In Latin America, the local accent alters every hundred miles or so, sometimes drastically. At our first meal, I asked about the contents of the house parillada -- pronouncing it "pah-ree-YAH-tha" in standard American Spanish. "Pari-JAH-da," the waiter corrected me. Recognizing the hard consonants from my travels, I said, "You must be from western Argentina or..." "Uruguay," he answered. My partner and I returned on another night, girding ourselves to face the meatorama. "Una pari-JAH-da," I told the waitress. She looked bewildered for a moment. "Oh, of course -- parillada," she answered in standard Spanish. She was Argentinean -- but not from the west. Our third visit, a couple at the next table were eating the dish and discussing the cuisines of South America. The woman (who was refusing to taste the morcilla) looked and sounded Mexican, but I couldn't pin down the accent of her handsome companion. "Pardon me, but what's the name of that dish?" I asked, just to hear his pronunciation. "It's the pari-ZHA-tha." He was, I discovered, Bolivian.
Grilled steaks -- in numerous cuts -- are another Argentine passion. In Argentina, the beef comes from grass-fed free-range cattle. Lean and hormone-free, it's healthier than our feed-lot beef and has a more mineral flavor. Knowing that their South American clientele wouldn't settle for blander corn-fed American beef, the owners buy grass-fed Prime-grade beef from a small ranch in Texas, and have it cut along Argentinean lines (such as the short ribs described above). The restaurant offers steak as a New York cut, sirloin, skirt steak, rib-eye, or filet mignon (which comes with a choice of several different garnishes). I chose an unfamiliar cut called picana, a coulotte steak that's a favorite in northern Argentina (the menu says). It turned out to be the center cut of the tri-tip -- "bottom sirloin" or "sirloin tip." By any name, it's not the tenderest piece on the steer. (Next time, I'll go for the rib-eye.) It did have a delicious grill flavor, and came with a heap of greaseless French fries. I ordered it rare; it arrived medium-rare.
The secret may be to ask for your steak a step or two rarer than you actually want it. (Like it red? Try asking for azul, meaning "blue.")
But Argentina's cuisine isn't all meat. The South Atlantic runs alongside the coast until it merges with the Antarctic seas south of Tierra del Fuego -- so the menu includes a number of seafood dishes. We especially liked camarones La Boca, a typically Argentinean blend of sophistication and heartiness: Tiger prawns are stuffed with Manchego cheese and red pepper, then wrapped with lean bacon and perfectly grilled, so the bacon's cooked to medium but the shrimp are still tender. Then, too, it's said that there are more Italians in Argentina than in Italy, so the menu includes numerous pastas, pizzas, and variations on "milanese," the beef or chicken patties that are absolutely inescapable when you drive across Patagonia. (It's that or tagliarini noodles for dinner until you reach the coast.) We tried the ravioles "Mabel" (pronounce that "ma belle," like the Beatles' Michelle or the former telephone company.) The raviolis were large and thin-skinned, stuffed with a pleasing beef-and-spinach mixture. The tomato sauce was so thoroughly normal that, if you closed your eyes, you'd think you were eating in Little Italy.
Much of the wine list is from Argentina, with the rest being primarily Chilean. Argentine wines tend to be big, muscular, high-alcohol mouthfuls (even the whites, which resemble Australian Chardonnays). If you like Zinfandel, you'd do well to try a Malbec, the country's native red. The Chilean bottlings are more delicate, and tucked into the list of whites is a Brancott Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, a great choice with seafood (and a good buy at $24). The servers are well briefed to help you pick out a bottle you'll like. My partner, who prefers beer, was quite taken with Argentine-brewed Quilmes.
The classic Argentine dessert is panqueques, crêpes filled with dulce de leche. The crêpes are properly thin. The filling is a canned product from the homeland, fluffy, and not too different from Smucker's bottled caramel topping.
Tourism in San Diego is no great boon to ethnic restaurants: In heavily touristed areas, visitors wage a war of attrition against authenticity. In Old Town, for instance, a formerly promising Argentinean restaurant has largely succumbed to customer pressure for standard border-Mex food. (Isn't that what Old Town eateries are supposed to serve?) Only a few South American specialties remain on that menu, and most of those (including the parillada) have devolved into dismal Argie-Baja hybrids.
The owners and staff of Puerto La Boca are resolved to stand firm. As food and beverage manager (and bartender) Gustavo Guerrero declares: "Our idea in opening Puerto La Boca here was to show the world -- starting with Americans -- how Argentine cooking tastes. We didn't want to do another Argentinean restaurant that Americanizes its food so they can sell more. This is how we Argentines eat, because of the customs of our immigrants, our flavors, our traditions. If you like it -- good! If you don't like it -- we're not going to change it." Me? I love it.
ABOUT PUERTO LA BOCA
Many of Puerto La Boca's regular patrons come from the large but scattered Argentinean community in Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla. Reef, a giant surf-apparel corporation headquartered in Kearny Mesa, was owned by Argentineans for 20 years until it was sold two months ago. "Those guys brought a lot of people [Argentineans] up there to work for them," says Gustavo. "The Argentineans who come to America have a little cultural background, college and so on, so we try to do something better than washing dishes.
"The chef here is Argentinean, the owners are Argentinean, 80 percent of the staff is Argentinean. Like the owner said, 'We want to have a little piece of Buenos Aires in San Diego.' There are two owners, Frank Sanchez [who put up most of the money] and Jose Alfred Ciccone, who has 42 years' experience in the restaurant business. This is his 14th restaurant. [He's sold the other 13.] The last one was in Tijuana. He owned that restaurant for five years and sold it two months ago because he was moving to the United States.