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El Trapiche

I was hesitant to stray from steak, but I’d gotten it into my head that matambrito, something mysterious and porky, was the thing to order at El Trapiche. I’d read it in more than one place and it was advertised on a board posted outside the front door. It must be true.

El trapiche interior

I’ll admit that I wasn’t fully sure what matambrito was. I’m still not sure. I thought it would be a big solid edible object, possibly like a miniaturized matambre (stuffed flank steak).

There were at least three different versions of matambrito on the giant menu. We picked matambrito al verdeo mainly because that was the one advertised outside, and figured it would have to have some sort of green component. That was as good as I could come up with.

El trapiche matambrito de cerdo dish

And it was fairly accurate; the green came from scallions. The pork appeared to have been grilled, sliced and sauced, not cooked in the liquid, which kept the crispiness and smoky qualities intact. It was a perfectly likeable dish, yet there was something about it that felt just slightly Chinese even with roasted potatoes instead of rice. We referred to our leftovers we carried around the rest of the night as Chinese food.

El trapiche jamon crudo

We started with jamon crudo. Why not double up on the pork intake? We also drank a bottle of Trapiche Malbec, a bodega that has no relation to the restaurant.

Yan kie Amusingly, after dinner we walked past a Chinese restaurant, Yan Kie, on our way to Acabar for a drink (where I was baffled by their playing Best of The Cure followed by Best of Paul McCartney and 1:30am closing when I wasn’t ready to call it a night yet). If I had more than a week to burn in Buenos Aires I might’ve eventually broken down and tried arrolladitos primaveras and cerdo saltado con salsa agripicante, which I’m guessing are spring rolls and sweet and sour pork.

El Trapiche * Paraguay 5099, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Don Julio

Steak for dinner is logical. It’s even an appropriate breakfast partner for eggs. But somehow steak just doesn’t seem like a lunch food. I quickly got over my narrow minded thinking, though.

Don Julio was intended as full-blown dinner destination the night before but after walking all day I was too burnt out to walk the 25 minutes or so to get there (we went to El Trapiche instead). I couldn’t let this parrilla slip of my schedule completely.

Don julio arugula salad

I started feeling uncomfortable about the lack of vegetables being ingested in vacation so we ordered an arugula salad. Well, it came with a shitload of provolone and sun-dried tomatoes, so no, not terribly healthy. We were brought olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a tiny pitcher of lemon juice to craft our own dressing. This seemed to be commonplace in the city. I was just going to mention how you never see crap like thousand island dressing, but I take that back. There’s a popular condiment called “golf sauce” served with things like hearts of palm and avocados and it’s totally mixed mayonnaise and ketchup.

Don julio media ojo de bife 

Being the middle of the afternoon we split an ojo de bife, we didn’t want to get bogged down, but frankly we could’ve easily eaten one each no problem. There’s definitely a problem with sizing consistency in Buenos Aires. We never knew if we were over or under ordering. If you’ve been following along, the first ojo de bife we ordered could’ve served six.

This is the amount of fat I like on my steaks. Is that wrong? It’s kind of a different beast than the NYC Peter Luger (no S on the end of I’ll gouge you with a dull steak knife) porterhouse standard. I didn’t encounter much bone-in meat, but that’s probably due to my ordering. I really shouldn’t reminisce about food like this while eating. I was totally fine with my tilapia and blue berries (on the side, not together) until I started thinking about charred edges and grilled smokiness.

Don julio chinchulines

Chinchulines (intestines) were mine, and mine only. This was a half order and it was plenty. I would’ve loved to sample a whole range of offal: sweetbreads, kidneys, tripe and so on, but that’s just not doable without a crowd joining in. I honestly don’t find organs offputting. These weren’t tough, just chewy with a bit of snappy bite and a creamy texture. These are not the same type of long, skinny intestines you get a parrillas in NYC.

Don julio chimichurri

This is the first place where we received condiments: chimichurri and a chunky onion one. I’m still not clear on when they crack out the chimichurri. In my brief experience, it seemed that we only got the herby sauce when we ordered meat in addition to steak. Things like innards or sausages.

