Leaving the (admittedly large) influence of native peoples aside, Argentinian cuisine in many ways parallels that of the good old U S of A, i.e. there is LOTS of beef.
A couple factors come into play here: to begin with, you can look at the initially sparsely populated country side of each region (sparsely populated in relation to the Old World) with large expanses of grass lands–land that was not already given over to domestic livestock or agriculture. On top of this geographical feature add the demographic aspect of land-starved Europeans coming to the New World in droves. There was a desire from many of these recently arrived immigrants to make their living off the land–an increasingly difficult task in Europe as urban populations boomed and rapid industrialization led to more jobs in factories than on the fields. These factors along with European imperial powers’ desire to have easy access to affordable mass products (like sugar, cotton, coffee, tobacco, and livestock) led to a lot of land being set aside for the pasture grazing of cattle.
This all being said, it is perhaps no surprise that American cuisine and Argentinian cuisine seem to both be heavily laden with beef. I have never been to Argentina so I cannot speak to the country’s everyday eating habits, but based on their most well-known dining export–steakhouses–I would hazard a guess that grilled meat, specifically grilled steak, is a common dish eaten out. And since the natural accompaniment to beef is potatoes of some sort or another (fried, hashed, mashed, smashed, or shoe-stringed) I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to draw a comparison between between the most representative dish of American (USA) cuisine, a cheeseburger and fries, with (what I posit to be) the equivalent in Argentinian cuisine, skirt steak and french fries. Nowadays, the place where American beef and Argentinian beef diverge are the respective diets of each country’s cattle: American cows eat predominantly grain, while Argentinian cows are famous for being mostly grass-fed.
I was left musing on the ins, outs, and what have yous of Argentinean food by last night’s dinner–at my second favorite place to eat steak in New York City–La Fusta in Elmhurst, Queens. La Fusta means the riding whip in spanish, a reference to the horse-racing vibe cultivated by this cozy and romantic Queens eatery. The major draw is their skirt steak (entrana in spanish), an under appreciated cut of meat that is far less expensive than the shell steak or sirloin at your local supermarket but–in my view–infinitely more flavorful. The taste is deep and mineral with a texture that provides a leeway in cooking length; I’ve undercooked and overcooked skirt steak at home and neither outcome is a total disaster, the same can most certainly not be said of tenderloin.
A major plus with this restaurant is that I don’t have to tax my overburdened mind with an internal debate on what to order (overburdened is too generous a descriptor; foggy and dull would be more accurate). No deliberation is needed because we always get the same thing and we are always satisfied: grilled skirt steak, blood sausage, watercress salad, and french fries. If we’re feeling especially frisky, we might throw in an empanada or two, maybe provide mr. morcilla with a less sanguinary tango partner, but beyond that the order does not vary.
Mr. morcilla, in case you didn’t have your spanish-english dictionaries out, is a reference to the aforementioned blood sausage. Its draw is not that it tastes like blood (though I can’t say for sure as I don’t have much experience consuming blood), rather it’s the crisp, pregnant way it arrives at the table: the slightest touch with your fork let’s out a steaming gurgle of juices that gets my saliva glands going just to think about. And each bite after that first touch is a carousel of textures from the crackling skin to the soft, ever-so-slightly chewy filling.
The french fries at La Fusta are McDonald’s good. They’re not fried in duck fat, they’re not curled, nor waffled, nor truffled, they’re just like the ones you get at the golden arches: thin cut, uniformly sized and uniformly crispy. The perfect fry? That’s up for debate, but for me–like many others–Ronald McDonald converted me to his side at a very young age so naturally there can be only one winner.
The one way our dinner departed from the norm last night was the order of a plate of grilled short ribs. I haven’t often seen the short rib cut grilled (aside from in Korean BBQ) but this version was delectable. I always assumed that short rib was strictly for braising and stewing–a fall-off-the bone, melt in your mouth cut–La Fusta has converted me and expanded my short rib horizons. Along with the herbaceous and garlicky bowls of chimichurri that came with the steaks, each plate was adorned with a strip of (what I think is) pickled red pepper; a delicious afterthought that is–as is the case with the majority of great restaurants–a touch that lingers in the memory and on the tastebuds.
Crisp, lemony watercress provides the perfect counter-point to the salty, meaty flavors that made up the rest of the meal. This was all washed down with more than a few of the cheaper bottles of malbec on the menu (excellent price/quality relationship). Dessert provided an exclamation point to the savory plates in the form of flan flanked by a heaping spoonful of dulce de leche. All in all La Fusta is an affordable, unassuming, and, above all, delicious restaurant that I can’t wait to return to.
80-32 Baxter Ave, Elmhurst, NY (718) 429-8222
Calder Quinn is a fearless gastronome exploring New York City one restaurant at a time—he’s also the eldest son of Lucinda Scala Quinn, Living’s Executive Editorial Director of Food. Here’s what he has to say about the origins of Mensday Wednesday: “Being located in New York City gives us the opportunity to sample a wide array of food. After all, there are over 20,000 restaurants here and in a huge city, built on the contributions of immigrants, which continues to draw people from every corner of the world, it is statistically probable that there exists a commercial enterprise operating to meet everyone’s taste, as disparate as those tastes may be. There are no set requirements as to where we dine, but a sort of tacit set of rules have emerged: price is important–the final bill should never cause us to wince, ‘international’ cuisine is preferred, and in the event of a debate, byob is the trump card.”
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