A pinch of Salta

Via José Balcarce
Via José Balcarce
In Salta, the fare is fair. Not mind-blowing, not overly extravagant, but it does the job. Read some reviews about the same Salta steak house on Trip Advisor and you’d think you’re in two different restaurants, if not in two different cities.

I’ve done steak, I’ve done empanadas, I’ve done humita and tamales and I’ve done llama in all ways possible. That’s not to sum up the whole repertoire, but it’s essentially fair fare.

And while no restaurant in Salta city is a complete must as in Cafayate, the following two from different ends of the spectrum can offer an overview. One, a classic peña that not only serves up some of the best northwestern grub in the city (I ate my own weight in beef, goat’s cheese, quinoa and corn empanadas over 10 days so I know what’s what, alright), but also offers an authentic insight into northern nightlife; the other, a high-end establishment taking local ingredients and pre-Columbian dishes and bringing them bang up to date.

On the map
La Casona del Molino (Luis Burela 1) is well marked on the tourist map, so much so that I thought it was probably best avoided. But repeatedly told it was a great spot and much more authentic than any peña on bustling Balcarce, I figured I should listen to them.

My last night, a Sunday, and Hugh had the evening off from his clients. It was chilly so we dumped the idea of going to his favourite sandwich truck. About 20 blocks from the centre, by the time we cabbed it there it was 9.30pm and brimming, though not overflowing. A series of interconnecting cheerful rooms painted in primary colours awaited and it was a question of leaping nimbly into the first table we could see. We were set.

It’s not fancy, the paint is peeling a bit, the chairs are as hard as, but service came with a big friendly smile even though the staff were getting close to being rushed off their feet.

There’s nothing complex about the menu — standard offerings of empanadas, tamales, humita and locro. We decided to share the first three options. Accompanied by familiar spicy red salsa with a great kick, the stuffed beef pockets (six pesos) were some of the finest I’ve had in the northwest. Not over-baked, good steak inside, the combination when dripping in hot sauce was magical.

Despite its simplicity, my tamal was the tastiest I’ve ever eaten. One I had in Tilcara in Jujuy was all potato with a hint of mince… that poor sibling faded quickly into the past fast, as this one was jam-packed with meat, potato and actually had some flavour. A filling bargain for 10 pesos.

Although our night closed young, the musical maestros had already got started. What makes La Casona so special is that singers and musicians (and probably dancers too, but not on my watch) simply turn up to jam. A guy and his guitar, someone else thumping the table rhythmically, set up an ad hoc folk music show in whichever room has space. Or not. Who was that long-haired fellow strumming his pain with his fingers? I’ve no idea, but authentic grub and authentic music hits the spot.

The name’s José
Back in town and on the other side of the spectrum, José Balcarce (Necochea 594) cemented its place on the gastro map when it opened several years ago. Originally formed by a grouping of chefs, it is now run by Alejandra Savoy Agolio who creates new Andean (novoandino) cuisine or cocina de altura.

A pretty turquoise hue hiding a 120-year old house welcomes you in, and by peering through the window it’s clear that this is no peña. José is smart and contemporary, with plenty of exposed stone walls and horned cow skulls dressed up in quirky accessories.

Goat's cheese salad
Goat’s cheese salad
The menu is fairly short — there are just four platos andinos mains though there are several more starters — but it’s clear that the staple northwestern ingredients are mixed and matched to create more than the usual empanada. Quinoa, lamb, pork, goat’s cheese and llama are all wearing new clothes; these staples of old have been brought into the 21st century.

As soon as I saw the goat’s cheese-stuffed rolled lamb (115 pesos) I knew I’d die happy from a clogged artery, but an oversight from the waiter meant he forgot to mention it wasn’t on the menu that Saturday. He also forgot to mention that I couldn’t pay by card. My hungry heart in smithereens, I instead chose the hearty llama lomo steak in a broad bean sauce on quinoa risotto (115 pesos).

While it was creative and to a certain extent innovative, I’d had my heart set on the lamb and the llama wasn’t up to scratch. And even after a tasty salad entrée, which of course featured goat’s cheese, and some fig chutney I wasn’t quite full. And of course I didn’t have enough cash to be able to tap into dessert. Time for the bill.

I certainly appreciate what José Balcarce is doing in terms of bringing their pre-Columbian roots up to date. But when only three out of the possible four platos andinos mains — the very reason I am eating at this place — are available, it’s frustrating.

Buenos Aires Herald, May 4, 2014
Ph: Courtesy of José Balcarce, and me.

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