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Don't Cry for Meat, Argentina : Even in a Steak Lover's Heaven, There's Something Other Than Beef

July 25, 1996|STEVEN RAICHLEN | Raichlen is the author of "High-Flavor, Low-Fat Vegetarian Cooking."

Fabian Lopez looks as if he just stepped off a ranch in the pampas. Black beret on his head. White handkerchief knotted around his neck. A coin-studded rastra (leather belt) slung around his waist, securing a faca (South American bowie knife). He stands next to a blazing campfire around which roast whole sides of beef and splayed open baby goats on chest-high metal stakes.

Lopez is an asador--an Argentine pit master. Despite the rustic trappings, I did not meet him on a ranch in the countryside, but at La Estancia restaurant on crowded, fashionable Lavalle Street in the heart of Buenos Aires. And there's more to his get-up than tourist appeal. For the 33 years he has been an asador, Lopez has been a living link between the ranches where Argentine barbecue was born and the Buenos Aires steakhouses where it reaches its apotheosis.

To say that Argentines love meat would be an understatement. This nation of 31 million consumes beef on a scale our country hasn't seen since the 1950s. Buenos Aires fairly bulges with grills (parrillas) and chop houses. Statistics are hard to come by (misplaced, I was told, during the last change of government), but a casual poll of the people I met in Buenos Aires found them eating meat 10 to 12 times a week.

And what meats! Crusty mollejas (grilled sweetbreads). Meltingly tender kidneys (rin~ones). Creamy chinchulin, a type of tripe. Handsome coils of the spicy sausage longaniza. Crisp-skinned morcillas--aisin-studded sweet blood sausages that taste a lot better than they sound.

And that's just for starters. These and other items are commonly served together as a parrillada (mixed grill) on a tabletop hibachi stoked with blazing coals.

This would be enough food for four in North America, but in carnivorous Argentina, parrillada is often just a prelude to the main course. There are Bible-thick T-bone steaks to be savored; massive matambres (rolled stuffed flank steaks whose name literally means "hunger-killers") to be dispatched. My personal favorite asado is a long, slender steak that includes a cross-section of the ribs and quite literally buries the plate.

Actually, Argentina offers two very different grilled meat experiences: asado and parrilla. The former is traditional ranch-style barbecue: whole baby goats, suckling pigs, sides of beef ribs and briskets (vacios) roasted upright on stakes in front of a fire.

The parrilla (pronounced "par-EE-zha" by Argentines) corresponds to what we would call a grill in North America. Sausages, innards and belly-bludgeoning steaks are the specialty of a parrilla and, as is not true with asado, the meats are cooked to order. If you like kid, pork or beef ribs roasted to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, your best bet is an asado. If succulent steaks served sizzling and rare are your fancy, head for a parrilla. Actually, most asado restaurants also have grills, so you can, er, have your steak and eat it, too.

At a restaurant called La Cinacina, the asado comes with the traditional accompaniments: salad, salsa criolla (onion and tomato relish) and a vinaigrette-like concoction called chimichurri. The latter is Argentina's national steak sauce, and there are probably as many versions as there are individual pit masters. At its simplest, chimichurri consists of olive oil flavored with a little dried oregano, hot pepper flakes, salt and pepper. This is the sort of chimichurri served at La Cinacina.

In the cities, one finds a more elaborate chimichurri: fresh parsley, garlic, olive oil and wine vinegar pureed to a pesto-like paste, sometimes with hot peppers. There's even a red chimichurri made from tomatoes and bell peppers.

Back in Buenos Aires, I set out to investigate the other branch of the barbecue family tree: parrillada. My destination was the granddaddy of Argentine steakhouses: the venerable La Caban~a. Founded in 1935 and gastronomic home away from home for no less a personage than the king of Spain, La Caban~a is to the kingdom of barbecue what Windsor Palace is to the royal family of England.

You can warm up with an organ meat mixed grill or a surprisingly intricate salad, but the specialty here is clearly the beef. A ranch in the Junin district west of Buenos Aires supplies La Caban~a with specially raised steer, each weighing half a ton. A bife de lomo (filet mignon) at La Cabana would probably dwarf a grapefruit. A single costilla (bone-in rib steak) tips the scale at more than 3 1/2 pounds. Aficionados reserve their highest compliment for a steakhouse for the food at La Caban~a: "They treat the meat well."

Accompanying the beef is one of the most unusual chimichurris I've sampled in South America: a tangy red paste brewed from garlic, peppers and tomato sauce. The addition of anchovies suggests association with two other of the world's great steak sauces: A-1 and Worcestershire. The presence of tuna in La Cabana's chimichurri recalls Italy's great tonnato sauce, which is traditionally served with cold roast veal.

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