Don julio

Don Julio * Guatemala 4691, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Grand Sichuan House

I’m not sure how I managed end up with spice-less food at Grand Sichuan House. I was having an off night, not them, and ordered strangely. I’ve been here more times than I’ve documented (and wrote a review for and on my last visit enjoyed Chongqing chicken and beef with cumin, both spicy.

This time I fell back on pork with leeks (or garlic chives as I think the menu says) because it’s essentially stir-fried bacon and that’s irresistible. I also ordered the duck with string beans because I was curious. It’s really the same as any Sichuan string bean dish but with a less typical meat. They certainly present it prettily. But I needed a dish that contrasted more with the pork.
We also had eggplant, which is rich and garlicky but not spicy. The vegetable doesn’t have to be fiery but it didn’t help balance anything. One of these days I’ll order the loofah just to see what one of those sponges tastes like before its all dried out.
At least the wontons had heat from the chile oil. I really wanted my usual beef tendons, but the last time I ate those I threw up violently the rest of the day (not as a direct result, but because I was already sick) and strangely, I had been throwing up the night before this visit because James poisoned me with undercooked jerk chicken so I had bad connotations with those tendons. I missed them, though.
I have observed that there seems to be three types of diners (or attempted diners) at GSH: groups of young Chinese, groups of young loud boastful foodies and locals looking for fried rice and chicken wings. They do serve Chinese-American food but it was kind of uncomfortable seeing a Latino guy asking for “beef and fried rice” and angering the counter woman who demanded, “what kind of beef?” Neither were English as a first language and I hate misunderstanding-style traumas even when I’m just a bystander. The guy ended up leaving. There is a typical take-out joint just across the street so I hope he found what he was looking for. (6/13/08)

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Now I’ve Heard Everything

Is “selling/carrying coal to Newcastle” a common phrase? I’d never seen it used in my life until this morning when I spied it twice in an hour:

Once referring to KFC’s attempts to sell Chinese food in China (I didn’t seen anything particularly Chinese except egg tarts when I popped into a Beijing location).

And a second time in regards to Americans sending rice to the Philippines because it’s become so costly on the islands.

Hmm…I guess that would be like Domino’s selling “Brooklyn Style Pizza” to uh, Brooklyn?

Reds Produce

1/2 Knew this was bound to happen. Reds is no more. (1/10)

At some point–I couldn't tell you when–the name changed to the more fitting, Reds Tapas Bar. (5/09)

I do appreciate new dining options in Carroll Gardens because I have a fantasy of one day getting excited about eating in my own neighborhood. I was curious about this supposedly authentic tapas bar on Columbia Street, though I couldn’t find much written about it other than a few not terribly positive mentions on Yelp, a site I don’t trust for shit.

Maybe I was just in a good mood because even without well-functioning air conditioning (I don’t like my air au naturel when it’s sopping with 90% humidity) I enjoyed the place. It’s what it is; very simple and inexpensive (most items are $5, the most expensive are sharable $8 salads). This isn’t fanciful Spanish food served preciously. What you’ll find are mostly room temperature pre-prepared snacks displayed at the bar. Little bites to eat with drinks like at old-school taverns in Spain.

I did make a meal of it. Jessica and I ordered a bottle of Albariño. The weather was just too sticky and gross for something red and tannic.

Reds produce stuffed vine leaves and french feta

Though it might not seem so, I’m relatively easy to please and was up for anything on the menu, but to be fair to the vegetarian dining companion I couldn’t be too meat-centric because I like sharing. Stuffed vine leaves were her idea and not something I would order because I’m not eating rice, not that fond of dolmas (with the exception of sushi, I think cold rice is creepy) and well, they’re not terribly Spanish. I did eat one, though. The creamy feta was nice.

Reds produce manchego

Reds produce murcia

I wanted to try two cheeses so I ordered an aged Manchego and what they call drunken goat (I’m pretty sure it’s Murcia) but that was a lot of cheese for two so I got leftovers wrapped as a midnight snack (afterward, we watched Cloverfield enhanced by homemade cookies not made by me. Let’s just say that those cookies make you hungry later). I’m still stuck on all the New Yorkers grossed out by leftovers. If you only ate half of this cheese, you would really just have it thrown away? I preferred the crumbly Manchego.

