Buenos Aires – These are mollejas, or as we know them in English, sweetbreads. Let’s face it, if a restaurant said, “hey, how about a nice plate of grilled pancreas?” they couldn’t give the things away. But then they might not have to, they could just as easily be trying to sell you on a nice bowl of thymus glands. Because sweetbreads come in both types – the “belly” or “heart” type, which are the former, and the “neck” type which are the latter. Other than by looking and seeing their shape, you really wouldn’t know which you were getting. You might even get both. In the U.S. only the thymus gland is used, as all pancreases… pancreai?… are destined for diabetes research by FDA decree. Or something along those lines. Just to confuse the issue further, while mollejas refers to these two organs when it comes to beef, veal, lamb, pork, etc.; when it comes to birds, e.g., say, a chicken, it’s a catchall term for what we call giblets – gizzards, heart, liver – the works.
Plopping down in a chair and ordering a plate of mollejas is not everyone’s idea of heaven. They’re also quite high in cholesterol (like most organ meats), so not something you want to eat every day. For those of us who do love them, there’s very little better, if anything, in the organ meat world than a plate of these cooked right. My friend Pete had recommended a little place in Recoleta, El Yugo, Ayacucho 1629, as the best place he’s found in five years here for them, straight off the parrilla. While I haven’t had five years of looking around for them, I have to say, that as grilled sweetbreads go, these were the finest I’ve ever had. Creamy but slightly firm on the inside, with a just slightly charred exterior, salt, pepper, a squirt of lemon juice, it’s hard to imagine they could have been any better. [Note: As of June 2009 this place has closed.]
When it comes to non-parrilla sweetbreads, i.e., cooked into another dish, there are many other ways to have them – the best I’ve ever had were also here in Buenos Aires, at a rather pricey though quite good restaurant called Prima Fila, on the second floor of the Buenos Aires Design center, where they were crusted in cracked black pepper and sauteed until golden brown and then served with a sauce made of honey-caramelized fennel, yams, and ginger. They were so good that I got the chef to come out and share his recipe with me so I could make them for friends back in New York, who loved them as much as I did!
Back to El Yugo, which has a sort of ranch-style feel to it when you walk in, lots of wooden beams, and light fixtures made from old buggy springs. The entryway is dominated by a salad bar off to one side, the parrilla on the other, and a giant Argentine flag hanging from the ceiling, behind which is an array of the rest of the Latin American flags, smaller, lined up and hanging above the tables. The waiters fit the slightly older, traditional model, but whiz around the room with far more energy than is usually seen in a porteño server. They get serious points for something that I consider basic service, something that you’d see in a decent restaurant in almost any major food capitol in the world, but which I’ve never seen in this city before, regardless of the quality level of the restaurant – if you get up from the table to go to the restroom, or for a smoke, they bring over a bowl and invert it over your plate to keep your food warm. It’s restaurant service 101.
They also, bluntly, have the best french fries I’ve had here in Buenos Aires. Thin, golden brown, lightly crisp on the outside and perfectly cooked on the inside, flavorful, yum! They fall somewhere in between the usual thicker fries that border on being what we’d call steak fries, and what are called papas pai, or shoestring potatoes. The one negative, the ojo de bife, a ribeye cut, sans bone, which we tried – it was the first time I’ve encountered a really fatty, somewhat gristly piece of meat here, and it was way undercooked for how we’d asked for it (easily correctable, but enough undercooked as to have been obvious, one would think, to a good parrilla-man). [Edit: Further visits to this spot leave me thinking this was a one-off experience, we’ve had nothing but great steaks time after time, although, they do tend to err on the undercooked side and more than once Henry has asked for his to be cooked a bit more – still, that’s better than the usual overcooked, which requires, at most places, a battle to get them to start over again.]
We’ll be back for more pancreas and fries!