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Meat Heaven 

Diving into the divine parrillada at Villa del Sol

Wednesday, Sep 3 2003
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Robert found the place by Googling around, after a colleague told him that her fiance was from Argentina and was pining away for parrillada. (Who was it that said patriotism is just nostalgia for the food of our youth? I've seen it attributed to a number of people, including, most bizarrely, Che Guevara. A fairly quick, non-Internet search of my own -- yes, I did read a book, once -- just turned this up: "What is patriotism but the love of the good things we ate in our childhood?" ascribed to Lin Yutang, whoever he is.)

Anyway, the word came back to Robert that his friends had gone to Villa del Sol and were very happy, and Robert sent me to its Web site (www.villadelsol-argentine.com), which looked intriguing, except it doesn't list when the place is open. (Note to restaurants: Such information is useful.) I made a couple of fruitless phone calls; it seemed that Villa del Sol didn't have an answering machine. (Note to restaurants: Hearing a message that includes such information as when you're open is considerably more reassuring than, say, six unanswered rings.)

And there the matter ended, for a few months, until Robert, more persistent than I, reached an actual human being at the place and made a reservation for dinner on a Friday night. He even offered to drive (almost unique in my experience). So Robert, Gail, and I set off toward South San Francisco, passing, to Gail's amazement, newly constructed office buildings on the way down 101, which seemed even more amazing when we turned off onto Grand Avenue and discovered it to be an adorable little Main Street lined with one- and two-story shops and restaurants, whose facades seemed ready for Andre de Toth or Joseph H. Lewis to start shooting a '40s or '50s film noir any minute.

There was plenty of diagonal parking; we parked directly across from the restaurant, below a couple of majestic public buildings -- perhaps the City Hall and the Public Library -- set in well-kept lawns. Villa del Sol is a small storefront spot, of a type immediately recognizable to foodies who seek out authentic, ethnic, family-run places: The décor is minimal, featuring framed pictures of Argentina and posters for local events of interest to the clientele, and there's a big-screen TV, mercifully not in use that night.

We sat down and began to peruse the menu with some excitement. The place smelled, forthrightly, of grilled meat; I was reminded of the line in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, when Pseudolus hears jingling coins and says, "I know that sound. And I love it!" Well, I know that smell, and I love it! That's what we were here for -- the parrillada, the traditional Argentine mixed grill, usually a rather overwhelming dish. But we ordered a few starters from among the salads, appetizers, and empanadas on offer. With the help of the server, Robert chose an Argentine wine from the short but interesting list: Don Valentín Lacrado, a soft, eminently drinkable red that turned out to be a blend of Barbera, Bonarda, Syrah, and Malbec.

And we were delighted. The fried spinach-and-cheese empanada was freshly made, with a delicate, crackling crust, and the filling was excellent: chewy, pully cheese, nice with the greens. The mild, firm slices of tongue, in a vinaigrette full of chopped peppers, came with Russian salad, which can be a sad travesty of canned vegetables glued together with mayonnaise. But as Robert said with some surprise, "I even like the Russian salad!" because here it was a good potato-and-vegetable salad, lightly mayonnaised.

We ordered, in addition to the parrillada (which, the menu states, is $32.95 and serves two), the milanesa de pollo "a caballo," a breaded, pounded chicken breast with two fried eggs on top. But when I saw the mixed grill, piled high on a stand that mimicked a tiny barbecue, I knew we didn't really need the milanesa. The parrillada included a couple of long bone-in cuts of short ribs, a length of dark morcilla (blood sausage), another of pork sausage, a pork chop, a couple of chunks of flank steak, two pieces of chicken, and (my favorite) several grilled sweetbreads. And there was a bowl of lettuce and tomato salad alongside.