Reds produce jamon serrano

The jamon serrano was mine only and I thought it was quite good, much less salty and more substantial than the jamon crudo I’d been eating in Buenos Aires recently. I wasn’t paying attention to see if they were hand-slicing it. They did have a hoof-on pig’s leg on display but I wasn’t sure if it was just for looks. I tend to think it was machine cut because it was so uniform and thin. Anytime I’ve ordered jamon in Brooklyn it turns out chunky and mangled. 

I like membrillo with my Manchego and did order some. This is the one thing I might say was overpriced. It seemed weird to pay $5 for the ham and only one dollar less for some thin blocks of quince paste. All of the accompaniments like fig cake and marcona almonds are $4, which isn’t outrageous but worth noting.

Reds produce beet cabrales salad

We split the beet and Cabrales salad. Jessica complained that it was too tart and didn’t contain golden beets as advertised (true). She also thought there was too much cheese, which I couldn’t disagree with more. We have different tastes. The sherry vinegar didn’t bother me so much but I think it was because I had been interspersing it with bites of tortilla and the starch neutralized the dressing. Once I did get a big mouthful, swallowed quickly and I choked from the acidity, so perhaps they could’ve eased up a bit on the vinegar.

Reds produce tortilla

Tortilla always seems dull in theory: eggs, onions and potatoes? Eh, but they always meld into something more.

I do plan on going back, and not just because it’s only five blocks from my apartment. I’d like to try the pan con tomate, another deceptively simple dish like the tortilla, but it really only works if your tomatoes are super ripe and it’s not quite their season yet.

Reds produce exterior 

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Reds Produce * 289 Columbia St., Brooklyn, NY

La Brigada

La Brigada wasn’t on my original itinerary, but after taking such a shining to grilled grass-fed beef we had to add another parrilla to our eating plans at the last minute. I wasn’t crazy about San Telmo, which seemed to be a favorite tourist neighborhood and felt mildly sketchy. But La Brigada (along with El Desnivel) appeared to be the biggies in the area and seemed worth at try.

La brigada interior

In hindsight, maybe we should’ve tried El Desnivel because our meal ended up being pricey. Not even close to NYC pricey (my steak was like $16 but I was aware that 50 pesos was hefty by local standards) but still like you were being gouged for choosing a foreigner’s greatest hits type place. Well, except the food was good.

Trying to find a source of comparison between La Brigada and La Cabrera (my favorite), I would say that La Brigada is like a Little Italy restaurant if those restaurants actually served quality food, and that La Cabrera would be more like an outer borough creative place like, say a di la. Don’t ask why I’m using Italian food to compare Argentine steakhouses.

La brigada provoleta

I was starting to get nervous because my time in town was running out and I hadn’t tried a provoleta yet. This had to be rectified since it was our final dinner. When gorging on beef isn’t enough, one must make an appetizer of grilled provolone cheese rubbed in olive oil and herbs like oregano (you can buy these ready to cook at grocery stores—we picked one up and ate it cold before realizing its intended purpose). And I must say that this was even better than I’d imagined in my head. Only a freak doesn’t enjoy melted cheese. The edges were crusty and added a whole other dimension of aged tanginess. This was no processed slab of dairy. Provoleta is definitely a candidate for best low carb snack ever.

Ok, so I accidentally ordered the bife de chorizo, generally an expensive cut, when I really wanted to try tira de asado (short ribs cut like for kalbi) but first asked a question about the size of the bife to gauge whether full portions here were too much for one (they weren’t anywhere near La Cabrera dimensions, one hungry person could handle them) and because of language confusion our waiter wrote down bife de chorizo as my order and I just went with it because I’m even more passive in Spanish than in English.

James ordered the lomo (filet mignon). We knew what this was but it was another weird Argentine wording just how bife de chorizo has nothing to do with chorizo the sausage. In NYC at least, lomo usually means pork.

La brigada lomo and bife de chorizo

These were some classy cuts of meat and tender beyond belief, as was demonstrated by our waiter who cut the damn things in front of us using spoons for effect. I would never ever utter wretched phrases like “melts in your mouth” or “cuts like butter” but yeah, the spoon cutting was kind of impressive.

