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Posts from the ‘Argentine/Uruguayan’ Category

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Panda Fries & Argentine Pizza

due fratelli panda fries

You may be familiar with disco fries (gravy and mozzarella) a.k.a. New York poutine, or even Irish nachos (corned beef, bacon, cheese, onions) but panda fries are an anomaly that have been taunting me on Due Fratelli’s online menu for nearly a year whenever I get the wrong-headed urge to order neighborhood pizza (I swear the prosciutto is mangled country ham). Why panda? I still don’t know; there’s nothing particularly Chinese or black-and-white about them. The combination of vodka sauce and mozzarella is uniquely Italian-American (and I want to say Northeastern since I’d never encountered it prior to living in NYC, though I don’t think that’s true) and is a perfectly delicious tangy and creamy addition to fried potatoes, though not a common delicacy. In fact, I can only see two other pizza places serving panda fries: Grandma Rose’s in Williamsburg and Granos in Astoria. Maybe there’s a connection? I was slightly embarrassed to order them but am now emboldened.

pizza la boca fugazetta

Argentine pizza seems to come and go around this part of Queens, and sometimes it’s not obvious from the outside that a pizzeria is slinging fugazzetta and empanadas in addition to pepperoni and garlic knots. What makes a pizza Argentine? My brief encounter in Buenos Aries has led me to believe that it’s a thick, bready crust but not quite deep dish, a molten blanket of mozzarella, a fondness for whole green olives and roasted red peppers, and the occasional addition of faina, a chickpea pancake that gets draped over the pizza like a triangular carb cap.

Pizza La Boca opened a few months ago, right in the strip where competing Uruguayan bakeries La Nueva and La Gran Uruguaya reign and sell lasagna-like slices too. I would’ve assumed it was run by South Americans if I hadn’t decided to pick up a pizza ordered online (total nightmare in Jackson Heights fyi–restaurants on Seamless and Eat24 don’t know how to use the services, send delivery automatically, and instruct you to just call, which defeats the purpose of living in 2015 and never having to use cash or interact with humans again) and discovered the staff was  South Asian. Eventually, the fugazzetta (onion and more onion) I ordered emerged from the oven, a strange rendition I discovered once home. Yes, there was a shit-ton of cheese and onions sprinkled with dried oregano, but the addition of tomato sauce (just a little) isn’t traditional and the sliced onions appeared to be added at the end rather than getting the necessary char to sweeten them up and  tone them down. And yet, it still served its purpose as Sunday hangover stomach-padding.

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Grandma Edition

Because I can be a horrible person, in my 17 years of NYC life I’ve only returned home for a visit maybe four times. Periodically a family member or two will make up the difference and venture here from Oregon. That was the case this weekend and the impetus for social media grousing over the many where-to-dine-with-out-of-town-parents listicles that assume all elders are wealthier than their adult children and can’t wait to treat them to Daniel.

This was an all-Queens extravaganza motivated by the fact that my mom and her mom have experienced Manhattan and Brooklyn many times by now–and more importantly were airbnb’ing four blocks from my apartment in Jackson Heights. If I took away anything from this rare visit it might be that there’s a genetic possibility that between now and senior citizen-hood I could morph from a crank into a ham.

pollos mario spread

Chicken, rice, beans, and salad at Pollos a la Brasa Mario happened before I realized standard food blog photos weren’t going to cut it. Grandma wanted to be in the picture. There were mixed feelings on first experiences with arepas while hearts of palm passed muster.

jahn's waffle

I’ve wanted to go to the last Jahn’s on earth ever since moving here six months ago but wouldn’t drag friends out for the experience and going solo never felt right. The liver and onions, meatloaf, and white zinfandel will still have to wait. There’s no arguing with a fat waffle hiding a trove of bacon beneath, though.

grandma jahn's breakfast

“The fruit is in a can,” grandma was warned when ordering french toast with fruit. Who would have it any other way? Breakfast inspired the first action shot. Life, bowls of cherries and all that.


grandma eating takoyaki

Octopus balls became a hot topic after showing a photo of takoyaki made by a friend of a friend for Easter, so I knew that while in Flushing I’d have to flout convention and stop by the only Japanese stand, Mojoilla Fresh, at the New World Mall.

grandma tacuba

If you wrap up a Museum of the Moving Image visit too early for The Astor Room’s 5pm happy hour , newish Tacuba across the street is great for a very strong margarita (or two). I probably wouldn’t suggest pitching in with the guacamole-making service to everyone.

