The waitresses face changes from kindness to confusion when I ask where the Guarani food is on the menu. I wondered if I was in the right place. I’d struggled to find El Cortijo despite its conspicuous location on a hectic corner of Avenida de Mayo. Rumors of chipa, sopa paraguaya and borí borí had brought me here, although the white table cloths, manicured staff and a menu camouflaged by dishes like pulpo a la gallega, milanesa and ravioles painted a picture of a stale bodegón.
“We are Paraguayan,” she corrects me, “We have a few typical dishes but they are off menu.” They didn’t have borí borí that afternoon, “but the locro is very good. Nice for a cold day.” She points behind me to a businessman nursing a liter of Quilmes and locro, and despite arguing on the phone with the bank he seemed happy enough with his meal.
El Cortijo is hidden in plain sight on a loud intersection of Av. de Mayo. Buses whistle up Santiago de Estero, the narrow street that flanks this corner restaurant. Flocks of people negotiate their spots on the thin sidewalk. They are so close to the window beside my table that they feel like lunch companions.
The restaurant doesn’t wear the evidence of a standout restaurant on its sleeve. The soft whisper of a football crowd on one of the many televisions serves as a sort of white noise that customers stare dumbly up at. Cured ham hangs from the ceiling and the bright green leaves of devil’s ivy cascades down from various ledges. White table cloths and fluorescent lighting make the space a bit too bright. If it weren’t for an oversized print out of a review by Pietro Sorba hung prominently on the wall, it would look like any other downtown bodegón.
A pot of locro slides on to the table. Grey waves of steam pour upwards bringing the smell of a deep beef broth with it. A big plate for a small chipa quickly follows. Chipa is a dish popular in Northeast Argentina and Paraguay. During a recent trip to Misiones, chipa was so commonplace that it was sold fresh everywhere with the best being made, oddly enough, at roadside gas stations. The bread was initially prepared by the indigenous Guarani with a simple mix of cassava starch and water, but with the introduction of new staples by the Spanish colonizers has slowly evolved to its present day incarnation of mandioca starch and cheese.
The chipa is served slightly warmed and although the chew is denser than what I would prefer ,the inside has a steamy pillow center and has a slight sweetness from a handful of anis seeds that plays nicely with the gooey bits of cheese. The locro, another typical dish of the North, has a deep brown broth filled with pumpkin cubes, white beans, green onion, bell peppers and slow-roasted tenderloin beef. It comes served in the shallow pot that comes straight off the stove; it’s a bit banged up and adds a more comfortable familial feel to the polished white table cloths. The meat tears apart with the ease of a spoon and the broth is the kind of rich and fatty that the body craves on an unexpectedly crisp afternoon.
But a good locro isn’t what I came for and the waitress could sense it. She sneaks into the kitchen and comes back to relay the message, “The cook said he will probably make the soup tomorrow for the daily special, and if not, definitely on Sunday.”
The following day they did have borí borí—sopa paraguaya and humita empanadas, too. Despite the name, sopa paraguaya is a savory corn bread. It arrived burnt around the edges—clearly it sat reheating in the oven for too long rather than having a ready made batter to bake small loaves fresh. Despite the overzealous hand, my disappointment quickly dissipated when I bit into a soft buttery center with warm streaks of cheese and a pleasant savory corn flavor. The same fate was delivered to the humita, a tired looking corn empanada. I expected a norteño-style pureed corn and squash rather that what arrived, a basic porteño version with whole corn kernels and cream sauce. The dough was soft and flakey and although the filling was typical, the sweet corn and creamy white sauce had a surprising balance of sweet and savory flavor.
Borí borí is a typical paraguayan soup very similar to the chicken and dumplings found in the southern United States. Chicken is braised and cooked slowly to make an intensely layered broth. The smell of a buttery roux waifed over to the table before I laid eyes on it. Lucid pools of chicken fat floated along the surface of the golden brown broth which is covered with a generous helping of bone-in chicken and plump globes of a corn meal dough cooked in the soup itself. The chicken slides right off the bone and is juicy and tender. The pillowy dough balls absorb all the flavor of the soup with minuscule grains of corn that add a bit of intensity to the soft butteriness. Bits of carrot, red pepper, green onion and finely chopped herbs create a collage of color and flavors, which glides from a salty savory to a velvety creaminess and back again.
It was worth the repeat visits. And it’s really worth a regular spot on the menu rather than being left a happy gamble. The guys at the curiously side-eyeing everything at my table seemed to agree while they bit into their gargantuan milanesas and mashed potatoes.
Av. de Mayo and Santiago de Estero, Congreso
Open 24 hours