Organ Grind: A South American Food Journal, Part 10, Dusty Tongue in Northwest Argentina
Exterior of El Salteno
As I said in a previous South American dispatch, things get looser, more flavorsome, and less racially homogenous in Argentina the further you penetrate the Northwestern region of the country. Also, dustier. I hopped off the bus in the tiny, quaint town of Tilcara, and had my mouth and throat basted by a rough gust of grit-laced wind blowing off the gorgeous red-orange canyon cliffs looming above. After battling through the oxygen-thin but forceful wind and withering sunlight for only five or six minutes I arrived at a ramshackle little hospedaje (ultra-cheap, family run hotel), where for the equivalent of eight dollars I had my own room with king-sized bed, albiet with a shared bathroom which smelled of old trapped farts. The owners were old and sweet, and were kind enough to create for me an obstacle course of drying laundry every time I went to or from my room. Once back on the street after finding this little oasis, I trained my senses upon the search for a restaurant which would most closely fulfill certain criteria I had compiled in helping to define for me my ideal restaurant, i.e., cheapness, a lack of pretension, a familial and/or local vibe, and the presence of tantalizing odors.
Meeting those requirements was Restaurant El Salteno, a paltry two minute stroll from my front door. Coming inside from the windswept desert streets of the town, I flashed scenes from certain films by Sergio Leone and Roberto Rodriguez, wherein the hero, anti-hero or villain appears at the ingress of an establishment of suspect repute and is immediately scrutinized with a hostile curiosity and then just as suddenly dismissed and ignored; a place where one might easily sink into comfortable anonymity. Any atmosphere of cinematic menace was quickly dispelled by the extremely friendly proprietor, who quickly installed me at a table at the back with a full view of the restaurants simple interior.
This same person, shouting to be heard over the blare of of the television which was broadcasting an alarmingly dramatic and violent soap opera, recommended the lengua picante, a spicy stew of tender beef tongue with peas, onion, tomato, rice and potatoes. No sooner had he made this offering that my salivary glands sang with joyful anticipation and I quickly obliged them, ordering said dish with a 22 ounce bottle of lager to help cut the richness and acidity that its description promised. It delivered on that promise, so I came back the next day (or was it later that night?) and helped myself to a bowl of locro, a signature Andean stew consisting of corn, beans, potato, stomach, chorizo, bacon, all in a thick, hearty yellowish broth. Cold beer again rode sidecar to this dish’s loud, belching Harley Davidson.
Spending a few days in this mellow back water, eating and drinking at El Salteno, and taking in the casual and muted local color, was a welcome and royal respite from crazy Salta, the provincial capital; it also proved to be a great way to recharge for the coming onslaught of Buenos Aires, the behemoth lurking at the end of my South American odyssey, challenging me to make the most of its renowned abundance.