astor room bacon

There are limits to being game. No one could be convinced to eat $1 oysters at The Astor Room, but the candied bacon that’s freely available at the bar was a hit.

grandma astor room

I almost thought I was going to get a new grandpa out of our very sweet bartender.

grandma jackson diner

I regret not squeezing in any momos or thenthuk considering Himalayan is now more relevant than Indian in the neighborhood. Buffets are crowd-pleasers, though, and Jackson Diner is now a classic in its own way.

grandma jahn's

Jahn’s was irresistible. So much so that sundaes were had an hour before dinner. Now I need to convince seven others to go in on the original large format meal, the $51.95 Kitchen Sink.

grandma chivito d'oro

Only a heartless monster could dislike Chivito d’Oro, the lovely wood-paneled Uruguayan steakhouse that’s second-closest to my apartment. This is the first time I didn’t order a full-blown parrillada and ventured into the pasta section (primavera with canned mushrooms that elicited no comment a la Jahn’s). Even though I try to avoid starch during the day, I am eating the leftover pasta for lunch as I type because I abhor food waste with the passion of someone on a fixed income.

grandma kitchen 79

Kitchen 79 has a good $7.50 lunch special (grandma had a simple green salad and pineapple fried rice with chicken) and now serves beer.

Not pictured: Empanadas, pasteles, and mini cakes from La Gran Uruguaya or random pizza ordered from La Pequena Taste of Italy on Seamless for delivery that didn’t arrive and took me over an hour to realize I’d accidentally clicked pick-up (too much happy hour).

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Deer Dumplings, Deep Dish, Cold Beans

cooklyn duo

Cooklyn There are two types of New Brooklyn restaurants: those that bore and those that deliver the goods. (Also, I’m patiently awaiting the emergence of the New Queens restaurant). Cooklyn, perhaps even in spite of its name, falls into the latter camp with the assist of a few unexpected Greek touches. Yes, there’s octopus. I never order pasta but those I sampled, from a squid ink cavatelli to a lobster mac and cheese to a new-for-spring beef cheek fusilli with fontina, dried cherries, Kalamata olives and mint were strong. Notable small plates (no, they’re not going away) include two of the most un-Chinese versions of buns and wontons I’ve encountered in recent memory: lamb, dill and feta like a mini gyro, and venison dumplings (pictured) served with stone ground mustard.


Pizzeria Uno Like many fleeing obsessions, I don’t recall how or why I became consumed with hitting up an Uno for the first time in over 13 years (thanks to a history of documenting the mundane, I know exactly when my previous and first visit took place even if it’s embarrassing reading old missives). In that decade-plus span Uno added farro, artisan a.k.a. non-deep dish crusts, and arugula and prosciutto as toppings. What? No. I’m pleased to see that the chain is ditching the pseudo-upscale healthy trends and getting back to doughy basics. Sure, deep dish is kind of an abomination. Yet if you think of it as a lasagna with a tart-like buttery crust, it’s reconcilable.

maravillas chicharrone

Maravillas I naively assumed that a dish called chicharrones en salsa verde would contain a strip of crispy pork, all crunch and contrast, not soggy, soft skin rolled around the meat. I did not hate this, mostly because the sauce was great and that level of fiery where you begin feeling a tingle creep through your tonsils up into your ears, and perfectly tempered by corn tortillas that I’m pretty sure weren’t store bought. The chips made from these tortillas were light and flaky, but the nachos they were a part of? My gringo punishment. (I’d just had an exchange with the guy replacing a window in my apartment upon seeing my last name: “Can you make Spanish food? You look like someone who cooks cabbage.”) They were cold, not just cold like food delivered carelessly and slow–the pork was steamy–but never warmed in the first place. Chilled beans and solid squares of Munster beneath hte guacamole and sour cream. And I still want to return in person despite all this.

pampas parillada

Pampas Argentinas If you find yourself hopped up on tiki drinks at End of the Century (and maybe a surreptitious puff on a silent residential street) and aren’t up for Danny Brown Wine Bar next door and it’s too late for a sundae at Eddie’s, Pampas is a fine enough choice for splitting a parrillada for two three ways and still being barraged by meat. It’s also a little pricier and a lot weirder than the better known Argentine/Uruguayan steakhouses of Jackson Heights/Elmhurst/Corona. You’ll get chicken, not intestines, which is more accurate for Forest Hills. You will also hear a lot of ’70s soft rock, some deep cuts even, Gerry Rafferty plus much Steely Dan. White sangria might come wine-free but tasting like rum. Um, I guess none of that is so weird in retrospect. I did accidentally tip over $100 and had to fill out a new slip, then walked two miles and spent nearly two hours getting the four miles home, none of which was Pampas’ fault.

