Sunday, May 2, 2010
Eating my way through South America
When I returned from my last great adventure in South America, I returned lighter and thinner and with $1,200 left in my bank account.
The same will not happen this time around. I am about to dip into those special reserve funds meant to sustain me through my golden years in order to carry on traveling the way I have been – as if it’s entirely for the food.
This journey has been rich with decadent meals and fine wines, pisco sours and flavors to remember forever.
I have long believed that eating is a huge part of the travel experience, that tasting the food is the easiest (and typically most rewarding) way to get a taste of the culture in a place. And, man, have I been immersing myself in the culture.
I have been eating well all along. Well, not so much the first week. I tried very hard to spend less than $30 a day including my lodging then and so I ate a nice lunch of something cheap like milanesa (thin breaded steak or chicken), a café in the afternoon and a couple empanadas for dinner until I met my friend Peng from China. He made me curries in the hostel, which were not at all Argentine, but were quite delicious.
Then I stayed with Mara in Bariloche, known the world over for her fine cooking. I would eat a cheap lunch: pizza or churrypan (chorizo sausage on a hotdog bun with salsa). But for dinner we had fresh vegetables, pastas, meat and always a brilliant salad prepared with oil, lemon juice, vinegar and a little soy sauce.
When Joe came, the real culinary adventure started. We traveled to more expensive places and so had to rein ourselves in sometimes. But mostly, we threw caution to the wind and ordered appetizers, main dishes and postres until our stomachs bulged. I had a bife de lomo (a tenderloin steak) at a restaurant around the corner from our fancy hotel in Recoleta one night. It was served with French fries. I can still taste and feel the meat in my mouth. I didn’t so much chew it as let it melt there. It was the most amazing steak I’ve ever had in my life. It came with no sauce and little seasoning.
In Ushuaia, the southern-most city in the world, we at king crab. The meat was ripped out of the crab claws and separated like string cheese. We had a ceviche filled with buttery crab meat, onions, garlic and cured in lemon. The flavor and the texture is one of the best I’ve ever experienced in any food.
In Buenos Aires, I spent most of my time with my new vegetarian friend Ronaldo. I took advantage of the opportunity to eat something other than meat in Argentina and went to sushi with him twice. It wasn’t the best sushi I’ve ever had, but sometimes it’s good to see how other countries make the food you’re accustomed to eating a certain way at home. Most of the sushi in Argentina is made with salmon, because that’s what they can get fresh.
In the vein of trying ordinary things in extraordinary places, Brooke and I shared a cheeseburger and each had dulce de leche ice cream cones at the McDonald’s in Mendoza. The hamburger bun was the same one McDonalds’s uses in the US. But we both agreed the burger tasted like it was made from real meat and had probably not been sprayed with ammonia. The dulce de leche ice cream was to die for and the cone itself was something like a freshly-made waffle cone. The security guard did yell at Brooke for trying to take a photo inside McDonald’s.
Brooke and I did not eat regularly at McDonald’s, however. We stayed in hostel dorms to save money and spent what we saved on fancy meals (and, as previously stated, wine).
I would sometimes say to her that I thought we’d only had amazing meals on our journey and she would quickly correct me and remind me of the one night we had lasagna and cannelloni from the deli counter at the super market and that other night when we just had salad because we were too full from lunch. (McDonald's was just a snack).
Restaurants here don’t open until 8 or 9 p.m. and it’s not at all strange to show up asking for a table at 11:30 p.m. We did it several times, just polishing off our plates around 1 a.m. sometimes, well after our coach should have turned into a pumpkin.
We had an asado at our hostel, Reina Madre, in Buenos Aires. The meat was cooked over charcoal and had so much flavor and was so tender. We were full, but couldn’t stop eating. It was after 2 a.m. when the food was finally polished off.
We ate decadent meals in Buenos Aires but the most memorable ones weren’t there. The day we rolled into Mendoza, after a 14-hour bus journey (during which the waiter proposed marriage to me), we asked the guy at the tourist information center for a good place to eat. He suggested La Patrona and showed us on one of the seven maps he’d given us how to get there.
The place was cozy inside with just a few tables, warm lighting and a chalk board that featured a quote from a famous Spanish writer who spoke of the merits of sharing wine. The prices were reasonable and the food was amazing. I had Ozobuco, beef slow roasted in red wine with vegetables. It was so tender it fell apart on my fork and so flavorful I didn’t want to take a drink for fear of washing away the taste. As good as my dish was, I liked Brooke’s even more. It was pork roast bathed in mustard seed and rosemary and cooked with fresh pears.
