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A Taste of Buenos Aires

Argentina's Mecca for Meat Eaters

There's a good steer around every corner in the capital of a nation that relishes its gaucho heritage.

July 15, 2001|GWEN ROMAGNOLI | Gwen Romagnoli is a freelance writer in Watertown, Mass

BUENOS AIRES — Never mind that Buenos Aires means "good airs." In the context of food, it means beef, beef and more beef, Argentina's national staple. The cattle ranches of the Pampa, a 250,000-square-mile plain stretching west across the country to the Andes, provide Buenos Aires' tables with a seemingly endless supply of its quintessential meat.

In April, on our first visit to "B.A.," my husband, Franco, and I found that its fabled beef is among the many treats this magnificent capital has to offer. It boasts elegant shops, immaculately kept streets, ubiquitous and magnificent parks, and avenues that rival those of Paris (Avenida 9 de Julio, which runs through the city center, is said to be the widest boulevard in the world). The metropolis' 13 million inhabitants--about one-third the population of the entire country--make Buenos Aires larger than New York. And not only is the city splendid to behold, but we found portenos --as the people of this port city are known--to be unfailingly cordial and courteous. Cosmopolitan, too: It is said that an Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, dresses like a Frenchman and thinks he's English.

Franco and I had the good fortune to be here at the same time as our friend Paul Del Rossi, a Bostonian who travels frequently to Buenos Aires on business. He and his colleagues, all portenos , knew the best parrillas (steakhouses), where huge charcoal-burning grills are in plain view, covered with every part of the cow from intestines, glands, tripe and kidneys to the top tenderloin and ribs. The asado , or traditional Argentine barbecue, consists of a series of these meats, grilled and then consumed in a standard sequence. It starts with sausages, continuing with chinchulin (the small intestine), tripa gorda (the large intestine), mollejas (sweetbreads) and, only at the end, the ribs and loins.

According to our new friend Valeria De Luca, when British troops occupied the city in the early 19th century, the invaders sent the best parts of the beef back to England, leaving the innards to the natives. This led to the now customary and extensive use of offal, of which seemingly every kind can be found on the city's menus.

El Mirasol

Our first taste of such fare was at El Mirasol, an elegant restaurant where the maitre d' offers patrons a flute of champagne while they wait for a table. This, we soon realized, is the pleasant opening to many a meal at upscale restaurants here. We also realized that diners had best have a snack in the early evening because the normal dining hour doesn't begin until 10 p.m. At 1 a.m., restaurants are still brimming with customers.

We started our meal at about 10:30 by sharing a plate of empanadas, a popular Argentine dish. These savory pastries are made with a choice of fillings; the varieties we sampled were ground meat, onion, cheese, and ham and cheese. (All were good, but I would later find that I preferred fried empanadas to El Mirasol's baked ones.) I had a wonderful salad of paltas --avocados that were ripe, creamy and flavorful. Salads are common as a first course. So is provoleta , a cheese similar to provolone, grilled with oregano. It's great if you enjoy grilled cheese, though I would have liked the dish even more without the herb.

For our main course, naturally, Franco and I ordered beef. We were told that the juiciest and most tender cut is lomo , a tenderloin that melts in your mouth--and indeed it did. Diners who want their meat rare request it jugoso , or juicy; otherwise it's a punto, medium, or bien hecho, well done.

Our friend Delfin Fernandez had the tira , a strip of grilled rib that turned out to be the most popular among the diners around us. At first this puzzled us because the meat was chewy, but its flavor, as we found when Delfin passed us some, hits the taste buds with a tremendous zing. In fact, in all of our beef-eating forays around town, we were struck by the difference between the beef we're accustomed to and the Argentine variety--which is leaner and tougher but usually more flavorful. We tried two excellent Argentine wines at El Mirasol: a Trapiche Medalla, a blend of Cabernet, Malbec and Merlot; and a Rutini Malbec, which was even better. We found the Rutini bottlings we tasted during our visit to be consistently outstanding.

Our friends informed us that, although Argentine cuisine is not known for its desserts, one is a national specialty (and we found it in every imaginable form, from candy to ice cream). Dulce de leche is simply milk and sugar, slowly cooked to a creamy caramel; as a dessert it is often used as the filling for a crepe, which is the form it took at El Mirasol. It was excellent there, but we had it at many other places and generally found it too sweet for our taste.

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