Grill of My Dreams
After dark, this stretch of 22nd Street can be rough. The sidewalks are unlit, every open space is a parking lot, and the storefronts are shattered, boarded up. On the walls, the tags run together like tribal voodoo -- less artistic than furtive, a secret language spelled out in whispers of Krylon on cement.
Halfway between where we've parked and where we're headed is a van, rust over white, sagging against the curb on blown shocks. The side door is open, trash tumbling into the gutter. It's the kind of sight that makes all your urban survival skills scream "Avoid!" But I am a stubborn and lazy man. The restaurant I'm heading for is right there -- I can see its sign just past the hulking shoulder of the van -- so I plow on, trying not to look inside as I pass.
But I do look. I always look. That's my problem. And, of course, the scene is just as gross and tragic as you'd expect. The van appears to be both the home and traveling office of the world's least successful pimp, who's sitting in the front seat looking like some kind of low-rent Willie Nelson with long hair and gold rings, wearing what may be a bathrobe and what's definitely a cowboy hat with a rattlesnake head on it. He's barking at the two or three girls in the back, who're scrambling to get their working gear together. I really only see the one who leers at me: a rail-thin white lady standing barefoot, fluffed out in a cloud of crinoline like a child's tutu, hair teased, makeup that looks like it was applied by a crooked shotgun blast to the face. She looks at me and I look at her and she chuckles, and Willie the Pimp shouts something from inside the van and then I'm past it, fighting free of the wretched gravity of the scene.
I turn around. Behind me, Laura is walking and talking with my parents, who've been in town for all of four hours, distracting them as all three hug the far edge of the sidewalk -- giving the van and Willie and Shotgun Face a wide berth. They're not looking when Willie reaches back and slaps one of the girls in the head, the sound flat and hollow like hitting a side of beef. I want to shout, "Welcome to Denver, Mom and Dad!" But I don't. I hiss it under my breath instead as the four of us step off the sidewalk, shining with broken glass like shards of diamond, and into the sudden cool and quiet of the courtyard of Buenos Aires Grill.
Paving stones and wrought-iron fencing, young trees and park benches and cafe tables tucked in among clean, open landscaping with Christmas lights twinkling in the trees -- this is an oasis, an island of light and calm. There are some great hidden places in this city, whiplash juxtapositions of swank and squalor. But Buenos Aires Grill is one of the most shocking. This garden spot feels like it should be invisible, accessible only after speaking magic words or stepping through a mirror. Even the air seems different here. It is heavy and alive, smelling of perfume, leaves and grill char instead of rot.
The first time I came to Buenos Aires Grill, shortly after its June opening in the old home of La Coupole (and Tiramisu and Saverino after that), it made me think of the grand ballroom on the Titanic. Not the actual Titanic, but James Cameron's version of it in the movie, in that scene where the camera swoops through the door and reveals all its sweeping splendor. This wasn't because the Buenos Aires Grill's dining room was huge or overwhelming or even outwardly decadent in any specific way -- it just looked too perfect to be real, like a Hollywood version of a restaurant set-dressed by obsessive-compulsives who got everything so right that everything looked fake. The wood was deeply, lovingly polished, the brass accents gleaming. The cloths on the tables were spotless, the plates all classic white, and nothing -- not the bar, not the silver, not the bound jackets on the menus nor the carefully chosen costumes on the servers -- gave away that it was actually 2006 outside. Buenos Aires Grill could have been a 1920s supper club, a '30s hotel bar and speakeasy, a roaring-'40s boîte, a perfectly preserved white-linen dining room from the dying days of European haute in the '50s. It was a timeless room, set as if for a comedy of manners, and so clean and bright and shining that sitting at one of the tables felt like intruding on a scene meant mainly for looking.
Which was strange, because Buenos Aires Grill is the second outpost of the American-Argentine empire slowly being built by the Carrera family, who already run the excellent Buenos Aires Pizzeria just a block away, at 22nd and Larimer Street. In style, Buenos Aires Pizzeria is the exact opposite of Buenos Aires Grill: a comfortable, broken-in and somewhat sparsely designed space where the food -- the surprisingly good, familiar-yet-foreign flavors of an immigrant cuisine from an immigrant quarter of an immigrant city -- take center stage. I'm suspicious when people do one thing well, then throw that over in an attempt to do something else entirely. I suspect the motives, the desire. I assume that the new thing will have none of the charm and excellence of the first thing.
So when I had my first taste of the Grill's morcilla, I was stunned. Whereas a meal at the Pizzeria offered the simple flavors of the Argentine cafe experience -- which Francis Carrera, a native of Buenos Aires's Italian quarter, will talk about with surprisingly poetic candor when given the least excuse to do so -- Buenos Aires Grill's menu of simple grilled and roasted meats took me to all those places where the tourists don't go, or can't. To dine here was to understand the heart of a place by consuming it -- a little transubstantive cannibalism that you know when you taste it, because it tastes like something more true than mere copycatting.
