“It’s nice to think that sharing a cherished food brings enemies together, easing tension and misunderstanding. But the world’s rawest conflicts can include disagreements over common foodstuffs. Irish Catholics and Protestants have lightly bickered over whiskey. Turks and Greeks have feuded over coffee. And Jews and Arabs argue about falafel in a way that reflects the wider conflict, touching on debates over territory and history. ‘Food always migrates according to immigration and commerce,’ said Yael Raviv, an Israeli student at New York University who wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Israeli nationalism and cuisine. ‘But because of the political situation, falafel has taken on enormous significance.'”
– Jodi Kantor, NY Times, A History of the Mideast In the Humble Chickpea
Buenos Aires – Every now and again someone asks me for recommendations on “Jewish” restaurants or kosher restaurants. I guess there’s an automatic assumption that I would have sought them out for some sort of culinary fix. And, of course, every now and again I do – one occasionally needs a gefilte fish to keep going. But on the whole, it’s not a category of restaurant that I particularly seek out – especially because here, they tend to be well-integrated into the restaurant world – most often appearing in one of three guises – either a Middle Eastern style restaurant, in which case, to me it matters little if it’s run by Sephardic Jews, Armenians, or what-have-you… in fact, several of the “arabe” style restaurants are run by “arabe” jews; or, they’re Eastern European, and likewise pretty indistinguishable from other restaurants that cover Polish, Russian, or other cuisine of the region; or, most likely, they’re simply Argentine restaurants – most often a parrilla – that serves kosher meat, and, of course, no provoletas…
However, all that aside, I met up with a couple of friends the other day, and we were fairly near to Once, and decided to pop in and try the food at Al Galope, Tucumán 2633, 4963-6888. Approaching the spot on a Sunday afternoon turns out to be an interesting experience – I don’t know if this happens on other days, but we found ourselves approached by one beggar after another – all of them older Jewish men or women, demanding that we help them establish themselves in the “new country”, help out a “landsman”, donate to the children of Israel… the patter was in a mix of Hebrew and English, interestingly. And, they were pushy… there were also more of them inside, though they seemed to be focusing on the tables nearest the door, and we headed to the rear of the restaurant.
The menu is a mix of parrilla items and a few mixed “jewish” items… and covering the map, from falafel to pastrami. Being a parrilla, it’s a meat-based restaurant, and there’s no dairy to be found – which also, strangely, included ketchup and mustard – and somehow our waiter seemed to feel that stating that it was a kosher restaurant and only mayonnaise was available as a condiment, explained it all. To the best of my knowledge, neither of the former condiments contains anything dairy, but who am I to interpret kosher law? (There is, by the way, some rabbinical interpretation that pretty much anything made from a seed, including mustard, is not kosher for Passover, but that only applies to one week a year…)
We started off with a selection of two appetizer plates, along with a small dish of hummus (unnecessary as it turned out, since both of the platters had hummus on them). The picada personal, above, consisted of small dishes of reconstittued sun-dried tomatoes, slices of sauteed eggplant, some olives, a dish of hummus (a bit bland, needing salt, lemon, garlic… anything… it was really not much more than a puree of chickpeas), babaganoush (not bad, nice and smoky), and a dish of something that I don’t remember the name of, starts with a “b”… sort of a mix of coarsely ground wheat grains and tomato… which was pretty good. We also had the “pastrami show” – a plate of quite tasty, though slightly dried out, pastrami, along with okay pickles, more of the good babaganoush, and more hummus.
We followed up with a falafel platter – once again accompanied by hummus and babaganoush, and more slices of sauteed eggplant (looking around, everything seems to come with a couple out of a small selection of side garnishes). The falafel themselves were extraordinarily dense little pucks of over-fried chickpeas. The seasoning was okay, but these were the smallest falafel I’ve ever seen, about the size of a few nickels stacked one atop the other, and, with the consistency of matter compressed by a black hole. The lomito sandwich consisted of a whisper thin slice of meat between the sides of a pita bread, completely unadorned – despite the menu’s claim that it was served with lettuce and tomato. From the parrilla menu, we sampled the three sausage offerings – a chorizo, a German sausage, and a Turkish sausage. The first, pretty good, nice and smoky, though perhaps a trifle too fatty, the second, not bad, though desperately in need of some mustard (and hence the earlier conversation), and the last, a delicious more or less merguez style sausage – the best of the bunch, and nice and spicy – and presumably all beef based.
So, all around, a mixed review. On a Sunday afternoon, the place is too packed with families out having lunch together – a good number of screaming kids running around, and most tables appearing to have several generations present. A scattered few tables of young men in religious garb, most in high volume discourse about who knows what, and waiters who couldn’t seem to focus on more than one task at a time, leading to pretty inept service. Some of the food was good, some of it was just palatable. There are certainly better places around, and there are just as certainly worse. It’s a parrilla with options… that happens to be kosher for those to whom it matters.