Goodie Obsession: All the Empanadas at La Nueva Bakery (and More)

la nueva empanadas duo

Empanadas appear to be having a moment and for no discernible reason. First Gothamist, then Serious Eats…ok, that’s just two. Maybe it’s my own recent empanada bender that’s clouding my logic. I just ate two less than an hour ago. I suppose empanadas are pretty evergreen. (Even I did a round-up another lifetime ago.)

This weekend, with the help of an out-of-towner and stranger-now-acquaintance, I tried every empanada at La Nueva Bakery, plus two giant guava and cheese pastries, the triangular slices not the standalones. Honestly, I couldn’t even rattle off all 12 iterations, some finger-crimped and doughy, others golden and sealed with the tines of a fork, a few able to stand up on their own while most need to lie down. We didn’t dissect them; we just ate them.

la nueva emapanadas warming

There was definitely beef, pork, chicken, tuna, spinach, ham and cheese, and vegetable. Not all were Argentine/Uruguayan; the cafe also has a Colombian influence, not surprising considering the immediate neighborhood. The red salsa, though only mildly spicy and spiked with thick garlic slices, doesn’t strike me as very Argentine. It’s not a culture traditionally in love with hot food. You won’t even find black pepper on the table in Buenos Aires.

mama's empanadas sliced

A pit stop at Mama’s Empanadas turned up more overtly Colombian pastries with some American flourishes. I mean, this is the mini-chain known for its Elvis (peanut butter and banana) empanada. This bunch is more motley with a mac and cheese, Hawaiian (I will never not order ham, cheese and pineapple if given the opportunity) another cheese and guava where all the cheese was on one end like a bad burrito, a yellowy corn flour empanada filled with shredded beef, and a beef and pork papa rellena.

Originally, I planned to add Mexican into the mix but imported chain Pastes Kikos was still closed at 1pm due to an issue with the oven. You know, because seven doughy items per person just isn’t enough.

The best? It’s all subjective. Either you prefer baked or fried, green or red sauce, traditional or otherwise. I’m a fan of the standard baked Argentine beef empanada, but must concede that the mac and cheese was pretty good despite never eating mac and cheese (I’ll always be a sucker for anything Hawaiian, though). La Nueva’s Colombian-style fried cornmeal version stuffed with pernil was a standout. The surprise was the moist, chunky tuna, which I’ve always avoided. It wasn’t dried out even after reheating.

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Queens For a Week

I have now been a official Jackson Heights resident for exactly one week. It’s good getting back to my chowhoundy roots. Of course, it’s hardly uncharted territory; this neighborhood and environs have been well tread by Joe DiStefano, Dave Cook, Jeff Orlick and Robert Sietsema, among others. And yes, there are even some women on the scene–just tonight there was an event featuring a discussion between two Queens cookbook authors, Andrea Lynn and Meg Cotner.

I’ll do what I can. Right now that means eating everywhere within walking distance. I’m afraid I’m turning into a bachelor (also that I’m gaining a pound a day in baked goods and ghee.) The newness will wear off soon enough, real fall weather will kick in, and I’ll eventually settle back into home cooking. Maybe?

saw shack takeout

Saw Shack It’s Chinese takeout with rough wood beams instead of primary colored Formica that would feel more at home on Smith Street or Vanderbilt Avenue. On the counter, there’s water chilling in a giant spigoted Mason jar with cucumbers and limon (sometimes cantaloupe) but you can still get a can of soda with your sesame chicken combo meal in a Styrofoam container. Minus the mock meats, there’s nothing radically different about this menu; it’s not upscale or elevated. The pork in the double cooked pork tastes like pork, the sauce isn’t sweet or greasy–in fact, it’s spicy as was asked for–and includes nice thin slices of that smoked tofu that looks like gouda. Pink and green flecks imply there is actually scallion and crab (or at least krab) in the rangoon. You’ll get duck sauce, and also an earthy chile oil that I want to believe is homemade. It’s mostly shredded cabbage in the spring roll, though a meaty strip of shiitake also lurks. This is not a destination restaurant, just a boon for locals.