Now back in this miraculous place with my wife and parents, I am anxious. "Anyone mind if I order the appetizers?" I ask, and since no one does, I choose the items I know they wouldn't: the tripe and blood sausage, the sweetbreads. Then I add some easier, less threatening flavors -- Spanish Serrano ham with melon, sweet-potato fries, chicken soup that is unlike any chicken soup I've ever tasted.
The servers that deliver these dishes are not the best in the world. The waiters and waitresses and busers and runners in their formalwear are mostly young and still rather flummoxed by the necessary interactions between floor and bar and kitchen. It takes a three-way conference at the end of the bar and a copy of the bartender's bible to assemble my mother's vodka gimlet -- though since she and I are probably the last two people on the planet who drink them, that's almost understandable. And they're overseen by a great host, nattily attired and as quick on his feet as a tireless wind-up doll.
Once the plates begin hitting the table, though, nothing else matters. The blood sausage is amazing, black as sin and tasting like a Slim Jim for grownups, with loose-packed heart meat and a zing of savory spice inside its tight skin. It reminds my mom of when she was a little girl in Rochester and would visit the European butchers along Front Street, with sawdust on the floors and gutted chickens hanging in the windows. She tells a story about eating German Leona bologna, and how she's never been able to find it again. And if there's anything better that food can do than remind you of good times when you were young, I don't know what it is.
While she talks, my dad eats all the sweetbreads -- tender, both fried and finished on the grill, served with nothing more than half a lemon. He grins and chews with his eyes open, no doubt surprised to be eating calves' glands at an Argentine restaurant in Denver, Colorado, but more concerned with how much he can stuff in before Mom finishes her story.
The sweet-potato fries are blanched and finished like pommes frites, then sprinkled with table sugar that sparkles like ice -- sweet upon sweet, and so good that I'm shocked every restaurant doesn't serve them this way. The Serrano is shaved thin as silk and attended by three carved balls of cantaloupe, each with a little notch on top holding thick and bittersweet balsamic vinaigrette -- the glossy black liquid over-poured so that it bleeds down the sides of the melon and puddles in the well of the plate. And the bowl of chicken soup holds within it the entire history of Argentine immigration -- of peasants and traders and Italians and Spaniards and Chinese.
Bacalao is codfish, cured in salt, in lye, in any number of foul preservatives. It is a traditional Basque dish, seen mostly in Portugal and Spain, a survival food for sailors and others who make their livings from the sea. Like organ meats, like junk fish and peasant preparations of all description, in recent years it's had something of a haute revival, showing up on menus in Italian and Spanish restaurants, making inroads among the slow-food crowd. I ate bacalao for the first time more than a decade ago, at a European butcher's shop in Buffalo, and while it wasn't fantastic, it was memorable. It had a flavor and a texture impossible to replicate, a taste of poverty-made-good that I -- in my obsession with multicultural culinary innovation -- was very taken with.
The bacalao at Buenos Aires Grill is not presented as survival food or as a Proustian reminder of poor fishing villages in the ages before ice machines and refrigeration, but it's similar. The bowl holds two chunks of preserved cod, each about the size of a child's fist, dressed in a thickened, astringent sauce that tastes of chalk and capers. The fish itself is softer than marshmallow, so tenderized that it melts across my tongue. And in the tradition of those fishing villages and dockside bars where bacalao was first conceived, it is served here with an honor guard of small clams, their open shells pooled with sauce, their meat as stiff and briny as the cod is light and delicate.
The dish is a marvel. And although the pork loin in tomato-and-red-pepper gravy is good, and the handmade ravioli filled with sweet butternut squash in a creamy, composed béchamel studded with whole pieces of walnut is so rich and comforting that I want to put my head down in the bowl and sleep in the sauce, nothing can touch my fish. I hoard it jealously, offering only stingy tastes to everyone else at the table, and when I chew, I do so with my eyes closed -- wanting to experience in peace the magic of the fish melting against the warmth of my mouth over and over again. I can't imagine anything better.
The large dessert menu includes simple crème brûlée, and crêpes suzette made with all the attendant pyrotechnics by the little host with his jacket and ready smile, as well as Spanish coffees assembled the same way out of powerful java and brandy and Kahlúa and cream whiskey and whipped heavy cream. And when we each take a bite of a Napoleon of puffed pastry sheets padding out a core of sweet, thickened dulce de leche like the finest caramel in the world, we know we are done in. Somehow, without our noticing, the dining room has done a three-quarter turn around us and is now starting to empty for the night. Lost in our own plates and our own reveries, nothing has intruded, and though we're offered cognacs and espressos and after-dinner cigars, we decline.
We pay a bill that is less by half than the meal was worth and walk through the beautiful courtyard, under the trees hung with twinkle lights, and out once more onto 22nd, which is now dark and silent as a grave.
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