Puerto La Boca is a lively, cosmopolitan restaurant serving the most authentic Argentine cooking in the San Diego area. On any given night, about 70 percent of the tables are occupied by well-educated South American expats who have adopted the restaurant for the same reason as I have: The food is the real thing. And happily, with such enthusiastic community support, it's likely to stay real. The restaurant is named after a funky neighborhood of Buenos Aires, an Italian district in the international port area. In our own Little Italy, Puerto La Boca isn't a bit funky. There's an awning-shaded sidewalk dining patio, its tables covered with white linen, where you can catch a close view -- with full sound effects -- of airplanes coming in for a landing at Lindbergh. The interior offers romantically dim lighting and closely spaced tables in front of an open kitchen, with a bar in an adjoining room. A pianist or guitarist plays background music on weekend nights; other evenings, the sound loop dances between tangos and Italian opera (sometimes played a little too loud).
Like the music, the menu is a typically Argentinean combination of Italian, Spanish, and native-grown traditions, plus a touch of England -- which, in past centuries, stuck its imperial fingers deep into South America. (Remember the Falklands War?) Argentina's climate is mainly temperate, and unlike Mexico, the country had no major pre-Columbian civilizations to contribute to its culinary repertory. Its cuisine, then, is basically European, but with a "wild west" gaucho heartiness. It's adventurous but not exotic.
A restaurant's bread course often indicates its attention to hospitality. La Boca's is exceptional. A basket of warm sliced baguettes arrives with a silver-plated relish tray: one small bowl holds Kalamata olives swimming in a light herbal marinade; another contains chimichurri, a garlic- and parsley-laden vinaigrette with a touch of hot chilies -- Argentina's favored sauce for grilled meats. There's also a ramekin of delectable flavored butter, salty and flecked with minced chives and red peppers.
Argentina's favorite snack is the empanada. Almost all cuisines have some version of a turnover; in this case, the savory "hot pockets" may have arisen as portable, one-handed lunches for gauchos riding the pampas, where there are no Whoppers anywhere in range. La Boca's small appetizer empanadas are baked in blistery, flaky wrappers with a choice of fillings. We especially liked the beef version, rich with stewed meat, onions, tomatoes, minced Kalamata olives, and chopped hard-cooked eggs. The corn filling was fun, too, its crisp-surfaced kernels of regular yellow corn (not a modern Supersweet variety) bathed in a thin, creamy sauce. Other choices are the ham and cheese (a great light lunch) and a rather mushy spinach and cheese. (Spinach is never at its best in midsummer.)
Matambre means "kill hunger," accurately indicating an appetizer that's best shared if you also expect to address an entrée. A galantine of pounded-thin beef is wrapped around carrots, spinach, parsley, and hard-cooked eggs, served chilled and thinly sliced. The colorful vegetable inlay makes a vivid eyeful, and La Boca adds a scattering of pickled Italian giardinera vegetables to liven up the flavors. In the center of the plate comes a mound of deli-style potato salad (called Rusa, "Russian salad") that's no different than any good yanqui version. Still, matambre is evidently a "developed taste," as my dinner partner found it bland. Better luck for me, to have enough left over for lunch. (You can, of course, ladle on the chimichurri to add more zing.)
Langostinos Santa María make a lighter opening (if you ignore the zillion fat calories), with four gently boiled, sweet-tasting tiger prawns set atop a parfait of layered dips. Hearts of palm rounds and skinny celery stalks rest atop an inch-deep pond of South America's favorite dressing, salsa Americana -- mayo with a hint of tomato, a.k.a. Russian dressing. Under that is a smooth mousse of puréed avocado, covering more hearts of palm. "I'd rather have cocktail sauce," said my partner after a few dips of a shrimp. "This strikes me as tourist food for gringos." Although the dish has way too much mayo for my taste, his comment made me smile nostalgically. I was remembering similar shellfish treatments at hotel restaurants in remote South American towns, where the travelers aren't tourists, and are very rarely gringos.
The soup changes nightly. One evening, a pumpkin soup was sweet and deep-flavored, if a trifle autumnal for August. To balance their meaty meals, every Argentine restaurant I've visited in the U.S. serves a showpiece salad. La Boca's "Quinquela" (for two), named after a famous hometown artist, features lettuce, hearts of palm, avocado, beets, carrots, hard-cooked egg, red onion, and potatoes in a balsamic vinaigrette. Alas, the tomato slices were pale-orange cotton, as though imported from wintry Patagonia.
The national dish is the parillada, a gaucho take on England's "mixed grill." I first tasted one in Comodoro Rivadávia, a Patagonian oil port where, says Thomas Pynchon, "the real south begins." There, on a sizzling tabletop hibachi, a restaurant served an array that included steak, lamb chops, chicken, sausages, and a number of those interesting comestibles that American cookbooks demurely call "variety meats." Puerto La Boca doesn't provide a hibachi -- they serve (equally authentically) on a footed speckled-enamel iron tray set over canned heat. To my delight, their rendition was remarkably close to the one at "The Commodore."
The dish is officially sized for two -- meaning, four. If you're an adventurous carnivore, a full parillada is a grand treat. In Argentina, the array includes every part of the cow but the moo. Although you won't run into any really weird organs at Puerto La Boca, this version is as authentic as you're likely to find hereabouts. Argentineans cook their meats well done, but the servers here ask your preference. If you specify "very rare" you may get a rosy piece or two. The meats are seasoned with a lively marinade and include a skirt steak (fairly tough, as is its wont), flavorful chicken breast, and short ribs sliced perpendicular (rather than parallel) to the bone, so the bones form a small rack along one edge. (This clever butchery turns a "stewing cut" into meat suitable for a spin on the grill.) There are two types of sausage: Argentine-style beef chorizo (sweet and firm, with no resemblance to the fatty Mexican pork links of that name) and morcilla, a chubby blood sausage. (If you've ever eaten "Irish breakfast," you may have met its Gaelic cousin, discreetly named "black pudding." The lusher South American version has more varied textures and complex spicing.) Then there are those "variety meats," including sweetbreads and liver. My partner loved the liver. Normally I don't care for it -- except in a parillada, where every item offers a change of flavor and texture.