el gran uruguaya duo

La Gran Uruguaya I accidentally wandered here first, thinking it was La Nueva, the more storied bakery. Both are equally busy and at least on the surface have similar racks of baked goods that would take me months to get through if I tried one item a day. The beef empanadas were fresh from the oven (otherwise, you can have them warmed), super flaky and more rich than you’d expect from a baked version. For me, anything stuffed with dulce de leche is dangerous because I like my sweets sickly sweet, and that sums up most of what’s on offer (except the naked, dry-looking twisted things closest to the register)

la nueva trio

La Nueva Bakery So far, I’ve only sampled a ham and cheese empanada that seemed all shredded ham, and a classic beef empanada that was heavier on the olives and lighter on filling than La Gran Uruguaya’s. The crust was also more bready than flaky, which may be more correct. I will have to do more taste testing.

rajbhog sweets mithai

Rajbhog Sweets I said I like my sweets sweet, right? Half a pound of mithai equals more or less six pieces (pistachio burfi, those round syrupy things called cutlets and a mystery silver-leaved white oblong stuffed with what I think is sweetened cheese), enough for a family or enough for me to finish in less than 12 hours. While senselessly watching Requiem For a Dream, I saw myself in Ellen Burstyn’s character caressing her box of chocolates. And we know how she ends up. The only remedy will be if I stay in my part of the neighborhood and avoid the Indian section.

el chivito d'oro parrillada

El Chivito d’Oro I was going to marvel at how much food you get for $38 until I realized that on my last visit the parrillada for two (teaming with short ribs, sweetbreads, sausage, morcilla, skirt steak and veal) plus two sides cost $10 less. Ok, that was eight years ago, so it’s still a marvel. The meat will probably be well-done. No one will likely ask if you wanted it otherwise. If you’re not fussy, a $19 bottle of Malbec isn’t a bad addition either. Fries and salad, my extras, share billing with less South American rice and beans and tostones. A lot of people order the potato salad. A very long Happy Birthday song might be played. On weekend nights, this and its nearby competitors, all have lines out the door. If you haven’t set up your kitchen yet, you will have leftover meat to eat for a few days and that’s a good thing.

pollos a la brasa mario chicken

Pollos a la Brasa Mario Somehow there are three of this mini-chain in a ten-block radius. There’s certainly more than rotisserie chicken, but I’ve never ventured deep into the Colombian canon (that will have to change soon). The soupy beans (not pictured) are seriously porky and kind of amazing.

kitchen 79 pork knuckle

Kitchen 79 I will say more later (I’ve been twice already) but for now this strangely glossy Thai restaurant is an area standout. You can have your pork knuckle, fish maw and wild boar or bring friends who’ll both order curries with tofu and eat them like entrees and it will be ok (love you guys). Despite the bar with taps advertising Yuengling and Sapporo, it’s still BYOB.


Eaten, Barely Blogged: Chinchulines, Cue, Cavatelli

Boca juniors parrillada

Boca Juniors You'll hear about La Fusta or El Gauchito, if you hear about Queens Argentine restaurants at all. Boca Juniors, not so much, possibly because it's a theme restaurant. What kind of self-respecting food-loving Buenos Aires resident would eat at a Jets-themed steakhouse catering to American expats? No matter, it's fun, and the food is respectable enough. Have a few empanadas, order some grilled meat (if you look out of place–I did–you may get cautioned against the parrillada for two, pictured in its sweetbread, intestine and blood sausage-filled glory, but it takes little to convince that you know what you're getting into) or pasta. I have no idea staff still breaks into song and does a dance routine with blue and yellow umbrellas; on this early mid-week evening, the room was half full with most tables for two seated side-by-side at four-seaters, positioned to watch the live Boca Juniors game on the two wall-mounted flatscreens. The elderly couple in Boca jerseys splitting a bottle of wine were my heroes. Or maybe it's the Argentine house wine pours, always to the rim, that are my heroes. Inexpensive Malbec and a jumble of organ meat are made for each other.

