Speaking with Argentine ambassador Diego Ramiro Guelar, I get the idea he represents his country’s cows as much as he does its people. Guelar’s appearance is classic—fabulous suit, slicked-back hair, a cane dangling from his arm like a bracelet—and he speaks of dining on his country’s beef as though recounting an erotic fairy tale. Just listen to him tell it:
“The story of Argentine beef is about sensuality and how it relates to the ceremony of the barbecue. It’s a warm ceremony around the grill and fire. It’s about the sensuality of friendship and family and, of course, love. It brings a mixture to the senses, of meat with fire and meat with spices and, of course, meat with wine. It’s an aphrodisiac.”
It’s also a story of one of Argentina’s most important exports, one that’s inextricably bound with the country’s romantic history. Ever since the 1500s, when the Spaniards came to Argentina looking for gold they didn’t find, the gauchos—a kind of Spanish-Indian convergence of a shepherd and a cowboy—have been roaming the vast plains of the South American country with the cattle that the explorers brought with them. The gauchos ate beef and little else, always preparing it the same way: rubbed with salt and cooked over a wood fire until the edges of the meat grew crisp and smoky, the inside soft and just a shade lighter than blood-red.
Miguel Rodriguez prepares beef pretty much the same way, albeit with better equipment. He’s the head chef at the Argentine embassy and presides over the parrilla whenever the Smiling Beef Club convenes behind the ambassador’s living quarters. Parrilla is the Argentine word for grill, although the contraption over which Rodriguez labors has little in common with the Weber. The cooking surface, which is attached to a pulley system so that it can easily be moved closer to or farther from the heat, is large enough to accommodate scores of tenderloins and dozens of sausages at once. Instead of long, cylindrical rods, the grill is made up of narrow gutters that carry away the fat runoff, allowing the wood fire to remain hot without erupting into fits of grease-induced flame. “We don’t want flame to touch this beef,” Rodriguez explains. “It needs to be perfect.”
The beef in question comes from free-range cows raised in the fertile Argentine flat lands known as the pampas. Since the United States lifted its ban on the Argentine beef in ’97, making it available in this country for the first time in over 60 years, the Smiling Beef Club has been meeting around the parrilla on nearly every warm Tuesday when the ambassador’s schedule permits. The gatherings are casual as far as embassy events go. As Guelar explains it, the guest list, which changes from week to week, comprises expat Argentines, local government types, journalists, and “beautiful women,” all of whom accept filet mignon and sausage from Rodriguez before moving onto a buffet brimming with marinated mushrooms, sliced hearts of palm, and an assortment of simple salads. Argentine wine flows liberally.
Luis Bertorelli is one of the few regulars at the club. Every 10 days, Bertorelli’s Argentine Beef Co. flies in shipments of fresh, chilled but not frozen beef from Argentina and distributes it to American restaurants and high-end grocery chains like Dean & DeLuca and Fresh Fields. The Beef Club was contrived, in part, as a forum for celebrating Bertorelli’s product, and a collective enthusiasm for beef unites the disparate attendees. Throughout the evening, several guests urge the ambassador to open a restaurant in the District. “If you could just translate this to Connecticut Avenue,” gushes one clubgoer, “you’d make a mint.”
It may not be quite that easy. There is a noticeable lack of authentic Argentine restaurants in the District (the beef is available at several non-Argentine restaurants, Sushi-Ko and BeDuCi among them), and there are still just a handful in New York. Part of the problem is that the traditional Argentine diet consists almost entirely of beef, and the beef itself is markedly different from the American variety. Because Argentine cows are grass- as opposed to grain-fed, they are much leaner, and Bertorelli says that his meat, like most that comes from Argentina, is free of artificial hormones. The end result is a steak that’s less robust but more nuanced than what you get at Morton’s; without the tenderizing benefits of heavy marbling, it’s also a touch more chewy.
Mindful of many Americans’ staunch loyalty to their home-grown steaks, Bertorelli is careful not to come off as disrespectful when he pitches his own. “The Argentine beef is not better than the American beef,” he says. “It offers you a different flavor.” The approach proved successful when he recently attended a restaurant trade show in Chicago. He found the Texans whom he met there particularly receptive. “You know why?” he asks. “Because they understand steaks.” He says one Lone Star restaurateur sampled his beef raw and promptly made himself a customer.
Although Bertorelli doesn’t speak of his beloved meat in the same amorous terms as Guelar, the two men do share a belief in the distinction of its flavors. The beef tastes the way it does—clean but cut with a striking, natural-tasting mineral sourness—because of where and how it’s raised. He mentions that foreign interlopers have begun buying Argentine farms, and one in particular is tampering with Argentine tradition by feeding his cattle grain and not allowing them to roam freely. “That tells you a lot about the man,” Bertorelli says dismissively. “He has no idea what he’s doing. He can raise beef like that in China. Why in Argentina?”
Goldoni is one local restaurant that serves Argentine tenderloin, and its spare preparation, grilled rare and adorned with sun-dried tomatoes and baby onions, becomes the meat’s subtle character. If you’re not dining on an expense account, consider bellying up to the bar next to a bowl of gigantic Sicilian olives. By the time you’re halfway through your glass of dry white wine from Soave, the bartender will likely have brought out of plate of calamari, delicately battered, fried tempura-light, and served alongside a pool of tangy marinara. Note that when you get your tab, you’ve been charged only for the wine.
Goldoni, 1120 20th St. NW, (202) 293-1511. —Brett Anderson
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