Friday, February 6, 2009

Porteño food at Cafe San Juan

This is my last post about Argentina. It’s been over a month since I got back, but I still think about it all the time—the things I saw, the people I met, and of course the food I ate. So after the mildly snide comments I’ve made about Argentine food, it seems fair and right to write my last post about a delicious Argentine meal we ate that was not steak.

Café San Juan
in San Telmo wants you to feel comfortable and cozy. There are no menus, just substantial blackboards that the servers will prop up on your table. One is devoted to tapas, the other to main dishes like rabbit and lamb chops. (I love lamb chops but I love them even more when they’re called “chuletitas de cordero.”) The kitchen is open, but not in the flamboyant way you see in the U.S., since it’s small and just pushed off to the side. It almost feels more like the restaurant just didn’t want to separate the chefs from the dining room and vice versa. The décor in general is quiet and unassuming, clean but a little bare. The warmth of the room comes completely from the food and the happy people eating it.

We ordered two tapas and two entrees. The waiter seemed a little surprised, and when the food arrived, we realized why. The portions were huge, so that even before we started eating, we could see we were clearly in the New World. We Americans, North and South, love our food big!

But I can’t complain that the roast pork tapas were too big. I loved every bite I had, both my piece and the half I got from my friend. Thick slices of roast pork were layered on a piece of good, crusty bread, with more than just a drizzle of a green cilantro sauce. The gazpacho was served in its own shot glass, but there was nothing precious about the presentation. I made a mess on the tablecloth pouring the gazpacho over my share. I didn’t care.

Likewise, the olives were speared onto equally thick and generous slices of cheese. Simple, delicious, and totally satisfying. The rabbit was also very generous—it looked like the entire rabbit was on our plate. Though there was nothing wrong with it, we agreed there was something about the uniformly rich and braised flavor that didn’t really suit our palates.

But what impressed me the most was the beautiful canelones de mollejas, or cannelloni stuffed with sweetbreads. They were monstrous tubes of pasta, reminding me again of how the New World super-sizes everything from the Old World, but I wanted as much of it as I could get. The sweetbreads had been mixed with a wonderful ricotta, and the pasta itself defied all my expectations with its firm al dente resistance. The tomato sauce was incredibly rich, obviously full of some kind of fat, but it still added the tartness and brightness necessary to make the dish unstoppable. I don’t know if sweetbread cannelloni is particularly Italian, but it felt very beefy and Argentine.

My friend, who had found other Argentine desserts impossibly sweet, loved our dessert. It was just a sweet little rice pudding with an icy mango sorbet and some very jaunty tuiles.

The Guía Oleo, an Argentine online food guide, describes the food at Café San Juan as “porteño,” the Argentine word to describe the people who live in Buenos Aires, even though I’d heard it described on Chowhound as Spanish. Now that I’ve been there, I think the Guía is right. This is true porteño food.

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