“I don’t really know what I can tell you,” Aldo Marconi repeats to himself for the fifth time, shaking his head timidly. I had caught him by surprise in the midst of set-up and stopped in for an interview that had been scheduled unbeknownst to him. He makes a point to talk about Jose Luis, his butcher at the Mercado de San Telmo, and introduce me to the David and Ian in the kitchen to debate the proper way to make a barbecue to deflect any chatter about himself.
“The story is very simple. I was tired of this idea that you can only eat well if you pay a lot. That’s kind of as far as it goes.” He is referring to Chin Chin, a laid-back enclave to ‘good beer and good food’ on a busy corner of San Telmo.
The sun is just beginning to set and washes the small bar painted in turquoise blue with a bright orange hue that make the chips of white on the wall especially picturesque. And if the large stencils of Die Antwoord’s Ninja doesn’t spell out the punk attitude, the soundtrack does. Ska-reggae switches to old school punk by The Specials and relaxed Velvet Underground and back again. The music is loud and the walls vibrate, a character trait they warn patrons about on the menu in capital letters underneath the mains.
Lone regulars start to filter in, shaking hands with whoever happens to be behind the bar. They order a steady stream of fizzy pints as they wait patiently for the kitchen to open. “The menu says food is served at 7:30 but tonight it might be closer to 8. The beginning of the week is always complicated.” None of the patrons seem to notice. It’s all a part of the relaxed emblem that Chin Chin wears proudly and unapologetically.
Alongside Palermo, the neighborhood of San Telmo seems to boast a handful of cervecerías artesanales on every block. Most offer the same thing: a small selection of craft beer of questionable quality and well-done hamburgers doused with neon orange dambo and saccharine ketchup. Last year when I spoke to Andres Plotno, owner of El Zanjón del Gato, he told us that the catalyst behind his little cantina was ‘a brewery that serves good food’. A place that served curated craft beer with something besides papas bravas seemed near revolutionary at the time, but Chin Chin was quietly doing the same thing, in its own way, just a few blocks down the road.
I had passed it dozens of times mistaking it for the former: just another brewery. They don’t go out of their way to tell you otherwise. “We don’t do any marketing. We hardly ever check our Facebook. We prefer word-of-mouth,” chimes in David Avendaño, “We set up the bar with the simple idea of putting emphasis on strong flavors served in large portions and cheaply, and let the place define itself on its own terms.”
The menu is made up of just a dozen items with no alliances to any particular set of flavors, “The important part is that there is a lot of flavor.” For starters, fried potatoes are served in bite-sized quarters. They don’t come with a brava option, but do include generous sauces. I enjoyed the garlic mayo which had been beaten to the consistency of a thick cream and the thin barbecue, slightly sweet but leaning towards the vinegar persuasion. Flattened plantains are served with spicy pineapple.
Sandwiches are enormous and served on over-sized crusty baguettes. The vacio, flank steak, is the tamest option. A costanera-style sandwich made with pride, it comes topped with tomato confit and chimichurri mayonesa. My favorite is the fish sandwich. Fat slices of angel shark are battered and deep fried to a solid tempura crunch; the fish itself is juicy and dense. Thrown on top is a mix of spicy criolla sauce, a black bean spread, caramelized ginger and a generous hand of onion rings. Sandwiches are served with vegetable tempura rather than fries, my sole objection.
For mains, rectangular blocks of polenta flavored with curry that sticks on the tongue is served with a mountain of leafy greens, grilled vegetables and crumbled ricotta and dill. Curries are a house favorite and can be ordered with beef, fish or veggies. Beef is fork tender but the fish, also angel shark, adds a welcome light texture to the homemade green sauce packed with jalapeños, coconut milk and spices and topped with oregano leaves and peppers. I particularly liked the pork ribs, two large pieces of meat cut long and cooked slow in the oven. Rather than smothering them in barbecue sauce they are flavored simply with citrus and the fatty juices of the meat itself. Show up earlier in the dinner service, and you may be lucky enough to get ribs pulled fresh out of the oven. All the mains are served with vegetables, which vary based on whatever is available in the Mercado Central.
Aldo moves between plating in the kitchen and joining me at the table, pulling out his phone to show off a rolodex of photos of plates in development. Peas prepared three ways and topped with a kofta-style pork meatball and cuttlefish tentacles served over cauliflower mash and dripped with squid ink. Despite the lofty ideas, at the end of the day, “We are just obreros that like to cook.”
Estados Unidos 500, San Telmo
Tuesday through Thursday from 5pm to 1am
Friday & Saturday from 5pm to 2am