Heading overland from Chile to Tierra del Fuego, the rock-bottom of both Argentina and the hemisphere, I never got to Argentina's urbane northeast. Instead, Patagonia -- where herds of low clouds stampede north from Antarctica, and it's 4 p.m. all day -- Patagonia got to me.
So I was thrilled by the opening of Evita Cafe, serving Argentine food at a location requiring no expeditionary planning. My friend Dave was excited, too: Driving past it one recent afternoon, he thought he spotted a long-lost acquaintance at Evita's door. "If she's working there now, I'll tell you about her at dinner," he said.
Dave, TJ, and I rendezvoused in a homey cafe with 12 barstools at a small wooden bar, and 12 tables in the adjoining dining room. One wall is covered with various glamour shots of Eva Peron Duarte, the "working-class saint" who was the greatest political asset of her lover-then-husband, populist dictator Juan Peron. Patti Lupone's stage Evita is included; Madonna doesn't make the cut. And Dave did, indeed, re-encounter his friend Lucia Prado working there, alternating between the kitchen and the front of the house as all-around aide-de-camp to chef and owner Bill Hamilton.
After looking over the short but authentic menu, we started with a pair of empanadas ($3.50), appetizer turnovers filled with corn or beef. Done in the no-nonsense frontier style of Argentina (rather than the lighter, moister, more complex manner of Chilean cooks on the sweeter side of the Andes), they weren't the best thing on the menu. The corn filling was gooey, the ground beef filling very dry, the dough a little thick. But we warmed to our soothing sopa de ajo ($4), a subtle garlic soup with little puffs of potato, served with piping hot, extra-sour hard rolls that contrasted brilliantly with the subtly sweet broth.
Meanwhile, we sipped a couple of glasses randomly chosen from a wine list dominated by lesser-known South American vineyards. Dave's Norton cabernet ($4) was so huge, he wondered if it were fortified. "No, it's just Argentine, and at least it tastes pretty good," I said. "Some Argentine 'peasant reds' are so strong and rough, people down there thin them with seltzer." The splurge wine on Evita's list is Chile's reliably excellent Cousino Macul cab ($32 per bottle).
"Lucia is a Chilean who came up here around the time Allende was overthrown," said Dave, returning to the table after greeting her, "probably to keep from getting 'disappeared.' She used to own a little omelet place on Clement Street, and later moved to a larger space on California Street. Every place she touched, she made beautiful and welcoming -- she opened up a skylight, filled the room with plants, and soon it was full of artists and musicians who'd hang out for hours. But then there was a family tragedy, a death; she closed the place and I haven't seen her for about 10 years."
The best dish on Evita's menu -- and one of the most rewarding dishes at any restaurant in town -- is named for Dave's friend. Pastel de choclo "Lucia" ($9) is her masterful version of Chile's national dish, a creamy corn "pie" served in a small earthenware casserole from the homeland. Coincidentally, I'd made my own version a few days before, from a recipe some friends had cooked for me in Santiago. I'd thought it was pretty good -- but Lucia's proved emphatically the best I've ever tasted on either side of the equator. The sweet, finely grated corn custard wafted a subtle, inviting scent of cinnamon and other elusive spices (like a Moroccan b'stila). The custard was layered over chicken breast, hard-cooked egg slices, raisins, green olives, and (at the bottom) rich-flavored, diced stewed beef. A great dish, it soothes the soul and satisfies the body. (Cooking it to order takes 30 minutes, though, so eschew it if you've got a curtain to make.)
The naked rolling grassland of Patagonia is sheep country, but there's no lamb for dinner in the skeletal little towns you pull into for the night -- just the unvarying choice of tagliarini in a harsh, simple tomato sauce or veal milanese with no sauce. At Comodoro Rivadavia, the Atlantic-coast oil boomtown where (as Pynchon has written) "the real South begins," the real Argentine steaks and lamb chops begin, too, grilled "to order" so long as you order them well-done. You can specify "rojo" (red), beg for "rojo obscuro" (dark red), or cry "azul, por favor!" (blue-raw) until you're blue in the face, but throughout Argentina your beautiful steak will always arrive brown all through. Evita's bife de chorizo "Tomas" ($17) is a thin, flavorful cut of chuck, grilled according to this tradition and served with a ramekin of chimichurri, a light sauce of oil, vinegar, and parsley. If you want a richer sauce and fear no cholesterol, you can get a pair of fried eggs on top for $1.50 more. At a subsequent visit, we tried the grilled loin of pork ($10); twin medallions were of course well-done, their meat dry but imbued with good grill flavor. Evita duly offers milanesa ($9), as well, pan-fried veal cutlets in a light, flavorful breading. For what it's worth, their kitchen does a tastier milanese than any I ate in Patagonia. All meat dishes come with your choice of thick-sliced, parsleyed home fries or a generous salad with a tart, basil-flecked yogurt dressing that I found addictive.
"What's with all the pastas on an Argentine menu?" TJ asked.
"The population of Argentina is probably more Italian than Hispanic now," Dave said. "And the Argentine dialect sounds like Spanish evolving into Italian," I added. "My first few hours there, I was totally lost." Evita's outstanding pasta -- and it really is outstanding -- is cannelloni a la Rossini ($9), two silky crepes filled with melting ricotta cheese and tender spinach, with both tomato and cream sauces on top. "I've never had cannelloni this good before," said TJ. "Usually they're so dense, but these are angelic." In contrast, tallarines con camarones de Sharon ($10) (pasta with shrimp) was a fierce plateful of machismo. The noodles were perfectly cooked, but their chunky-textured tomato sauce not only had a strong raw-onion undertone, but was relentlessly dosed with ground red pepper. TJ liked it, but he and Dave agreed that both the cayenne and the prawns seemed an afterthought. I thought the combination added up to a rough and tough, pasta-fied "shrimp Creole."
For dessert, we followed our waiter's recommendation of panqueques de dulce de leche ($4), delicate crepes thinly filled with caramel syrup. Gossamer-light and just sweet enough for joy, they were a fabuloso surprise. "When you heard 'dulce de leche' you probably expected a big sticky lump, the way it's usually served," said Guillermo, the waiter/maitre d'. "Right, like chongos," I answered, shuddering. We also tried queso y dulce ($3.50), four small squares of cheese topped with cubes of sweet gelatin, two of them flavored with chocolate, the other two with yam. The "sweets" were delicate and the cheese powerful, a Taleggio resembling Argentina's muscular products. "For some people, we use mozzarella instead," said Guillermo, "but since you folks were eating everything ...." "Yay, we passed the gringo test," Dave rejoiced. We were happy about that, but happier yet to have Evita to eat at -- instead of the slick surroundings, scary prices, and cloned menus of most of the splashier Civic Center eateries, we'd enjoyed straightforward, interesting, down-home cooking, some of it muy rico, at people's prices. Eva Peron, who never forgot where she came from, would approve.