Honestly, I prefer gnarlier cuts of meat because they have more flavor. I like fatty blobs, bones and burnt bits on the edges. These steaks were almost too pure for me.

La brigada papas fritas 
Papas fritas, of course.

La brigada panqueque

And panqueque number two. I couldn’t bear to branch out beyond the dulce de leche filled crepe even though everyone else seemed to be enjoying Don Pedros (ice cream topped with whiskey). The waiters divvied everything up here on individual plates.

Afterward, we decided to walk over to Puerto Madero and find someplace to have a drink. I couldn’t imagine what this area was like but from descriptions it seemed like a classier Atlantic City boardwalk (the insanely designed Faena Hotel is over there). In reality, it seemed like Battery Park City, and at 11pm on a Thursday, a total ghost town. We could never figure out all the hype in guidebooks about partying and drinking all night. Perhaps we were in the wrong places at the wrong times (later as our cab approached our neighborhood, bars were so packed people were pouring into the street) but things seemed dead everywhere we went and were closed by 2am.

I think we were already fueled by quite a bit of Malbec because we became convinced that the strip of flashy restaurants and new high-rise apartments couldn’t be all there was to Puerto Madero. Then James insisted that the Rio de la Plata was just beyond this development and we should go see it.

We ended up along some well-manicured parks that might be nice during the day, but felt eerie when empty. We only encountered a priest, then one lone dog, no owner in sight, standing at the top of a big grassy hill and barking mournfully into the night. I’m not scared of dogs but he was giving me the heebies. I wasn’t sure if it was ok to be in this area at night. There weren’t proper streetlights and just the occasional car passing by.

But then a lit café with some lingering patrons appeared in a grassy patch and I was all for just stopping there and heading back. But James was convinced the water was just across the road. There was a cement promenade that had a few makeshift stands grilling meat. This was kind of cool because I hadn’t seen any street food to speak of in Buenos Aires and am still sad I never tried a choripan. But we were full from dinner. There were a few guys hanging around in folding chairs but I still wasn’t sure if this was an ok place to be wandering around in the dark.

The promenade looked like it should be overlooking the sea but as it was pitch black we couldn’t see the horizon until we got right up on it and there was only dim grasslands. Huh? I guess the Rio de la Plata was further than we thought. There was nothing more than a big marshy pampas patch that creeped the hell out of me. There were big, wide stairs to go down closer but I was afraid creatures might jump out. Or more realistically we’d stumble upon random sex acts—it was then that I noticed anti-prostitution graffiti stenciled on the cement.

Later, I figured out that this is an ecological preserve and looks much less ominous during the day.

I never know when to be genuinely on guard in foreign cities. After getting robbed in Vancouver B.C. (seriously, Canada?!) years ago, the only city I’ve ever visited where anything bad has ever happened, I’ve learned not to be a cocky New Yorker (where you can’t always judge a neighborhood’s dangerousness based on how ratty it is). If you have a bad feeling you should trust it.

Tgifridays margarita

So, we hightailed it back to the populated well-lit docks and couldn’t find anyplace suitable for a drink (everything seemed about to close or more of a restaurant than bar). In desperation, I singled out TGI Friday’s where I was treated to an expensive margarita that barely tasted alcoholic and was rimmed with table salt. But at least I got to fit one American chain into the vacation.

La Brigada * Estados Unidos 765, Buenos Aries, Argentina

Denim Shorts, You Com-Pleat Me

There was a time, oh say, two-and-a-half years ago when I was pointlessly outraged at the return of leggings. And yet I’m wearing a pair this very second. Apparently, some horrible fashions have ways of worming their way into our lives.

These high-waisted, pleated and bulging at the hip denim shorts are not one of them. Yes, I realize these are intended for young ladies, which I am not. But could any female, even one with the figure of a 10-year-old boy really pull these off? This pair is also quite frightening, especially if you even had the slightest hint of a paunch.

Who knows, though. Check back on me in 2010 and I could quite possibly be wearing the most stonewashed, pleated, high-waisted shorts you’ve ever seen. Um, but they'll probably come from Silhouettes or something.

