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.
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.
"This restaurant was under construction for a long time because of the codes. We wanted to do it the Argentinean way, but the building codes are different here. We did everything from scratch. It cost half a million dollars.
"We have the best line of Argentinean wines in the area. They cost from $20 to $125 -- we have nice prices. The way we work is Argentinean style. We want people to come back often. Instead of once a month and spend $200, we'd like them to come four times a month and spend $150. We like regulars, we like friends, we don't want people coming in once and you never see them again." (Note: Our meals for this review averaged less than $50 per person, including beverage, tip, and tax.)
"We get all our vegetables fresh almost every day. We have a tiny freezer, no walk-in. We get our beef from a meat processor who is used to working with Argentineans. It comes from a nice ranch in Texas. It is grass-fed like Argentinean beef, of course. We want that flavor, and it is healthier for people, too. We do our parillada with a lot of respect. We Argentineans look on the cow as our best friend, who feeds us all. So to go out to eat a parillada is something special for us."