Friday, 10:30 PM – I invoked the spirit of Anthony Bourdain as I pulled a tendril of grilled intestine off the table-side barbecue at Parrilla 29.
Hours earlier, riveted to the cocky chef’s Travel Channel show, I’d watched him munch on a piece of dirt-roasted warthog rectum in Namibia. If I ever hoped to gain entrance to Bourdain’s tribe of fearless food fanatics, I would definitely have to brave the likes of chinchulines (a.k.a. chitterlings).
As I sliced (and sliced and sliced) off a dime-sized bite of cream-colored intestine, I made believe there was a Travel Channel camera in my face. On behalf of my imaginary audience, I had to sample this bit of chinchulin and describe it for them.
I thought not about the food safety warnings from the State of Georgia Division of Public Health:
Care must be taken when preparing chitterlings, due to the possibility of disease being spread when they have not been cleaned or cooked properly. These diseases/bacteria include Escherichia coli and Yersinia enterocolitica, as well as Salmonella. Chitterlings must be soaked and rinsed thoroughly, and repeatedly picked clean by hand, removing extra fat and specks of fecal matter.
My table mates paused to observe my cross-over to organ meat. I ignored the concern in their eyes, stuffed the innard in my mouth, and began a torturous minute of chewing.
After breaking through the greasy crust of the chinchulin, the pasty sawdust of its insides oozed onto my tongue. I distracted myself from gagging by coming up with words to describe what I tasted: rancid vegetable shortening mixed with cigarette ashes.
The chinchulines were actually minor players in a carnal ensemble that also featured kidneys, sweetbreads, skirt steak, chorizo sausage, and ribs. This parrillada, or barbecue platter, was the house specialty at Parrilla 29 – if the surrounding tables were any judge.
Everyone – grey-haired couples on the far side of sixty, well-dressed lovers on the near side of thirty, and several banquet tables of rowdy twenty-somethings – was having parrillada. In the spirit of going native, my fellow expats and I had followed suit.
My friends – a hip, tango-dancing couple from Humboldt and a fellow American expat – and I had walked into Parrilla 29 with high hopes. Obulio, the Paraguayan cab driver who’d brought us there on his recommendation, explained that he and his wife regularly dined there on Sundays.
“Some places cook meat in the oven and finish it on the barbecue,” he said, “Not this place. This is a real parrilla.”
Obulio, swarthy and strung out from working more than 20 years as a plumber and gas man, had picked us up on the corner of Chacabuco and Juan de Garay in San Telmo. He embraced the wacky nature of our food quest without hesitation and even showed us the picture of his ‘child’ that he kept tucked into the driver’s side visor.
“This is my Felipe,” he said proudly, passing around a photo of a tabby cat in a bassinet.
When we arrived at Parrilla 29, downriver from the ritzy restaurants in Puerto Madero and next door to Buenos Aires’s only casino, Obulio urged us to go gamble after we finished eating.
High off his friendliness, we’d stumbled into the fluorescent-lit fishbowl of a restaurant. 70s-era photos of Asturias and vintage bull-fighting posters competed for space on the water-stained walls. Laminated pink-and-blue plaid table covers, plastic patio chairs, and Quilmes beer signs littered the cavernous dining room.
In the far corner facing Avenida Brasil, a fifteen foot open-air barbecue coughed smoke into the cool night air.
Massaging our appetites before the barbecue platter, we’d ordered roasted red peppers with olive oil, oregano, garlic and parsley, grilled provolone cheese smothered in fresh tomato, more red peppers, and ham, a tortilla española, and a bottle of 2005 San Humberto Cabernet.
Everything but the wine (watery and bodiless) and the tortilla española (dripping with grease and undercooked eggs) suggested that the meat to come would be exceptional: the bright flavors of the red peppers, olive oil, and herbs, the rich smokiness of the provolone, and the lean, tender chorizo sausage a waiter had brought by mistake.
As eleven o’clock approached, the expression on our already flustered server’s face grew more frantic as he rushed to satisfy the growing swell of customers.
Thankfully, our Argentine friend – a gorgeous, fifty-something tango-singing ophthalmologist – arrived along with the parrillada.
“This is the skirt steak, these are the kidneys, this is the chinchulin, these are the ribs,” she said, passing the steaming meat around the table on metal platters.
At first, we sliced and chewed with gusto. But our enthusiasm waned before the strange textures of the organ meats and the toughness of the ribs and the skirt steak.
“This meat is not very good,” our Argentine friend pronounced, “Everything is overcooked.”
“What about the chinchulines?” I asked her, wanting to know if Parilla 29’s version was actually a fair representation of an innard that people around the world had savored for centuries, “Do you think those are good?”
“I don’t eat chinchulines,” she smiled.
Ultimately, the well-seasoned chorizo sausage was the only thing that redeemed the parrillada from total failure. Leaving the majority of the meat and organs for our friend to take home to her dog, we made choripanes (sausage sandwiches) with the homemade rolls in the bread basket.
Meanwhile, we shouted our conversation over the animated chatter of the 15-top next door and then clapped along with the rest of the restaurant when they brought out a cake to celebrate someone’s 29th birthday.
Inspired, we ordered a tarantella (apple flan) and an almendrado (almond-coated vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce) but were again disappointed.
“This flan is grainy,” our Argentine friend said, “And this chocolate sauce obviously came from a can.”
In the end, as with so many restaurants, the story of Parrilla 29 was not about the food. It was about the Obulio who’d brought us there, about the cast of characters who surrounded us and shared the tradition of the parrillada. It was about witnessing a celebration. It was about the lemon ice cream and champagne our harried server brought us after we paid our bill. And it was about surrendering to the nocturnal rhythm of Buenos Aires, where dinner starts at 10 PM and the night is in diapers at 1.