Cafe Tortoni

1/2 Sure, Café Tortoni is touristy but it’s also historic (the oldest café in Argentina—we just don’t have that many 150-year-old establishments in the US) and I didn’t feel bad for stopping in for a traditional breakfast of espresso and medialunas. It's not even close to being the Carnegie Deli or Magnolia Bakery of Buenos Aires.

Cafe tortoni medialuna and coffee

I assumed the croissants would be buttery and French, but this specimen at least, was crackly and sugar glazed more like a flaky cookie. I was more interested in all of the new-to-me fracturas (pastries) but you can’t really order them from your table if you don’t know their names.

Cafe tortoni ham and cheese sandwich

James ordered a ham and cheese sandwich. I really like these simple jamon Serrano bocadillos like you find in Spain. Cured meat is so much more exciting than deli ham.  

Café Tortoni * Avenida de Mayo 825, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Bar de Gallego

No, this isn’t chicken fried steak. It’s not a schnitzel either, though it could be. This blobby, pounded, battered and pan-fried beef cutlet is a milanesa, and they’re quite popular casual fare in Argentina (and other parts of Latin America too—it’s a common filling for Mexican tortas).

Bar de gallego milanesa

I had to try one, and old-school Bar de Gallego, holding-out on a corner in gentrifying (fied?) Palermo Hollywood, seemed like the right place to try one during Saturday lunch, mere minutes after we arrived in town. I saw quite a few milanesas coming out of the kitchen, some decked out with melted cheese and tomato sauce, napolitana-style with giant mounds of mashed potatoes on the side. I had to draw the line and stick with the lemon juice-only purism. French fries are part of the combo. French fries are always part of the combo.

This was my first meal in Buenos Aires and I noticed a lot of things. One, women were eating seriously hearty food, leaving no leftovers and they were all quite svelte. Argentines challenged my notion that only Asian girls can eat whatever they want. In fact, I’m more convinced than ever that pretty much everyone else except me can eat whatever they please to no ill effect. Two, no one eats ketchup with their fries. I’m ok with this, but I don’t recall ever seeing a bottle anywhere and papas fritas are on like every menu in town, high and low. Three, Argentine food is essentially meat and potatoes to the point where the blandest American palate wouldn’t be offended.

Which isn’t to say that the cuisine is flavorless, they just don’t like spicy food. Neither do Spaniards, Swedes and plenty of residents on the planet. (As an aside, I’m not sure where the notion that all Latinos eat hot food comes from. Mexican food certainly is picante, and other nationalities use chiles, especially in condiments, but I wouldn’t characterize most of these cuisines as fiery. And I don’t know that all Argentines even consider themselves Latino, which is a whole other aside.)

So, my thin crisp slab of meat and surprisingly crunchy, non-mealy steak fries (normally, I don't like fat fries) were satisfying, and perfect as is, I was just speculating that if I were eating them at home I know I would break out the Sriracha. Maybe I’m afraid of naked food.

Bar de gallego costillas

To me, costillas are ribs, but here they turned out to be deliciously meaty, properly fatty ‘50s-style pork chops. None of that lean other white meat business. And for approximately $5 we weren’t expecting two slabs. Also with fries, of course. I only had one (ok, two) bites because this was James’s dish.

I’d much rather be downing a breaded cutlet and bottle of Quilmes than the peanut butter toast and iced black coffee I’m looking at this Saturday afternoon.

Bar de gallego exterior

Bar de Gallego * Bonpland 1703, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Cabrera

1/2 La Cabrera is the perfect starting point for Buenos Aires restaurant rehashing (which I’m trying to keep short and sweet) as it’s where we wildly indulged in steak on the day we arrived and the day we left the city. Of the four parrillas we tried, this was easily our favorite.

It’s definitely baffling because they kind of embody much that I hate: long waits, stifling crowds and rickety tables cramped closer together than the worst Manhattan perpetrator. And normally, being passed over when all the other customers waiting outside for seats were being handed free glasses of champagne would’ve been the last straw. But yes, the fact that we returned six days after our first visit is a testament to their allure.

It did have the advantage of being a ten-minute walk from our apartment, just across the railroad tracks, but that was just a happenstance bonus.

