A New Argentina
Of all the species of restaurants in the world, the steak house is no doubt the most universal. Nearly every dominant culture that morphed from hunting to herding -- Italian, Japanese, Brazilian -- has a themed place for steak. And each gives a simple piece of meat its own distinctive twist via butchering techniques, grilling methods, sauces and condiments, and side dishes.
We're fortunate in South Florida that many examples of these ethnic meateries are within neighborhood reach. In Fort Lauderdale alone, we can sup on sirloin and risotto at Timpano Chop House or teriyaki strip stir-fry with a side of sushi at Japanese Village.
But, not only are we already multicultural carnivores, we seem to be witnessing a burgeoning trend. Post-9/11 diners have been clamoring for comfort foods and, to many of us, that translates to a hearty chop with a side of starch. But we have little initiative to sacrifice the vibrant and viable flavors of other cultures to return to the plain cooking offered by our American steak houses. Hence, both the attraction and almost immediate success of restaurants like Beef Eater, a casual, year-old Argentine parrillada in Hollywood.
In Miami-Dade County, Argentina is almost old news. The emigrating chefs from that country brought their rich, dual Italian and Latin American gastronomic heritage to the beach areas via such places as Oggi's and Café Prima Pasta nearly ten years ago. The pasta joints joined by prime beef palaces such as Tango Beef Argentinian Café and Parrillada Las Vacas Gordas were so popular that seemingly almost immediately, a tidal surge of chimichurri flooded the market. Indeed, Miami New Times¹ "Best Steak House" for 2002 was an Argentine parrilla called Graziano's.
Until very recently, though, the Argentine invasion had kept to the south. In the past decade, only Las Brisas, a Hollywood Broadwalk café, had braved the all-American element in Broward County. Now, however, I'm beginning to see the Argentine influence in Broward's Italian eateries and ice cream parlors alike, and given the quality of fare and niceties of service at the welcoming, two-tiered Beef Eater -- which is pleasantly appointed with white tablecloths, white chairs, tiled floors, and raspberry-hued walls alight with sconces -- I suspect we'll start to see some virtual clones.
Which is fine with me, as long as we're not talking copycat crimes. Like their American counterparts, Argentine steak houses follow a strict formula concerning the fundamentals. The parrilla equation depends upon three factors to produce a satisfactory sum: quality meat cut in traditional fashion from grassy-plains-fed cattle; a searing hot grill; and condiments and garnishes that carry enough flavor to stimulate the palate. Beef Eater (not exactly subtly named) has every component, with a slight variation: I highly doubt the beef is Argentine Angus raised on the pampas, given that the meat has been banned for export since foot-and-mouth disease resurfaced in that country a couple of years ago. But Texas ranch-fed Angus is a quality match, and many Americans even prefer the taste of our fattier domestic cattle than the lean, mineral-spiked flesh of South American cows.
Still, high standards regarding comestibles become a moot point when the steaks aren't dependably cooked. At Beef Eater, we worried on neither score. Both an entrada, or skirt steak, and a bife de chorizo, or strip sirloin, were cooked to exact, medium-rare specifications, exuding juice at each touch of the knife. The just-chewy meat had enough tactile firmness to remind us of what we were supposed to be putting in our mouths, without being tough enough to allude to what we were wearing on our feet.
And, of course, the beef also gets a bit of cultural kick. In the case of the skirt steak, a flattened cut so immense it was folded under itself like a smug cat in a patch of sun, a garlicky, parsley-driven chimichurri was a pungent alternative to ketchup or A-1. This classic dip also paired well with the crunchy rolls offered at the outset of the meal, and aided a generous block of grilled provolone, just melting at the corners and sprinkled with oregano, that we shared as an appetizer.
With the sirloin, we received two crisp-edged sunny-side-up eggs on top of the meat. If you've never tried this combination before, you're missing out. The richness of the egg yolks, broken to drip like clarified, languid butter over the inch-thick steak, enhanced the meaty notes without obscuring them, and the crackling egg whites allowed for some intriguing combinations of texture.
Side dishes aren't terribly exciting here: The French fries, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, and rice are good but basic. But a plus is their inclusion with main courses, unlike American steak houses where everything is a la carte. Indeed, the prices at Beef Eater are exceptionally attractive, with no main course costing more than ten bucks. Other items seem ridiculously inexpensive. Empanadas, for example, which come stuffed with chicken, meat, or spinach, cost $1.50, and go down to 99 cents if you order them at lunchtime. At those rates, naturally, they're not huge, but the golden-brown dough hides a savory filling that's just right for a light starter.
A salad of palm hearts also comes in at a bargain, but the hearts of palm taste tinny from prolonged contact with a can, and the Russian dressing that tops them tastes generic. If you're longing for something the color of roses, go instead for the pink sauce that naps chicken-spinach cannelloni. The crepes are simultaneously delicate and hearty, and the cream-touched tomato sauce is neither too heavy, the way the béchamel option could be, nor too acidic, the way the marinara might be. These sauces are better, respectively, dressing the vegetable lasagna and the eggplant Parmesan, two dishes that demonstrate the Italian contribution to Argentine cuisine.
Like the side dishes, desserts such as tres leches didn't thrill me, perhaps merely because I've lived in South Florida too long, and perhaps because I know what lies just around the corner from Beef Eater: i Fiori gelateria, an Argentine-Italian ice cream parlor I discovered a month or so ago. Just as I'm programmed to appreciate chimichurri over ketchup and bife de chorizo over rib eye, I'm virtually honor bound to go for dulce de leche ice cream over ordinary flan -- a preference that, like a steak, just may become universal.
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