Food & Drink » Food & Drink Etc.

Gaucho grand

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MostAmericans are not likely to go mad for mate (MAH-tay) at first sip. This slightly bitter herbal tea, which conjures images of the rough-and-ready gaucho, is the national drink of Argentina, and is consumed across socio-economic levels. Yerba mate consumption is also a ritual affair involving a decorated gourd (the name mate comes from the Quechua word for gourd) or carven wooden container, a metal straw with a strainer end, and several scoops of the dried herb. (First-timers may also want to add sugar, though purists will scoff.) Hot water is added directly to the gourd, and after the first participant drinks it down, more hot water is added and the gourd is passed to the next imbiber.

You can do all this solo or in group fashion at Gago’s Argentine Parilla — and you should. Owner Carlos Gago, ample both in girth and spirit, will be happy to inculcate you in mate’s mysteries. There’s another reason for consuming the pungent tea: among its many alleged properties, including stress reduction, restoration of hair color, and preservation of youth, is another — appetite suppression. You will need it if you order the parillada for two, another ritual Texans in Particular should cotton to immediately.

But first some appetizers — not that you really need them in light of what’s to come. Provoleta is simply provolone cheese melted over a wood-burning grill and brushed with olive oil and oregano. It’s simple yet wonderfully smoky and unctuous.

If Carlos or his chef, Adrian (from Mendoza, the country’s Andean wine-growing center), will agree to doing a full assortment, try all of the empanadas. I admit to preferring the potato with
olive and the cheese with fresh basil, but you might find the picadillo with raisin and hard-boiled egg will strike a chord. Whatever your choice, spoon into your packets some of the lusty, oily, and garlicky chimichurri sauce that will come to your table with bread.

Then move on to matambre, an Argentine classic made from a beef cut of the same name (it comes from the exterior of the rib low down on the belly). The thin cut is rolled around julienned carrots and such, boiled, then pressed and served cool with a scoop of mild potato salad. The matambre (“hunger-killer”) is likely the most delicate of the dishes you’ll encounter at Gago’s.

Neither a fajita nor a flank, matambre is not a name we recognize in these parts. Argentina boasts some 35 different cuts of beef, says Carlos, who wonders why a nation as consumption-oriented as ours can only come up with 12 or so. In order to correct this defect, he buys his grass-fed beef in whole carcasses and butchers it himself. I won’t attempt to describe each piece that comes on the parillada for two, but it’s commonly a mix of beef, lamb, goat, lechon, and chicken, most of which you’ll find spitted and leaning over a fire pit at the entry to the rustic restaurant. Two linebackers would have trouble with the quantity. (Carlos will do a split order for two.) And, while finding everything intensely flavorful and marvelously excessive — especially the mollejas (sweetbreads), cabrito, chicken, home-made sausage, and suckling pig — I will also mention that a few of the unaccustomed cuts, even the ribs, may involve some dental diligence. Just keep chewing; the flavor is worth it.

A bottle of the spicy Telteca Antá Reserva Mendoza Malbec will aid and abet the process, but don’t bother with the lighter malbec or the merlot. (You may also dispense with the pastas and pizzas — or save them for another visit. They are generous emblematic of the considerable Italian presence in Argentina, but they just don’t measure up to the meat.)

Even reading this it’s hard to contemplate dessert, but there’s another Argentine classic that must be sampled — you only think you know it. I’m talking about dulce de leche, the cooked-down milk caramel also found in Mexico. There’s some contention over whether Argentina or Uruguay really owns the historic rights (If you want to get a rise out of Carlos, just ask him), but his Argentine version is hands-down the most intense I’ve ever had. Try it alongside a flavorful, three-milk flan or drizzled atop the dense and delicious chocolate cake capped with pecans. And just think doggie bag for all the rest. Fido will go crazy too. •

Gago’s Traditional Argentine Parilla and Pasta 
21455 IH-10 West
(210) 698-2160

THE SKINNY

It’s all about spit-roasted meat at this rustic South American grill, where the proprietor does the butchering himself. Bathrooms not handicap accessible.

DON’T MISS

The empanadas with potato and olive

HOURS

5pm-close Wed-Sat; 1-6pm Sun (and reservation for parties of 6 or more)

PRICES

$16.99-$40 for meats


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