Chacarita is not the neighborhood it used to be. Not too long ago, getting out at the Federico Lacroze subway station meant coming into contact with a slightly less frantic version of Plaza Once or Constitución. From the central escalator you were immediately confronted by the sounds and smells of a large covered parrilla. Parque Los Andes was unkempt and occupied mostly by dead grass. The old facades of cheap hotels and pizzerías filled that section of Avenida Corrientes with a mix of red brick and bright neon signs. It was the site of clandestine parties, like the kiosco that hid an empty warehouse where WKD Mag’s held their secret ‘trash’ parties.
The parrilla has since been demolished and turned into a parking lot. The one across the street, the source of bittersweet late night choripan consumption when El Imperio was closed, has disappeared too. Parque Los Andes is leafy and green and welcomes teams of joggers and parents with children wrestling around on the new playground equipment. Old buildings sit alongside shiny glass structures and concrete fortresses still under construction. The after hours bars have since been shut down and renovated into new spaces — you’d never know the sleek interior of Basque bodegón Lekietio was once a cumbia after.
If you need any further evidence that Chacarita is the latest refuge of the displaced Palermitano, look no further than the sight of young men with handlebar mustaches in jeggings tucked into combat boots puffing on tobacco pipes while they stand outside an art exhibit called “Piss in the Form of a Foamy Heart”. I’d like to note that the previous sentence required zero creative license. But gentrification doesn’t always rear its ugly hipster head, it also comes in the form of exciting new restaurants that sit comfortably next to neighborhood classics.
Like RITA, an unassuming looking lunch destination that doesn’t seem out of place from the Fábrica de Churros just a half block away.
I arrived to RITA on a cold Tuesday afternoon. A strong wind threw raindrops into my face like little wet daggers and a loose sidewalk tile left my feet sopping wet and me questioning the meaning of life. At RITA, I was greeted with much need warmth and the sight of the chef carving meat off of a long line of ribs for the day’s meal. It is the sort of place every neighborhood should have: bathed in fresh light, smelling of warm bread and coffee and a daily menu that changes each day depending on the freshest market finds.
“The idea was simple. I wanted a restaurant that was open in the afternoon. Simple breakfast, a lunch focused menu and tea,” begins Silvina Troulih, owner of RITA Restaurante, “I wasn’t actively searching. But when we saw the space, there was no way we could say no.”
Prior to venturing into Chacarita, Trouilh was one of the co-owners of Caseros, a pioneering group of chefs and restaurateurs that are partly responsible for the slow growth of modern eateries that now populate the edges of Parque Lezama. When they opened the restaurant back in 2008, it was one of the only modern restaurants on the block. Today it is wedged between Hierbabuena and Bacán and the recent opening of the craft beer powerhouse On Tap shows that the evolution is nowhere near finished. The search for a place in Chacarita wasn’t purposeful although she knew she wasn’t interested in opening up in Palermo, “I was never particularly attracted to that area of the city,” she says.
The restaurant feels like an extension of the old antique furniture shops that dot the neighborhood. Desserts are served on antique plates painted with flowers and ribbons, delicate white table runners adorn different tables and a mish mash of stylish old tables and chairs decorate the room. Music switches between your parent’s R&B to your grandparent’s jazz with nostalgic soundtracks from the likes of Dionne Warwick and Artie Shaw. All the elements work together to create a space that’s palpably warm and homey.
By lunch time diners pack in with a mixture of people that makes defining their clientele nearly impossible. “Using fresh seasonal ingredients is an economic necessity. The prices of food fluctuate constantly and unless the menu is constantly changing to reflect that it is impossible to maintain prices that welcome everyone. We want as many people as possible to be able to eat here.” It’s working. There is a young mother with her newborn, a trio of twenty-something girls, old men meeting up for lunch, a group of coworkers on a lunch break and freelancers with coffees next to their laptops.
Although you can order off of the main menu, every day the restaurant has a three course menu ejecutivo which includes a set appetizer, a choice of three main dishes and either a coffee or dessert. On the two occasions that I visited for lunch, I tried huevos gramajo, the Buenos Aires twist on scrambled eggs that adds thinly sliced bits of fried potato. These were cooked to just the right level of fluff with a slight runny egg texture. Bread is often served warm with the lovely crunchy exterior and soft chew characteristic of a freshly baked loaf.
For the mains, a fresh merluza wrapped in a thick dough was the oversized empanada I’d always been waiting for. The steam that cooked the fish inside the dough left it flakey and juicy and was accompanied by roasted eggplant, tomato and onion. The highlights were a beef ragout that tore apart with the prick of a fork. Its juices mixed wonderfully with the dense polenta that with just a touch of salt had a lovely buttery flavor. My favorite was a simple grilled bondiola which was cooked to a tender medium and served alongside a simple salad and crispy roasted sweet potatoes.
The dishes were all unified by a simplicity of flavors. Only the slightest touches of salt or a vinaigrette distracted from the purity of a scrambled egg or vegetables served fresh as is. This approach to cooking runs throughout the entire restaurant, down to the simplicity of the light colored wood table to the grandma-style dishware. And although Trouilh didn’t set out on a mission to be a part of the changing landscape of Chacarita, hopefully projects like hers, with a fresh perspective and simple atmosphere, inspire like minded spaces across the barrio.
Olleros y Fraga, Chacarita
Monday through Friday from 9:00am to 7:00pm
Price: $$ (ARS 150-250)