On our last day in Argentina we toured wine vineyards by bike. The idea sounded a lot better than it turned out to be in practice. Our map of the area was not to scale and those who gave us directions seemed to be a bit off their rockers because everything seemed much farther than they said it would be. This wasn’t helped by the fact that we road about 4 kilometers with our bikes in the lowest gear thinking they were just broken. This is especially shameful, given that I logged over 800 miles of commuter biking in Jackson Hole last summer.
But after giving up on one of our scheduled vineyard tours, we arrived at Norton winery for lunch at about 1:30 p.m. Our friends sent Brooke about $250 Argentine Pesos they had leftover and told us to enjoy a bottle of wine or something along those lines. We put their money to good use and ordered a five-course wine-paired lunch. While this was the most expensive meal we had on our trip at $140 pesos a person, it still seemed a bargain. That’s about $35 US each. Big thanks to the Balmoses.
The meal was incredible. It started with fabulous champagne to accompany a potato wrapped in smoked salmon. Next we had a pasta filled with fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil, complimented by a nice rosé. Our first main course was a fish filet on a bed of cheesy risotto and served with a chardonnay. Then we topped it off with three cuts of Argentinean beef and a Malbec Reserva. By this time our tour group had left without us and the waiter continued to serve us and ask us not to fret as he delivered an apple tart and the smoothest white desert wine I’ve ever had. Neither Brooke nor I are especially fond of sweet desert wines. But we both bought small bottles of this one.
We ended up getting the royal treatment at the vineyard and had a private tour with Hugo, who rented us the bikes. Our guide took the three of us through each stage of the wine making process and let us taste the good stuff from the fermenting tanks, the oak barrels and finally from the bottle.
The eating didn’t stop in Argentina. We dined like kings in Chile as well. Zarita and my cousin-in-law, Marisol, are turning their hostel into a Peruvian restaurant. Our first day in Santiago, Brooke and I bought fish and octopus at the central fish market and helped Zarita make ceviche with it that night. Her ceviche is still the standard by which I measure all other ceviches and none have ever come close to it in the four years since I first made it with her. She makes it with fresh white fish, though you can make it with all types of seafood. The fish is cut into small bite-size cubes and bathed in lemon juice and spices for 20 minutes or more. The acid from the lemon juice cures the fish so it doesn’t need to be cooked.
Brooke and I took our appetites to the cost and ate in a few very empty establishments in Valparaso. This is the low season and tourism is especially slow after the earthquakes. Marisol suggested a restaurant near where we ended up staying – Pasta e Vino. It ended up being the only restaurant in town that had any customers at all and it was so busy we needed reservations, which we didn’t have.
We went instead to two other wonderful places. Brooke had a chicken dish at the first that she said rivaled her Mendoza pork. The next night though, we had an appetizer that I’m still dreaming about. If I were staying in Valparaiso, I would have been back to eat it every day. It was a cannelloni stuffed with goat brie and drenched in a rich and smooth goat cheese sauce.
In Santiago, I’d like to recommend the Boulevard Lavaud to anyone who comes here. It’s the restaurant Marisol’s husband founded. It’s in a historical building that used to be a barber shop. The front corner of the building hosts a renovated and functioning barber shop. It’s in the Barrio Youngay, which is the most historical part of the city. Marisol and her husband are working to slowly transform this part of the city. They plan to open an antique shop and a neighborhood grocery stand. That along with Zarita, the new Peruvian restaurant slated to open two blocks away, will add a lot to the area, which boasts hundreds of beautiful historical buildings but still struggles to keep them free of grafiti.
The Boulevard Lavaud is the restaurant of my dreams. I have spent the last four years thinking about it and wish there could be a place like it wherever I end up living. The walls are covered with old paintings and magazine covers and relics from the neighborhood. Rather than matching tables, guests sit at a mix of school desks, antique tables, marble-topped tables and in a mix of seats ranging from standard wooden chairs to plush leather benches and antique smoking chairs. You enter the ladies room through a mirrored antique armoire.
They make delicious pisco sours and serve fabulous fish, rabbit and meat.
This journey is not over. I expect I’ll learn to make something new every day from Zarita. Today, we went to the market together and bought bags and bags of produce and made fabulous fried chicken with the most delicious roasted garlic sauce.