“The diner is everybody’s kitchen.”
– Richard Gutman, author, American Diner: Then & Now
Just exactly what is a diner? That’s a question that has probably been asked by many a food writer on the topic, and even more so, what constitutes a diner menu? A quick and very informal survey of some friends yielded up the “important” dishes for the menu to have and were as varied as patty melts, lumberjack breakfasts, huevos rancheros, and fried chicken. Part of that is no doubt regional – the diner is quintessentially American in the colloquial sense of the word – outside of, perhaps, Canada, true diners probably don’t exist elsewhere, at least not as a classic part of local culture. In Buenos Aires they certainly don’t exist as a regular part of the culinary scene – there have been a few attempts, the most successful in the city was probably Amaranta, which lasted not much over two years, and even that hovered somewhere between diner and simply casual norteamericano restaurant, and offered dishes as widely varied as burgers, meatball subs, bagels with the works, and eggs benedict – not all what I, at least, would consider typical diner fare.
The only long lasting diner in the area that I’m aware of is The Embers in Acassuso, a northern suburb, which has been open for a couple of decades – their take on a diner menu is burgers, chili, fried chicken in a basket, and milkshakes. So when British friend and local writer Sorrel asked me to join her on a foray to a new American diner for her brunch article (from a uniquely Brit perspective, and missing all of my favorites – Sirop, Novecento and Prodeo, just sayin’), given what I’ve seen here over the last six years in the way of norteamericano food, I didn’t hold out much hope. But I gamely, and perhaps grimly, sallied forth to Palermo to join her at Randall’s, Malabia 1530, 4832-5070. [Closed in mid-2012 after a dissolution of the partnership, the place also just never caught on, no idea why]
It’s orange. Really orange. Both inside and out. It’s not exactly diner-y feeling, it’s more of a casual local restaurant setup, like a little neighborhood joint where you stop in for a quick sandwich and coffee. It’s got stars on the ceiling, each of them the punched out center of a state flag from the U.S. The young man tending the counter greeted me with a “Hi, just sit wherever you’d like!”, no desultory “Buen día” here. Did I mention it was orange?
As I sat to await my companion, he pointed out that the menu was on the placemats and asked if he could bring a “cup of coffee”. Now, I’m as fond of an espresso as anyone who lived for two decades in NYC and spent most of his vacations in Italy, but I do like my American style coffee – and sure enough, a proper mug of brewed coffee arrived on the table in seconds – and, it’s good coffee! I perused the menu, offering “all items available all day” – which, by the way, means Tuesday through Sunday, 6:00 in the morning until midnight. And it’s pretty classic diner food, missing some regional favorites no doubt – but it has pancakes and waffles, omelettes and eggs, coffee, iced tea (excellent – unsweet), milkshakes, sodas, salads, sandwiches, a burger, bbq and a philly cheesesteak. It’s got soup – creamy tomato and new england clam. It’s got chili. And, as our waiter explained, in the evening they offer specials of the day like fried chicken, chicken fried steak, and pot-pies. Now, the only other folk in the room were a trio seated nearby, one of whom I know, an American friend retired down here to BA, a fiction writer, and, a young gentleman who turned out to be Marc Randall, one of the two owners – the two norteamericano folk were avidly and loudly giving their advice on “what would make this place” – and no doubt, every expat here will have their own ideas.
Top of my hit list when I saw the menu – biscuits with sausage gravy – one of my favorites. Unfortunately, not to be, as there was simply no sausage in-house to make the gravy with – not an auspicious start – and not a good thing when you offer all items all the time, I get that the sausage didn’t get delivered, but how hard is it to run to the market? Now, I missed, somehow, that there’s a combo plate with two eggs, hashbrowns, choice of meat and toast. But, you can order the things a la carte, and I did – a minor service fail, as a waiter I’d have a) asked if someone ordering four a la carte breakfast items wanted them all on one large plate – this was a bit unwieldy and I simply squeezed the eggs, bacon and biscuits onto one of the plates to clear some space – and b) given that I’d just ordered the a la carte items that made up the combo plate, our waiter should have pointed that out, saving me a significant amount on the bill. Eggs – perfectly cooked sunny side up, bacon nice and crisp, salty and smoky, hashbrowns dead-on with peppers and onions, the biscuits… well, browned almost to burnt on the bottom and still wet inside (I later had a chat with Marc and the biscuits are a work in progress – the chef, a young Argentine, doesn’t seem amenable to doing them right in a skillet or baking dish, instead spreading them out on a baking sheet like rolls – it doesn’t work – but hey, Marc, it’s your diner, not his).
