Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Quality Cuisine and Cultural Reminiscence By: Colton Gigot

Colton is a free lance writer and a spice merchant. You can bet that when he's not writing he's checking out Chicago's restaurant scene. Colton says his favorite restaurants are the ones that can cook up a unique and meatier dish in a fun and interesting setting.

Anybody who has had the opportunity to spend time in Argentina would likely agree that it would take an exceptionally unobservant individual to pass through the colorful Boca district of Buenos Aires without taking away a lasting impression of its unique food, drink, and dance. Argentina boasts one of the world’s most perfect marriages of culture and cuisine, and there is perhaps no place in the country where that marriage is more wholly and elegantly manifest than La Boca.  A meal here – be it as modest as a helping of empanadas or as involved as a full-on asado – is a rare and privileging experience for any traveler, but those with a strong appetite for fine art and displays of culture will find a trip to this sector of the Argentine capital particularly rewarding. Meandering stone walks, a peppering of tango dancers and street musicians, and the brilliant pastel facades of old-world tanguerías await those who can muster the means to explore La Boca for themselves.

Of course, for those who haven’t the time or budget for an escape to Argentina, a local alternative exists in Lincoln Park’s Caminito Argentinian Grill, which offers authentic and, by-and-large, reasonably priced Argentine cuisine without sacrificing the culinary and cultural flare that makes La Boca a premier destination for travelers and foodies alike.

Situated in a cozy, sub-street level nook on Halsted, Caminito offers little in the way of conspicuousness, so first-time patrons should keep an eye out for the logoed awning, as the basement entrance can be easily overlooked. Those who find their way inside will be met with an environment that is soft and unassuming, intimate but not overbearing. Scattered about the restaurant are various candle-lit wall-hangings and pastel-infused murals alluding to the landmarks and culture of Buenos Aires – most notably, La Boca. We were seated in the relatively close-quartered front end of the restaurant, but a delicate lighting scheme and the accompaniment of various Argentine tangos afforded a comfortable sense of privacy and a hospitable touch that was only compounded by Caminito’s professional wait staff.

Within moments of arriving we were seated and met by our waiter, who emerged with menus in hand and armed with a corkscrew to tap our wine. Caminito, it should be noted, is a BYOB establishment, so diners who expect to supplement their meal with a drink will want to avoid arriving empty-handed. We had on-hand an Argentinian Malbec, a hearty red widely known as a compliment to beef steaks and other red meats. With our bottle uncorked, we were provided a plate of complimentary fresh bread and chimichurri sauce to snack on as we reviewed the menu, although our decision had been pretty well made in advance. With two years having passed since my last wine-and-dine in Argentina, I had come to Caminito in search of something closely resembling an authentic Argentine asado, and the parillada para dos personas ($48) was just that.

Similar in many respects to an American barbecue, an asado consists of various cuts of meat, cooked on a grilling-rack over an open flame, although a notable difference is the use of wood chips as a heating element rather than charcoal. Often considered the quintessential Argentinian dish (if, in fact, Argentina’s diverse cuisine can be so far reduced), there are few methods of preparing a beef steak that will yield as potent a flavor as the asado. Of course, vegetarians and those who aren’t in the mood for, or especially fond of, meat needn’t worry. Argentina’s heavy Italian influence means that many of Caminito’s menu options, from pizzas to pastas, should be satisfying and safe, even for the non-meat eater. That said, we had come craving a full-blown asado, and our expectations were wholly fulfilled when, on the heels of a beef empanada appetizer ($6), our entrée finally arrived.

Caminito’s parillada para dos personas (or, grill for two persons) includes a pair of short ribs and chorizo sausages, sweet breads, a large flank steak, and a sampling of traditional blood sausage, all served, still sizzling, on a portable, heated griddle. While the quality of each of these cuts can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked, those with finickier palates may want to sample a smaller portion of the blood sausage before diving in, as most Americans will find that, despite its familiar appearance, this is an acquired taste. On the other hand, whereas many may be turned off by the sweet breads, or molleja, upon learning of their glandular origins, this Argentinian delicacy both looks inviting on the plate – more so, in fact, than the heavy and dark blood sausage – and boasts a surprisingly agreeable texture and flavor, even for the untrained palate. The remaining samples – the chorizo, short ribs, and flank steak – should be significantly less testing for the newcomer to Argentinian cuisine, as these cuts are commonplace here in the United States, and most will be familiar with them.  My dining-partner took to the chorizo, a simple, yet pleasantly spicy sausage, and I was particularly beguiled by the thick-cut flank steak and short ribs, which retained the wholesome, wood-smoked flavor that characterizes a well-executed asado.

After devouring as much of our plates-full of meat as we felt possible and, in turn, being devoured by Caminito’s generous portion-sizes, we asked for our check and, of course, a box (we weren’t going to let a bite go to waste), paid our dues, and headed home, knowing that this wouldn’t be the last we saw of Caminito. Indeed, with such a diverse menu, a dining room rife with cultural allusions, and a staff that exudes a sense of hospitality, a return trip to Caminito is all but inevitable.  I left feeling satisfied and fulfilled, reminded of what makes Argentina’s culture and cuisine some of the world’s best. 

So, for those who have been to Argentina and experienced La Boca for themselves, or for those who haven’t but are interested in romantic and culturally informative dining experience, you owe it to yourselves – and your significant other – to reserve a table at Caminito Argentinian Grill. 

Caminito Argentinian Grill 
1629 North Halsted
Chicago, IL 60614

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