My first taste of offal was awful. I was sitting in a tiny restaurant next door to my friend's Buenos Aires apartment, choking on smoke of both the grill and Marlboro Red varieties and drinking Quilmes, the crappy Argentine beer of choice, when a sizzling platter of meats — a parrillada — arrived at our table. I forked up a coil of a sausage-looking substance that my friend called "tripa" and took a bite. I tasted bitterness and iron beneath the crunch and chew: I was eating intestines.
And I was not happy about it. I looked longingly at the menu, wishing I'd ordered one of those other dishes found everywhere in Buenos Aires: empanadas stuffed with beef or chicken, breaded and fried milanesa, sausage sandwiches, Argentina's version of Italian food or even just an ensalada mixta: shredded lettuce and tomatoes topped with white vinegar and oil. Instead, I filled up on bread and Coca-Cola while my friend, who'd already been in Argentina six months compared to my six hours, put down bite after bite of tripa, then moved on to the blood sausage.
I'd gone to Argentina to learn about the literary influence of Jorge Luis Borges, to study the economics of the Southern Cone and to become fluent in Spanish. While by the end of my stay I'd accomplished very little on the academic front, the vibrant, inexpensive restaurant scene had done a lot to educate my palate. Argentina taught me how to drink and eat — even offal, and I developed a deep love for parts of animals that I'd previously considered waste.
3555 West 38th Avenue
Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Parillada Argentina (for two) $31.99
Lucky for me, gastropubs had appeared by the time I returned to the States, and offal was starting to grace menus all over town, albeit in much more precious forms. Velvety foie gras, in seared, terrine, torchon, moussed, foamed and shaved forms. Sweetbreads, usually cut into chunks and breaded and fried so that they resembled chicken nuggets and served with fruit compotes. A few kitchens had started dabbling with tongue and blood sausage; others were serving up heart, kidneys and testicles — and not just the Rocky Mountain oyster version. I was a sucker for all of this offal, even if it often arrived as a stylized plate of meat and accoutrements that gave no clue to the organ of origin.
That's not how they do it in Argentina. There, they simply toss the offal on a grill along with a dozen other cuts of cow, as well as chicken and pork, and then serve it undisguised. I missed that back home in Colorado, along with much of the rest of the Argentine culinary canon — until Caminito Tango opened in May, in the former home of Viejo Domingo. After the owner of that spot took off, the Argentine cooks he'd left behind convinced Tirso Abarca, who owns the building as well as the car wash next door, to go into business with them.
The new crew didn't make many changes to the small, boxy dining room, which has parakeet-green walls, a little wine-bottle-lined bar in the back corner, and about twenty booths and tables, covered with black tablecloths and set with red linen napkins. But they did add a grill in the kitchen, and that allowed them to create a menu that's almost exactly what you'd find in a neighborhood restaurant in Buenos Aires: a half-dozen varieties of empanadas, a few sandwiches, a couple of pedestrian pastas reflecting the Italian influence, and an entire section devoted to meats coming off the grill, including the massive parrillada, which feeds at least two people and features six cuts of meat — three of them offal.
I knew as soon as I sat down that I'd get the parrillada, but since the friend I was meeting was late, I ordered a glass of wine for the wait. Argentina's wine-making industry first gained recognition for its cheap malbec, and that's what I drank in Buenos Aires when I wasn't drinking Quilmes, so it felt sacrilegious to go with anything else. I ordered the only malbec on the list, which turned out to be a highly quaffable table wine: fruity, simple and way too easy to suck down.
We ordered a few more glasses when my friend arrived, along with the parrillada for two. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it came with a couple of sides — had we really been in Argentina, those would have been à la carte — as well as a distinctly non-Argentine touch to start: a complimentary cup of brothy mushroom soup.
Caminito Tango runs at a very Southern Hemisphere pace, and even though the restaurant was empty that night, service was extremely slow — but also extremely friendly. Since we had our wine, though, we were in no hurry. Finally, our server returned with one of the cooks as reinforcement, and they loaded our table with a sizzling grill pan heaped with meat, a bowl of mashed potatoes, a plate of ensalada mixta, a basket of bread and a little dish of chimichurri, the blend of garlic and parsley in olive oil that's served with just about everything in Argentina.
I immediately grabbed a bite of the intestines and got that same chew and crunch I'd first experienced, then a taste of the bitterness I'd once thought so strange and now find oddly pleasant — especially when augmented by the tart chimichurri. Next I went for the Argentine sausage, packed with pungent ground pork flecked with garlic and hot red pepper — an adaptation for the American palate, I suspected, since the Argentines are notorious for liking bland food. Although both the chicken and beef had been hammered flat, they'd grilled up nicely, succulent yet infused with char. But I didn't want to fill up on these tamer meats, not when there was blood sausage to try. Many of the blood sausages on menus around town these days are really only 30 to 40 percent blood, supplemented by pork, fat and, sometimes, grains such as barley or oatmeal. Caminito Tango's version is closer to 90 percent, and very intense: dense with the metallic flavor of iron, laced with that strong offal essence, cut with very little fat and still incredibly rich. So rich, in fact, that I could only handle a couple of bites. I abandoned the sweetbreads after a few bites for a different reason: They hadn't been cooked long enough and were too chewy in the center to eat.
With all that meat in front of me, it was a while before I even looked at the bread — but when I did, I was hooked. There was nothing particularly special about this bread, which looked like a cross between an Italian loaf and a baguette, with a crusty outside and a very soft white center. But it was the exact bread I'd found in every bread basket in Buenos Aires, and hadn't seen since. So I ate slice after slice, dipping it into the chimichurri sauce and sopping up vivid memories of all my meals in Argentina. I left the mashed potatoes and salad to my friend, who'd given up on the offal.
This first meal at Caminito Tango made me hunger for other dishes I'd enjoyed in Buenos Aires; although the Argentines are famous for their grilled meats, most don't gorge on barbecue every day. So when I returned a few days later, I ordered a couple of the empanadas so popular in Argentina, picking two of the most common fillings: shredded chicken and ground beef mixed with green olives and hard-boiled egg. I opted for the baked instead of fried, and the fat little empanadas came marked with the kind of scorched spots you find on pizza crust. When I bit into the crisp, thin shell of one, savory chicken burned my tongue and juice spilled down my chin. I didn't care; I could have eaten a dozen.
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Were I a true porteña — a native of Buenos Aires — I would have gone with a pasta dish next. Instead, I went with one of my favorite sandwiches, the choripan. A mini-baguette of that Argentine bread had been topped with one of the porky Argentine sausages from the parrillada, cut down the center and piled high with shredded iceberg and a couple of out-of-season tomato slices. The bread and toppings were enough to blunt the spice of the sausage; this time, it definitely needed a little chimichurri to perk it up.
I was stuffed, but I wasn't leaving without a taste of dulce de leche, the thick, slightly tart caramel that's made by reducing condensed milk. In Argentina, I ate it on toast, on fruit and on a spoon; here I ordered it in a crepe, the panqueque de dulce de leche. It came to my table licked by blue flames, which I quickly blew out so that I could cut into the crepe, chasing every last drop of the filling. Next time, I'll ask the kitchen to skip the alcohol; the presentation adds nothing to the flavor and just postpones the sugar rush.
It took my server several minutes to drop my check, but I was in no hurry. As tango music played from the stereo, I gave silent thanks to the country that inspired my gastronomic obsession and started my culinary education.
Nothing awful about that.