The steakhouse is not traditional in that it’s a touch more stylish them some (though not slick). The décor is typically woody and rustic, but the music is more ambient techno than acoustic guitar folksy, and instead of standard papas fritas on the side, you’re plied with baker’s dozen of ramekins containing pickled and creamed vegetables and starches, banchan-style. The portions are enormous, completely high quality and were priced well below our expectations ($61 for meat, sides, dessert, bottle of Malbec and glass of champagne, all for two). It set the standard for the rest of the week where meat wasn’t always so monstrously sized, wine glasses weren’t filled so tall and desserts not as decadent. We practically peaked on night one.

La cabrera bread  

Bread basket and pimento cheese spread. Southern hemisphere meets the American south.

La cabrera steaks

We couldn’t gauge portion sizes based on price because everything seemed reasonable by NYC standards. We initially ordered a bife de chorizo (sirloin) and an ojo de bife (rib eye) and thankfully were told that that was insane (I think my Spanish classes are finally starting to pay off—while I still can barely speak coherently, I understood way more on this trip compared to Mexico City last May, and had little trouble communicating). Instead, it was suggested that we order media portions of each, which still ended up being gargantuan at half-size. Being big leftover advocates (which is kind of frowned on here, but I just can’t waste food), we were excited to learn that para llevar is completely normal in Buenos Aires and we were offered doggie bags throughout the week for things that even I wouldn’t normally bother wrapping up.

The sides on the plank include white beans two ways, one with parsley the other with tomatoes, an eggplant caponata, endive with creamy dressing, baby potatoes in another creamy sauce and the only accompaniment that scared me: cold rice tossed with what I suspect was mayonnaise.

La cabrera bife de chorizo & ojo de bife

As you can see the ojo de bife on the right is a little pinker because I asked for it “jugoso.” I’d heard horror stories about overcooked meat, but that never turned out to be a problem even when doneness wasn’t specified.

La cabrera sides

Clockwise from the top: whipped sweet potato, mashed potatoes, black olives in a tomato sauce, creamed mushrooms, roasted garlic, raisin applesauce and onions pickled in red wine vinegar in the center.

Here’s what I hate to admit: I swear I can’t tell the difference between grass-fed beef and our corn-fed style. I don’t doubt that I could detect nuances in a side-by-side taste test but I only eat steak in the US maybe two or three times a year so the flavor wasn’t easily conjurable.

I’ve never been beef-crazed, but while in Buenos Aires I found myself wanting more and more meat, seriously, even while chewing I was already planning ahead to where we could try more the next day. When I thought for sure I would burn out after two meals and the opposite occurred, I realized something unusual was going on.

Most beef here is just boring, that’s the problem. This meat had some chewiness, the flavor strong and pure. Much of the wow came from the contrast between outer char and inner tenderness. I do think they trim their meat less, leaving desirable (to me) pockets of fat.

La cabrera panqueque con dulce de leche & helado

I love dulce de leche filled crepes, a.k.a. panqueque. This was a fancy rendition with fresh cream, peach slices and ice cream that tasted like nutmeg and cinnamon. For someone who’s not supposed to be eating sugar, this is the type of tooth-achey concoction I’ll make an exception for because I like my desserts super-sweet and gooey, all or nothing.

We did receive a complimentary glass of champagne after dessert, which nearly made up for being alcohol-slighted during our 45-minute stint outside. Yes, even while trying to relax on vacation I hold grudges.

* * *

La cabrera morcilla

Luckily, we were able to squeeze in a lunch before having to head to the airport and I finally got my morcilla. The dark innards inside the casing were very moist and soft and slightly sweet. If they weren’t called blood sausages, I don’t think Americans would be so scared of them. Ok, I guess the blobs look scary, too. They cracked out chimichurri (which doesn’t come with most steaks in Buenos Aires, contrary to the condiment’s ubiquitousness in US Argentine restaurants) as well as an oniony tomato puree.

La cabrera media ojo de bife

We ordered half an ojo de bife. Interestingly, the sides weren’t exactly the same this time and included hummus which was a tasty oddity. And yes, we took the steak remnants to go, packed them in a suitcase and ate them for dinner back in Brooklyn. Quite possibly the best souvenir ever.

La Cabrera * Cabrera 5009, Buenos Aires, Argentina