My Beef with Argentina
by Melissa Clark
Under harsh florescent lights in restaurante La Rotiseria in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, my brand-new husband, Paul, and I were experiencing an intense malaise common to epicurians: entree envy. Although we enjoyed our meal of bife de chorizo, our simple steak couldn't compare to the looks of what our neighbors had just been served by the cheerful waitress. Heaped on a sizzling, coal-warmed hot plate were fragrant, fat nuggets of beef, culled from every part of the cow. There were blackened short ribs with protruding woody bones, sinewy flank steak, charred spheres of kidney, a wide curlicue of intestine, nubby sweetbreads, regular sausage, blood sausage, AND the bife de chorizo we had just eaten. The men receiving this bounty, older and simultaneously grizzled and suave, suspended their conversation and concentrated on their meat, methodically working their way from one end of the platter to the other, washing it down with long draughts of red wine. We watched them eat and knew that for the rest of our Argentine honeymoon, we too should order what they did, the parrillada para dos, mixed grill for two.
What we didn't realize was that, once we left Buenos Aires for the grasslands known as the Pampas, there would be little other choice. The Pampas, only a few hours outside of Buenos Aires, is cattle country. Once populated by gauchos (the wild-living Argentine equivalent of cowboys), it is still the country's center for cattle ranches. This means that in the small towns of the region, the word for restaurant is synonymous with parrilla (an eatery specializing in cow parts, the name taken from the deep, waist-high grills the meat is cooked on), and food means beef. And not just any beef, certainly not like the beef we were used to at home in the States. Argentine beef is always what we in the north would tout as "all-natural" -- that is, grass-fed and raised without hormones. It has a fantastic flavor; the supple flesh is meltingly rich, with a marrow-like taste. And we ate it almost every day for 16 days, cut from every nook and cranny of a cow's anatomy. We ate lacy networks of tripe; we ate mushy morsels of brain (served wrapped in parchment so that it wouldn't slide through the irons of the parrilla); sometimes, we had tongue vinaigrette as an appetizer; once we ate udder. We would have eaten heart, but no one ever offered it.
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