Fatty cue green chili lamb bao

Fatty 'Cue I only went once in its former guise and
that was three years ago so I'm hazy, but Fatty 'Cue 2.0 doesn't seem radically
different to me. The layout's more or less the same. There are cocktails, smoked
meats, funky dips, pig's ears and heads. Maybe the baos are new? There could be
more vegetables than previously. The one notable difference is that the pork
ribs, still great and salty-sweet from fish sauce and sugar, were $14 for three
last time and $12 now (the online menu says $11, but I don't think that's
correct). So, maybe lower prices? The green chili lamb bao was done more Indian
than Southeast Asian, with a tamarind sauce, yogurt and cucumber. Winsome. The
whole steamed fish, the only non-meaty large plate, seems an odd choice in
retrospect. The components were straightforward, turmeric and lime rubbed onto
the fish itself, with chile sauce and ketchup manis for dipping. No complaints,
but I would stick with the meat.

Aita trio

Aita I think I said I would never go here, not out
of malice, but because I eat Italian food so rarely. After 10pm on a weeknight,
though, the dining choices in an immediate two-block radius after a few
Manhattans at Mayflower, are slim. The fried rabbit in the style of fried
chicken with a lot more sage, was fun, if not bony. Something possessed me to
order wheat pasta, cavatelli, with a lamb ragu and favas, not completely out of
whack with this still-cool-at-night spring (that's not a complaint, and no,
it's still not summer, Memorial Day over or not). If you want to continue with
the rye-drinking, the cocktail list isn't bad.

El Gauchito

If you’re like me, you probably don’t find yourself at the intersection of Junction Boulevard and Corona Avenue that often. It’s not really near anything (unless you live nearby, of course–one man's far away is always someone else's neighborhood) besides Citifield. It's not a bad intersection for choice; there’s Peruvian, Colombian, a pizzeria selling Mexican food, and dueling Argentine parrilladas with butcher counters across the street from each other.

El gauchito exterior

My original intent was to go to La Esquina Criolla, a place I have only been once and not recently, but it was practically empty while El Gauchito had a wait for tables despite being twice the size (there’s a another dining room to the left of the entrance). Normally I hate lines, but this felt less like a lemming situation and more like the diners knew something that I didn't. It only ended up being 10 minutes.

El Gauchito is relaxed, fun, and the walls are plastered with colorful tiles with Argentine celebs and public figures painted on them, that style that seems whimsical and '80s but is just kind of Spanish, or in this case a Euro-Latino mash-up. It's the kind of place where you don’t feel self-conscious buying a $24 bottle of Malbec; just like in Buenos Aires there’s a lot of value. And also like in Argentina you can have pasta (I love how gnocchi is spelled ñocchi—it makes so much more phonetic sense) and milanesas if you don’t feel like grilled meat.

El gauchito provolone

First you’re brought a provolone and salami appetizer, dressed in chimichurri and oregano. It's a good thing I got a little cheese into my system or else I would've been tempted to order the provoleta, and the last thing I need right now is an oozing slab of grilled cheese.

El gauchito parrillada

Instead of the full mixed grill I went dainty and ordered a combo, number four. I really just wanted a bursting at the seams morcilla–Argentine versions are unusually moist, loosely packed and spreadable–and flank steak, medium-rare. The chorizo is often too dry and crumbly for my tastes–I prefer a fattier, cured Spanish version or the ground-up Mexican style. But anything doused in garlicky chimichurri (if Americans are scared of pesto, how well would they handle this?) is elevated a notch or two. The pictured fries and Russian salad are just two side options; less Argentine, more Latino beans and rice can also be had.

El gauchito panqueque

Even if you're full (just eat half your meat) a panqueque, filled with thick dulce de leche, and smeared with whipped cream is delightful, especially with the tableside pyrotechnics that don't accompany all panqueques in the city.

The one oddity, perhaps to discourage lingering and alleviate weekend lines, was a sign in the window declaring that no alcohol would be served after meals.

Yes, I’ve been playing with Instagram, hence the inconsistent filters. Even though I had toted my DSLR along, sometimes you just don’t feel the need to go hardcore food porny on a restaurant.

El Gauchito * 94-60 Corona Ave., Corona, NY

La Fusta

While rustling up dishes around town made with blood for a future article, I kept thinking about morcilla, then how I would love to return to Buenos Aires and eat monstrous amounts of beef. That’s not likely to happen in the immediate future. I went as far as checking airfare (also, it’s the only city I’m aware of with a hotel bearing my name, so that gives them an edge) but in the end, I turned to La Fusta, one of a handful of Argentine steakhouses in Queens.

