Sunday, February 7, 2010

Argentina Cafe

3055 Sage # 130 (faces Hidalgo)

Over the last several months I have checked out several of our city's Argentinian restaurants - Manena's, Yorktown Deli, El Gaucho and Argentina Cafe - comparing them to long time favorite Marini's Original Empanada House. Argentina Cafe is the newest one, open only a couple of weeks at the time of my first visit, and has the most expansive menu. It's located on Hidalgo at Sage in the same strip center as Alexander the Great Greek restaurant but even as of my last visit the signage was easy to miss. It's a stylish hole-in-the-wall, a family affair so far as I can tell, and everyone has been very friendly.

On my first visit I tried the Sandwiches de migas. These thin, crustless sandwiches are said to be an Argentine obsession and I've had them at Manena's and became fond of them after just one. At Argentina Cafe I had the ham, cheese, red pepper and olives; unfortunately the bread was a little stale and this was not as enjoyable as the palmitos I had at Manena's. The menu said that the palmitos and a couple of other varieties are 'special order.' This just means they are made to order, not in advance like the ones I had, and so take a little longer to serve, but it's not necessary to call in advance unless you're in a real hurry. I would recommend going for one of those varieties.

This was no more than a snack, all I needed at that time, but several other dishes are temptingly on display and I picked up more for later - matambre and rusa. Matambre is a rolled, stuffed skirt or flank steak; I've had this at Manena's (and tried to order it at El Gaucho but they couldn't serve it though it's on the regular menu). The beef roll is cut in slices and served on a crusty and chewy baguette with lettuce, tomato and mayo. The sandwich at Manena's was very satisfying but at Argentina Cafe the slices were much thicker and it was a much more substantial sandwich and very good. The stuffing includes minced carrot and palmitos and hard boiled egg, among other things, I think.

Rusa, listed on the menu just as Argentina Salad, is the Argentine version of Salade Olivier and the version here is the most colorfully appealing I have encountered with carrot, corn, green peas, egg, olive and mayonnaise. Unlike Salad Olivier, Rusa contains no diced meat. This was a little bland, I wanted to taste more of the egg and I think maybe they used a low fat mayo, but otherwise it was good and much better than the one at El Gaucho which had only potatoes, carrots and peas.

On another visit on a Sunday the place was packed (the staff speaks fluent English but my guess is that for the majority of customers English is not the first language) so again I got a sandwich to go, this time choosing the choripan. This is perhaps the Argentine national sandwich, chorizo plus pan (bread), the Argentine version of a taco truck being known as a chorrimobile. It consists of a grilled Argentine chorizo on a baguette with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. This is on the menu at Marini's although I've never had it and also on the menu at El Gaucho where it consisted of a small, split, grilled chorizo on a huge marraqueta roll with chimichurri. Except for the fact El Gaucho serves an excellent, garlicky chimichurri, it was a very disappointing sandwich but at Argentina Cafe it was very satisfying. Some online sources compare Argentine chorizo to Italian sausage; it is very mild and, as I've encountered it, rather lean, unlike Colombian chorizos. It reminded me of a sausage from Prasek's Hillje Smokehouse near El Campo. Besides serving it in the sandwich, Argentina Cafe sells one pound packages of both the chorizo and a morcilla imported from Argentina.

On another visit I needed just a snack and picked up a beef empanada. I had tried a cheese and onion empanada on a previous visit and was surprised when what I got looked like a small quiche. The beef empanada (there are only four varieties on the menu) looks like what I expect an empanada to look like; they are baked here rather than fried and the filling was a very savory ground beef with onions, spices, and hard boiled egg. I have been enjoying Argentine empanadas since the early 70s when I lived very close to the original location of Marini's and the Gaucho there is one of my favorites. I have sampled a lot of empanadas over the last few months, Venezuelan, Colombian, Argentinian, and this is perhaps the only one that may supplant the Gaucho at Marini's as my favorite. The crust is so thin as to make the pie somewhat springy - I thought it probably wouldn't be a good idea to handle it roughly. I got some chimichurri to accompany this. At El Gaucho the excellent chimichurri made an other-wise too bland beef empanada really good, but the chimichurri at Argentina Cafe is too oily and vinegary, with those elements overwhelming the parsley and garlic for me. No problem - this empanada, though it's not at all spicy, doesn't need any help from chimichurri.

The restaurant does not have a website and since I can't do justice to the entire menu with this post, I've scanned the menu here.

Keep in mind dishes and prices may differ at the restaurant.