It should have been easy to find, like the toco toucan, whose wooden likeness we saw in low-end trinket stalls and upscale tchotchke vendors throughout Argentina. Except that, much like that real-life bird, it wasn’t.
The much hyperbolically praised Argentine steak had eluded us, much like the toucan, with only one sighting (on my wife’s dinner plate) in four weeks’ worth of restaurant eating in a broad swath of north and central Argentina.
Sure, we’d had plenty of beef along the way, in big cities and small towns. But except for the one instance early in our travels, the Argentine steak of mythology was nowhere to be had. In parrilla after parrilla, what we encountered ranged from the merely good to just ok pieces of meat, not great ones. They were just a little too grainy or a little too nervy to match what lore and that initial steak in Mendoza had primed us for.
So, on the night before we were leaving the country, we expressed our disappointment to a couple of Portenos whose home we were visiting for a delightful evening of empanadas, Malbec wine and friendly conversation.
We had been told by some Argentines that the quality of the domestic beef as a whole has gone downhill, as ranchers increasingly employ practices familiar to the American consumer of meat, namely by doing things like switching from grass-fed to corn-fed livestock herds.
Our hosts nodded in understanding. They said they had the answer, directing us to a restaurant, they assured, that would deliver us from bovine mediocrity. We hoped they were right, because it would be our one last shot at a great steak before getting on a plane and heading back to the snowy north.
The next morning, we packed our bags in the Buenos Aires apartment we’d been renting, put them aside for later pick-up, and headed out for the day. We had planned a morning of coffee with a former colleague of mine, an American who reports from the Argentine capital, then a visit to the fine arts museum to see its collection of modern Argentine art, and, finally, a trip to the restaurant for a meal that would no doubt leave a lasting taste, for better or worse, of our stay.
The coffee meeting was a pleasure. The museum visit was only a half-dissapointment. The modern art collection was closed for renovation, but we discovered that the museum also housed an impressive collection of 19th Century art, including a Van Gogh we’d not known existed; a quaint and somewhat titillating exhibit of late 19th-early 20th Century erotic art was also on display.
At about 1:30 p.m., it was off to the restaurant, about 30 minutes away by public transportation.
Our hosts had told us that the restaurant, located on a street named Rodriquez Pena, was where local white collar workers went for lunch, that the parrillada was excellent, the wine list was solid, and the prices were reasonable.
We were not misinformed. Entering the nondescript parrillada in the middle of the block, we found a brightly lit room with some 20 tables, about half-filled with diners. At those white-clothed tables were mostly men, with a scattered few women, all apparently locals.
An elderly, white jacketed waiter seated us, then handed us the menus and wine list. We had some questions about the cuts of meat, which he readily answered, in Spanish. We ordered two bife lomos, rare, and a bottle of Malbec from the Luigi Bosca bodega.
The wine was as expected, delicious. After awhile, our waiter returned with the steaks. In hand went our knives and forks for the fateful first cut. The thick steaks were grilled to perfection, charred outside, rare on the inside. Then the taste: buttery, sweet, juicy melt-in-your-mouth meat. We were in omnivore heaven.
This was the kind of steak one eats slowly, savoring every slice, not wanting to get to the last morsel. Sadly, that moment eventually arrived. After dessert, we decided to linger, sipping our remaining wine along with many of the other groups of diners who did so with a second, third or, at one table of four, a fourth bottles of wine.
This was the Argentine parrillada experience we’d longed for. We walked back to the apartment in its afterglow, sated physically and emotionally.
Much later, on our flight out of Buenos Aires that night, came the inevitable: the steward pushing the food cart down the aisle, offering “chicken or pasta?” He reached our seats. We shook our heads “no” to both, and before he moved on I told him: “If you had had the steaks we did this afternoon…”