La fusta morcilla

I got my morcilla, a particularly messy and gooey specimen with chewy ribbons spilling from the casing after being cut open. This would not be the blood sausage to covert the squeamish. (Also, I’m still mastering the focus on this point-and-shoot, which is trickier to use than my usual dSLR. I’ve been testing it out at low-risk restaurants and not completely succeeding.)

La fusta chimichurri

A little garlic-heavy chimichurri certainly perks up any heavy, meaty item, though.

La fusta skirt steak

The half order of skirt steak was big enough to be a full serving and a bargain at $15.50. “You’ll have the mashed potatoes?” prodded our server. No, just the standard French fries.

La fusta veal parmesan

He then cajoled James, who’d gone with the Italian part of the menu, ordering a veal parmigiana/milanesa napolitana (not sure why the geography changes in Spanish) covered in possibly an entire ball of melted mozzarella. “Linguine?” I liked that the server had such strong ideas about sides…even if I didn’t follow his suggestion.

La fusta provoleta

As if that weren’t enough cheese, we also started with a proveleta, which is a grilled round of provolone. In Argentina, they always held their shape. Here, this wedge seasoned with oregano and olive oil, had oozed and crusted into a giant frico.

La fusta salad

And a La Fusta salad to pretend we were eating a balanced meal. Of course, there were chunks of ham and cheese in this, as well as anchovies, which we were needlessly warned about.

It’s rare to end up on Roosevelt Avenue not craving Southeast Asian or Latino food. I rarely stray beyond a Donovan’s burger. But it’s good to have Argentine restaurants (yet another cuisine lacking in Brooklyn for no good reason) as an option.

La Fusta * 8032 Baxter Ave., Elmhurst, NY

La Pampa

1/2 There always comes a point during a vacation when I want non-local food (all right, we already had German). Initially, I thought of FINDS (Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, amusingly enough) but they were closed for a private Finnish Independence Day party. What were the odds?

Earlier, we had been eyeballing La Pampa, which was directly across the street from the tiny Korean sports bar/fried chicken joint we were having a beer earlier. It was still closed around 6pm even though every place else in the neighborhood was already hopping. We suspected they were just being Argentine and conducted business on a later schedule.

La pampa exterior

That proved true. We came back a little later and the cozy, ok, cramped, little restaurant was packed, all prime tables reserved. We squeezed into an awkward two-seater near the door and wondered if the food would be even remotely authentic. The tiny room contained the most Americans (as well as Spanish speakers, all three of them, four including the owner) I had encountered in two weeks.

La pampa empanadas

I was reassured by the presence of sweetbreads, blood sausage, provoleta, milanesas and even Don Pedro for dessert. We probably didn't need an appetizer but wanted to try an empanada. No complaints about the ham and cheese.

La pampa bife de chorizo

There wasn't a lot of variety in cuts of beef, just bife de chorizo and bife de lomo. The rest of the mains consisted of meat skewers, chicken and strange for an Argentine restaurant, cod and salmon. I chose the smallest bife de chorizo, 250 grams, which sadly meat absolutely nothing to me because I have no concept of metrics. I was just hoping it wasn't prohibitively massive. But for HK$ 198 (about $25) I figured it would be substantial, and it was. I ate room temperature leftovers for breakfast the next day.

One thing I was curious about is where beef in Hong Kong might come from. Do they have farms in the region? It seemed like Australian beef was popular in the city. I only just now read that La Pampa's beef is imported from Argentina, which answers my question. I was going to say that the steak definitely didn't taste American, not corn fed, but also not nearly as tender and flavorful as what I had in Buenos Aires. The meat was a little tough and flat tasting, though not disappointingly so.

La pampa condiments

There were only a couple of quirks. One, the corn on the cob on the side. That felt strangely American not South American. And ketchup and two mustards as the default condiments brought with the steaks. We asked for chimichurri and were promptly brought a trio of vinegar-based sauces. Nice.

La Pampa * 32 Staunton St., Hong Kong

El Almacén

3/4 I’m not crazy about dining in my own neighborhood because the food is overwhelmingly mediocre. I’m not crazy about dining in Williamsburg because the service is always comically aloof. But sometimes I have to make allowances and lower expectations because I’m either too lazy to leave Carroll Gardens or I’m visiting friends who seem to live disproportionately in North Brooklyn.