They asked us how we wanted our steak, and we said, "Rare," but it was cooked a bit more than that. No matter: The meat was everything grilled meat should be, chewy, juicy, incredibly satisfying. The milanesa, by contrast, was crisp, crunchy, evanescent (I was glad we'd gotten the version with the eggs on top, as the yolks made a lovely creamy sauce), and came with terrific oily french fries that went well with the meat.

Well, anything would have gone well with the meat. The blood sausage was oozy and suave, the pork sausage rough-textured, the sweetbreads nutty and firm. I realized I'd have to come back with my father, who would adore the sweetbreads, and the tongue, too. The simple salad, in a tart vinaigrette with shreds of onion, was refreshing, as was the chimichurri sauce, garlicky oil full of chopped parsley.

At another table, they were enjoying huge plates of wonderful-looking pasta, which, we were told, is house-made and very light because it contains egg whites only, rather than whole eggs. The waiter said that people often follow their pasta with a meat course, but that looked almost impossible to me, and, in fact, our neighbors didn't do so.

After we thought we could eat no more -- even the voracious carnivores that we are (I took about a pound of meat home) -- we tried several desserts: an unremarkable flan, crepes rolled around goat milk dulce de leche (very sweet and easy to eat), and terrific alfajores, fragile cookies glued together with more of that caramel and dusted with sugar.

After dinner we strolled up and down Grand Avenue, which looked more picturesque from our car but still had its pleasures. I couldn't wait to return to Villa del Sol: It's one of my favorite kinds of restaurants, unpretentious and devoted only to serving really good food at really good prices.

So, a couple of weeks later, I pick up my parents in the East Bay on a Saturday night and we brave the bridge. It's a nightmare. My mother remembers that Bruce Springsteen is playing a sold-out show at Pac Bell. I feel guilty about our friends David and Heftsi, who are driving in to meet us from Richmond.

It takes a full hour and a quarter of serious driving door-to-door (about the same time it took Heftsi and David, he tells me). But when I sit down and look at the menu, I'm happy to be here. And I don't feel guilty; this food is worth the drive. There's a soccer game on the big screen, but the sound is off. With five of us, I go a little nuts. In addition to a rerun of the tongue, to please my father (and he is pleased -- he loves the texture), we try three different empanadas (I enjoy the beef one, punched up with green olives, and another with corn kernels in a creamy, faintly nutmegged Alfredo sauce, but am unseduced by the dryish tuna), and a beautifully cooked, soft tortilla, a Spanish frittatalike omelet made with fresh spinach. (I would drive to South San Francisco for this dish alone -- Villa del Sol also does a version with potatoes and onions, another with zucchini, and a third with mushrooms, garlic, and onions. And then I would order some other stuff, too!)

We have to have the parrillada, of course, but I also order the churrasco argentino, a thick, well-flavored rib-eye that comes rare as ordered, and, what the hell, we try a couple of pastas: fat house-made cannelloni, stuffed with fresh spinach, mozzarella, and mild ham, napped with a rich béchamel; and thin, airy (as promised!) fettuccini in a good, strong pesto sauce. I throw in an order of polenta, and am glad I did: It's the thinnish, creamy kind, just a little grainy to the tooth, very corny, and it comes with a light house-made tomato sauce. (Even my noncarnivorous friends could be happy here.)

Everybody is getting enough to eat. It's fun to share, it's fun to taste everything, and we're enjoying the food and each other. David and Heftsi have just returned the day before from a week in New Orleans, and I'm sure that the groaning table seems like a continuation of the over-the-top feasting that's an essential part of life there. We linger over coffee and more of those superb alfajores. (I want to order half a dozen to take home but, looking at the several containers we have stacked up already, filled with the contents of several future meals, decide against it. In the morning, when I make coffee, I'm sad.)

Earlier, when I was searching for the source of the patriotism quote, I ran across another that seemed appropriate. The great Curnonsky, a revered French gastronome, once said, "Cuisine is where things taste like themselves." Everything tastes exactly as it should at Villa del Sol.

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Meredith Brody

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