A milanesa with french fries isn’t what immediately comes to mind when I think of dining out in the neighborhood of Once, easily one of the city’s most multi-cultural barrios. A mountain of ceviche, warm tamales, sweet tropical juices and braised meat over buttery white beans, sure. The banality of a milanga con fritas, a dish that may as well have its own section on the local food pyramid, not so much. The take home here? Not all milanesas are created equally and the mysterious wholesale district has more to discover than pollo a la brasa.

Don Ignacio | Avenida Rivadavia 3439

Percy Sledge dances across the stage on a flat screen tucked away in the corner of the room. This is a great one, a pony-tailed customer exclaims between handfuls of bread rolls. Clearly this is not the first time seeing the retro concert video. Photos of rock stars and faded album covers have long since taken over every last inch of wall space. A small shrine to Elvis Presley anchors the theme of Don Ignacio, a small dive on the edge of the unofficial Once neighborhood with a rock show attitude. The pubescent waiter has a long pony-tail; the cook in the back does, too. They both look perpetually ready to jump into a mosh pit.

I often find it difficult to see the value of ordering a milanesa in a restaurant—why shell out cash for a thin slice of breaded beef that can be bought at the butcher shop and tossed in the oven for a fraction of the price? At Don Ignacio, it is the only thing you can order. Although the sign over the door reads parrilla al carbon and offers up pastas and asado dishes, thirty varieties of milanesa with toppings like pancetta and roasted plums makes it impossible to settle for a steak.

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If any dish is worth straying for, it is the beef empanada. It’s deep fried upon order and although our waiter claimed to use vegetable oil, the salacious smell of pork fat arrived like a strong gust of wind before they even came into view. Served piping hot, bright orange juices pop from the seams with the first bite. Drab ground beef is turned into an explosion of flavor and tender textures when cook Norberto makes it, with a fatty beef broth complimented with notes of savory spices and a slightly sour green olive.

His skill to turn the everyday into something special is visible in the french fries as well. They arrive with a deep yellow hue that tells you they are crunchy and fresh before even biting into them. They have an audible cracking sound that gives way to a fluffy cloud of potato. When I asked the trick, host Walter just shrugged his shoulders. When I insisted, he humbly pushed the accolades elsewhere, “Right now is the best time of the year for great potatoes.” Be sure to swish the fries around in the dribbles of egg yolk for a buttery duet. Although the americana topped with cheddar cheese and thin slices of pancetta is the most popular, the eponymously named house special is where it’s at. Oozing over with cheese, translucent slices of onion, sprinkles of oregano and two eggs sunny side up, the fugazzeta-style mess atop a tender slice of beef illustrates the restaurant’s style—skillfully chosen ingredients cooked with great care that elevates otherwise pedestrian dishes.

Olam Rotisseria | Junin 384

Before pastrami became on trend, Olam Rotisseria was feeding the neighborhood’s Jewish community the slow-cooked cold cut for four decades. But despite it’s infamy, you’d pass right by if you weren’t looking hard enough. The paint has long since faded on the sign at the door that proclaims comidas judias in block letters and a scarce selection of empanadas in the window don’t tell us much. Inside a fridge reveals a larger selection of Argentine style empanadas and tartas alongside a variety of knishes, stuffed with either ricotta or potato. Hidden in the back are harder to find dishes like verenikes, kreplaj and pickled herring. Three metal stools are inviting enough for those who wish to sit and eat.

From the front of the house you can smell the pastrami and fresh plétzalej. The variety of Jewish style dumplings are hit and miss — they are best when fresh from the oven, not as much re-heated from the fridge — but at AR $75 a pop the pastrami sandwich is worth ordering twice. The bread comes slightly warmed with a nice crust that circles along the edge of the roll. In the middle a softer dough seasoned with onion and poppy seeds adds a nice contrast. Pickled gherkins are sliced thin as orders come in and add a slight vinegar flavor that heightens the heartily salty cuts of pastrami. It’s a simple sandwich — mostly unadorned but confidently served from nearly half a century as one of the neighborhood’s best kept secrets.

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El Sabor Norteño | La Rioja 186

Although not as seasoned, El Sabor Norteño may be the best kept secret in the hood. Forever living in the shadow of La Conga, that palace of Peruvian soul food with a permanent line out the door, at Sabor dishes fly out of the kitchen at rapid speed and touts a similarly encyclopedic menu of criolla-style Peruvian food. And, the ceviche is better.

When you order a ceviche norteño, the waiter warns of the spice level. He isn’t joking. Cubes of sole fish are mixed together with thin slabs of octopus, kanikama and shrimp stacked high like an ant hill. Tender slithers of octopus contrast with the juicy pieces of sole and shrimp and crunchy toasted corn and acidic red onion adds a welcome crunch. The faux-crab isn’t necessary but doesn’t distract either. Fish is noticeably chosen for its freshness and skillfully cut and marinated so that every bite is soft and buttery — none of those stray bits of bone or rubbery chews from lazy chopping. A thick orange salsa hits peaks and valleys against the backdrop of bold citrus flavors — the density of the salsa gives it a distinctive kick and a purer chile flavor that is packed with spice but not too overwhelming.

sabor

The rest of menu focuses on criolla recipes — a mix of Spanish, Chinese and indigenous cooking styles. Chaufa aeropuerto is markedly Chinese — fried noodles and rice with sautéed chicken. Celery, onion and bell pepper are tossed in for just long enough to warm up without loosing their crunch. Both dishes are rich indulgences that require a prompt nap.

I really like the Tacu-tacu, a dish I have ordered frequently in other Peruvian cantinas with mostly unenthusiastic results. It is a dish traditionally made from the leftover’s of the night before and whatever is laying around in the fridge. A dough is made from rice and beans and fried, often in the shape of a pancake. Here they shape them into fat zeppelins and fry them until they have a crunchy brown exterior that hides a rich creamy interior. It comes served with stewed lamb, hearty and tasting of a deep cumin broth, and is accompanied by sliced onion dressed in a generous squeeze of lemon juice.

Although seemingly simple, the flavors at all three linger in my mouth and stay fresh in my head long after I’ve paid the check. It takes a certain courage to have real skill in the kitchen and still allow the traditions of time-tested recipes speak for themselves.