Parrilla Pena: The Perfect Parrilla
This place has quickly become one of my favorite meat stops in Buenos Aires because it is real in a way that La Cabrera just isn’t. The ambience is simple, honest and unpretentious. The service is good – surprisingly good – super fast and friendly for this city and especially for a traditional, 4-hour-dinner parrilla. The steaks are cheap, fantastic cuts for almost half the price you would find at a more touristy, high-profile resto. Local wines line the walls, served with ice or soda, big open grill faces the dining room proudly displaying its sizzling contents to those about to destroy them. Smiling, flirtatious asadors, noticeably happy to be there, chatting and flipping away. The perfect place to bring my parents on their recent visit to Buenos Aires, crossing “beef, lots of it” off the list of obligatory bites to try while down here.
After ordering, tasting and approving a bottle of 2008 Weinert Malbec, out came the bread basket full of familiar characters – long and crunchy bread sticks and crackers in plastic packages, fluffy white rolls and brown wheat rolls, and even some slices with oil and a bit of cheese melted on.
And then out of nowhere a savory beef empanada which was atypical for 2 reasons: 1) it was fried, 2) it was complimentary. What I left out of my empanada rant a few weeks ago is that empanadas, though they vary between delectable and disgusting based on filling and doughiness of the outside, are almost always very satisfying when fried. This is kind of a no-brainer solution to making something taste good – you could deep-fry a human thumb and it would probably be just as delicious, drizzled with a bit of chimichurri. But for some reason, fried empanadas are hard to find while nasty baked verdura empanadas are allowed to roam the land unchecked, unbridled. Not cool. So this thing was a wonderful treat. Golden brown and crunchy outside, flavorful ground carne mixed with onion and chopped green olives on the inside. And it was free, which is almost unheard of in this country.
Perusing the menu, I selected a pretty random array of stuff that I wanted my parents’ eager and curious palates to experience. We didn’t all three order tiras, vacios and lomos because while I understand that the quality of beef is better in Argentina and a good steak loads cheaper than back home, the fact is these cuts do exist in the U.S. and if you pay more than $50, you can get them (well maybe not tiras, those are just weird…). It’s not as easy as here, but it’s possible. What’s almost impossible to find on a menu in the U.S. is mollejas, rinones, chinchulines, morcilla, organ-y bits considered trash meats in the States, all the things I prize miles above pompous filets and loins. As soon as they had that first explosive bite of morcilla, my Eastern European parents were reminded of just how frickin delicious these sinful bits can be (they are deprived of them in Boston) and sought out at least one morcilla a day for the rest of their trip. I have never been more sure that I’m not adopted. And yeah, morcilla is delicious no matter where in this city you get it, it’s hard to eff up. Nothing beats the feeling of biting into one of these, puncturing the crispy skin and having your mouth flooded by that thick, spicy, creamy, meaty pudding packed with sweet and savory flavor.
Next up was something that, surprisingly, my parent’s hadn’t tried before, my personal favorite character in any meaty drama, the molleja. I tried my best to explain to them what it was – I came up with “thymus gland in the throat.” This is something they don’t even make in Hungary and I don’t really understand why because it is one of the most texturally interesting mouthfuls I’ve tried. If you’re on a diet, go cry in the corner cuz you can’t touch these – they’re meant for those of us who just don’t care what we’re putting in our mouths as long as it tastes good and the amount is small enough so that we don’t have heart issues when we’re 35 (hint hint America, stop dieting because that’s obviously not helping, eat these natural and delicious parts instead of throwing them away, and worry about PORTION SIZE instead of FAT CONTENT). Mollejas, to put it simply, taste like heaven. Crispy, deliciously greasy and salty on the outside with burnt little tips echoing the flavor of the grill. But it is the internal texture that blows my mind every time – firm and moist, mind-numbingly creamy, buttery and velvety soft, melting in the mouth a bit like roasted bone marrow or calf brain, but a tiny bit grainy at the same time, like liver but without the minerally and metallic flavor. Parts not cooked perfectly are a bit tendon-y, but even this is okay, as those tendons are slippery and smooth and easy to bite through. The combination of crisp exterior and this pillowy soft interior is unbeatable. Go crazy with the lemon though, they give you a giant plate of it for a reason – and that reason is to cut that wonderful fattiness of the molleja with a bit of refreshing and much-needed acidity.
Next came a necessary parrilla element which is undoubtedly always better at a friend’s outdoor asado than at a restaurant, but which nevertheless was a hit with my parents – the provoleta. A big old round of provolone cheese grilled directly on the asado and brought to the table sizzling hot and melty, to be cut up and eaten with basket-bread immediately to avoid it hardening. Deliciously gooey and oily with tons of oregano sprinkled over the top. Argentina’s ode to its gastronomical mother, Italy.
I couldn’t let my parents leave without trying some of that world-renowned Argentine beef-beef though, so we did end up ordering an ojo de bife which was flavorful, perfectly jugoso and gigantic. The actual “eye” of this ribeye was bloody red on the inside with a perfect tender brown exterior and beautiful char-lines running across it. The rest was fantastic as well, a little bit gritty, but for the most part soft and easy to chew with fantastic marbling and a ton of delicious fat clinging to the side, having done its job in pumping the flesh full of buttery flavor and now ready to be cut off and discarded. Looking around the place, I noticed that the fries seemed pretty sub-par, so we ordered “veggies” as a side and got a giant mound of garlicky steamed chard. Not bad but lacked salt and was a bit too watery. But then again I didn’t come to a parrilla for the steamed vegetables.
An added and memorable bonus to the vibe was that when I asked our otherwise very busy waiter to explain to me what exactly ojo de bife is, how it differs from the American ribeye and where the hell the filet mignon lives (I am still terrible with cuts of meat and desperately need to invest in a cow-parts poster to hang above my bed and fantasize about late at night), the dude stopped what he was doing, grabbed a pen and sketched a few diagrams on the paper table-cover to better help me understand what exactly it was that I just put in my face.