S ordered up an omelette with everything but peppers – onions, mushrooms, cheese, ham – and received a beautifully cooked and delicious omelette minus peppers… and mushrooms, something she noted in her article. Very smartly, the kitchen left the peppers out of her hashbrowns without her specifying that, since she didn’t know they’d come that way (a momentary “really?” for me when I found out she’d never had either biscuits nor hashbrowns… oh those wacky brits). Oh, though we did get regular refills on coffee (free refills on coffee, tea, and sodas with any meal purchase), we never did get our fresh squeezed orange juice.
And that was the end of breakfast. But, two days later I was meeting up with a friend for lunch in Palermo and thought – gee, I’d really like to try one of those sandwiches, just to see, and so we met up there. Different waitstaff – two young girls, and greetings in Spanish rather than English this time. A quartet of 20-something Argentines followed us in and took a table, a couple of other people wandered in at various points, so a bit busier, though still pretty quiet. We decided to split an order of buffalo wings to start. Nicely cooked, though not particularly spicy – tabasco level. The homemade ranch dressing was great. A little disappointing to have only 6 wings for 26 pesos – that’s about 50% more than at some of our favorite wing spots like Casa Bar or Hard Rock, where you get a dozen for around 30-35 pesos, accompanied in both cases by ranch and blue cheese, carrots and celery, and hotter sauce.
Now, the philly cheesesteak? Perfect. Really. Perfect. Tender slices of steak, lots of oozy, melted provolone, onions and peppers, and plenty of it all. Normally with fries, but they had no problem with substituting for potato salad, which was creamy and delicious. A home-run.
Likewise the pulled pork bbq sandwich – great barbecue sauce, tender shreds of pork, light bun, and again, no problem with a side substitution of a salad. Excellent coleslaw too. If there’s any criticism of this one is that next to the cheesesteak, the filling seemed a little skimpy.
And it would have stopped there for this review, with mostly positive notes and only a few minor quibbles – but all things that in a not quite three month old restaurant are being worked out. But, Marc stopped by our table to introduce himself, welcome me back for the second time in a week, and ask if I’d be up for coming back for another meal, on him, and to talk a bit about the restaurant business here (turns out that although he’s been in BA for seven years, he was in software development before – though has some front of house restaurant experience back in Colorado). I agreed and returned a few days later. Now, he ordered up the chili for himself, a whopping, steaming hot bowl that looked delicious – I didn’t get to try it, but will this weekend at BA’s 1st Chili Cookoff, in which he’s entered as a competitor. News to follow….
But I figured since I was adding in the wings to our list of expat snacks here, I ought to try the burger. Ordered it medium rare with the works – fried egg, bacon, cheese, onion, lettuce, tomato. It was good. It was really good. I’d put it up there with the top burgers in the city – juicy, meaty, cooked right. The fries, well, I’m a crispy fry kind of guy, these are the soft, almost steak-fry style. Tasty, but texture-wise, not my thing. On the other hand, I have plenty of friends who prefer this style. Me, I’ll get that potato salad and/or coleslaw next time around. Had a little cup of the New England clam chowder to try on the side, rich and creamy, plenty of clams and potatoes, a little more herbal than my tastes but quite good.
So – three visits in a week to a relatively new spot. Nice room. Did I mention it was orange? Comfy. Service, attentive and friendly with some lapses – but hey, this is Buenos Aires. Food – mostly quite good, even excellent. A few mis-steps that Marc acknowledges he’s working on, so I look forward to trying some of these things again – especially those biscuits, with sausage gravy – in fact I’m salivating right now, maybe lunch… oh, and fried chicken, and chicken fried steak. Pricing – mostly fair, actually, other than the wings, I’d say completely fair – with the sandwiches running in the mid-30s – and the free refills on soft drinks is a winning point. In some ways I’m sorry it’s in Palermo – too far away to become my regular neighborhood hangout, and in some ways I’m glad, because, like Amaranta when it was around the block from me, I’d probably be there all the time. For now, “Recommended” – perhaps an upgrade down the line as things get streamlined. Don’t miss it if you’re missing your greasy spoon grub!