Due to the snowstorm, I was trying to come up with someplace no more than a block or two from my friend’s apartment where she was throwing a party Saturday night. I am lame in snow and ice and wanted to lessen chances for potentially falling on my head. I didn’t actually think I’d find anyplace worthy that close to Driggs and Sixth until I remembered brand new El Almacén, which I had genuine interest in.

I found a warm room adorned with cast iron skillets and antique seltzer bottles (I’m still not sure why seltzer is an Argentine obsession but it’s one shared by me. Sunday, I found Bariloche, a product of Argentina at Wegmans and snatched up four plastic containers) that while small, wasn’t cramped, and even had a few empty tables. No ridiculous wait time necessary. Rare for a Saturday night and I blame it on the holidays compounded by bad weather.

Of course being 11231 there was minor weirdness with getting any acknowledgment or eye contact after walking in the door. After a baffling minimum full minute (hey, 60 seconds feels like a long time when you’re actively trying to engage numerous individuals to no avail) we just sat ourselves. No sense in getting annoyed over something that’s no surprise. (I dined at an NJ Cheesecake Factory the following night and you couldn’t get more freakishly chummy, attentive service, duh, it was the Cheesecake Factory. My point being that you’re crazy to not know what you’re getting into wherever it is you choose to eat.)

I was curious about an Argentine restaurant that wasn’t all steak and pasta because that’s really all we have in NYC and well, that kind of dominates in Buenos Aires too. It turns out that the menu is rife with classics: parrillada, choripan, milanesa and empanadas, but the overall feeling is Argentine-inspired with a pan-Latin influence. The first tip off is the use of salsas and spicy sauces. Argentines are notoriously heat-averse and I don’t know if it’s an urban myth but I had heard that they don’t even put pepper on the table and now that I think about it peppermills might’ve been absent during my Buenos Aires trip this spring. Argentine touches show up in things like mate-infused sauces and chimmichurri mayonnaise, but many ingredients hail from other parts of South America. And for the most part the hodgepodge works.

El almacen fried manchego
Fried cubes of Manchego are much more pungent than a mozzarella stick, and considerably lighter despite being battered. The tomato sauce played off of Argentina's Italian influence, though as I noted earlier, it was spicier than a typical marinara or anything you would traditionally find in Buenos Aires. These went way too fast.

El almacen costilla de res
The weather called for hearty. I’ll save ceviche and salads for a warmer time of year. Short ribs are the ultimate snowstorm food. I’m not sure that I detected any purported mate flavor but the beef was wonderfully rich without being too fatty. The tender meat sat atop thick slices of boniato, perhaps a touch too mealy and dense but that’s just nitpicking. The sauce looks wilder in the photo than I realized at the time. Interestingly, they call these costilla de res but I found out the hard way in Buenos Aires that costillas aren't ribs like in NYC but massive pork chops.

El almacen lechon asado
There’s was nothing Argentinean about lechon with black beans and salsa. I stayed away from this because I feared the pork would be dried out. For some reason, moderately priced restaurants tend to ruin pork. You expect a Dominican hole in the wall to get it right, same with a dish that costs $28; it’s the in-between I worry about. It wasn’t tough or stringy at all, and I kept wanting to pick at the dish even though it wasn’t mine.

El almacen wine cup
Fiambres (salumi) and quesos headline the menu and would be a great accompaniment to a glass of Malbec or Torrontes. But as it stands, there is no liquor being served and I hesitate to say it’s BYOB either. I don’t know the laws in NYC but I was always under the impression that if a restaurant didn’t have a liquor license it was ok to bring your own. I brought a bottle just to be safe (also because I’m a cheap lush, and yes, I'm drinking rosé in December–pink wine in winter will be all the rage for 2009), left it in the car and asked if it was ok before toting it in. They didn’t seem to have a problem with this, others were doing the same, but alluded that the practice was illicit and kept the bottle hidden behind the bar and served the wine in coffee cups. It certainly lent a speakeasy flair (so à la minute) that I could go along with but I’d never encountered a similar situation before.

I don’t say this very often but El Almacén is the type of place that I wouldn’t mind having in my neighborhood, especially on a weeknight when I’m stuck for a satisfying meal that’s a notch above takeout. I would take creative Latin over the so-so Italian, sushi and Thai that plagues so many pockets of the city, any day.

El Almacén * 557 Driggs Ave., Brooklyn, NY