped, you almost always see 'em fried. No rice. Forget about beans. A request for broccoli is likely to result in a kick-o in the crotch-o. I did once manage to get my hands on some creamed spinach. It was very heavy on the creamed.

Empanadas - I just can not get enough of these little bastards. The best ones are meat with egg and olive cooked inside of a savory pastry shell. The remind me of a Cornish pasty with some New World flair. You can also get 'em with chicken or cheese or bacon or sweets or whatever else they got lying around. They are good for a snack, fit on your back, log, log, log. I think they are tops. Arguments to the contrary will solicit only my most hateful invective and the ceremonial chucking forth of the gauntlet. Considered yourself forewarned.

Bread - It comes with every meal and they keep it coming. I note this mainly because I do not remember the same being true of Peru or Chile and what bread we did have on the west coast was of middling quality.

Wine - In the immortal words of Erik Briceno - boo-ya, boo-ya! Gutsy bottles of Malbec shiver my timbers to the bone. Argentinian wine is a perfect complement for Argentinian beef. Furthermore, it is well cheap. What more could you desire from a tipple? That was a rhetorical question.

Lamb - We had one particular parilla meal that stood out among the others. It featured no guts, only well-salted and extremely tasty chunks of lamb. We scarfed it down alongside a crunchy salad and a bottle of nice wine in good company. Delicious.


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