The Argentinian food scene, which I had found fairly monotonous heretofore, is improved markedly the closer your proximity to Bolivia and Peru. The most remarkable city of that region is Salta, a frenetic, dirty pearl dropped into the psychedelic northwestern desert. The eyes are more native brown than European hazel and blue, the buildings more graceful (owing to the influence of the Spanish), and the food more interesting and flavorful. Offal (otherwise known as guts) can usually be found at a reputable meat palace in Salta. Not that there’s anything wrong with a quotidian cut of top sirloin or rib eye; but when you’ve packed your colon to the brim with these old workhorses day in and day out, I for one start to crave different flavors and textures; offal (my favorites of which are tongue, heart and liver) provides an ambrosial detour down a side lane off the main highway of meat.
In the heart of the old town, two blocks from the cathedral, is Parilla Don José, my first station of the offal cross. A variety of meat, red wine (cheap and good), and old-fashioned hospitality are the precious commodities here. Running the place is a kindly old gentleman who handles the 20 table restaurant with an air of benign impatience. What attracted me initially to Don José was a sandwich board placed just outside the entrance that advertised a set menu costing 50 pesos (about five dollars), consisting of lengua a la vinagre (tongue slow-cooked in vinegar and then served cold with a garnish of onions and eggs- not NEARLY as disgusting as it sounds), mondongo (stew of tripe, chorizo, potatoes and carrots), and dessert-characteristic of my palatal predisposition, I can no longer recall what that consisted of. Even accounting for a half-bottle of malbec as liquid counterpoint, my bill never topped fifteen dollars, and it was all good eats- food evocative of a scene consisting of a dusty earthen kitchen around which bustles an old, pear-shaped woman black-clad with a bonnet and shawl. I imagined her to be Don José’s grandmother, the matriarch of a lower-middle class family preparing “junk” meat in delicious ways according to old family recipes.
My Calvary, the climax of my short journey on the access road of offal, is situated just outside the old town. La Monumental, as its name suggests, is a Salta institution. It’s one big, high ceilinged room glowing with harsh fluorescence, a place where people come to eat (dinner rush starts around 9:30 or 10 p.m., true to Argentinian dining habits) comically outsized portions of (mostly) bovine flesh. On my first trip I followed the old maxim concerning conformity in a certain Old World city and ordered a rib eye, large and flavorsome. The second time I came in I perused the menu for something more unusual and my eyes immediately lit upon two words: mollejas and corazon, meaning, respectively, sweetbreads and heart. Being listed under the “starters”, I assumed them to be small portions and ordered both; what came out was a decadent raft of offal worthy of Caligula’s court. Under the frank, bemused stares of neighboring diners, I made my way through this hillock of organs as best I could. With wine, the perfunctory salad, and tip, I may have spent as much as 20 dollars. I left feeling vaguely kingly and gout-ridden, and utterly satisfied.
Parilla Don José
Entre Ríos 202