Down Argentine Way – El Rincón Criollo

Of all the non-Mexican cuisines in the city, Argentine is by far the most popular. There seems to be a steakhouse with “Buenos Aires” in its name on every corner. Mexicans like a good steak.

When my gastronome friends Tom and Juan Carlos heartily recommended a new outdoor Argentine puesto (street stall) right in my neighborhood, I was intrigued. Just off a busy 6-way intersection near Insurgentes and Yucatán in Colonia Roma, El Rincón Criollo is like nothing else in the city. Less than a year old, this tiny outdoor restaurant is dwarfed by of one of those blindingly lit pharmacies which shriek, visually, day and night . You could easily walk right by. In this most unlikely spot a cozy corner of Buenos Aires has been created.
The triangular space features a counter with ten stools and several umbrella-shaded tables, protected from the street by some potted plants. Behind the counter porteño Martín Forstmann prepares wonderful home-style bonaerense (i.e. from Buenos Aires) cuisine.
The affable Forstmann, whose Spanish is graced by an South American accent as thick as dulce de leche, arrived in Mexico five years ago with his wife. He had planned to open a catering business, but certainly not a restaurant. He elaborated: “while we were looking for an apartment, we spotted an empty stand with a “for rent” sign on it. It seemed to be calling out to us.” Their little restaurant was open for business a week later (although they still had no place to live). Forstmann grew up in a culinary family. His grandmother sold home-baked desserts door-to-door and his older brother is a chef. “I learned by watching and eating,” he explained. “The recipes come from my family. Our chimichurri (the classic parsley and garlic sauce) is done exactly as my mother used to make it at home.”

Argentines are famed for their empanadas, and the ones here are some of the best I’ve eaten. I had a hard time deciding between the humita (corn, béchamel, onion, green pepper and spices) and the carne (the ground meat delicately perfumed with cumin and pepper) so I tried them both. Larger and more filling is the tarta, a deep-dish savory pie. You can choose between spinach and atún, (filled with a spicy tuna mixture), the chef’s personal recommendation. They are served with a simply dressed mixed salad, which makes a satisfying light meal.
For a heartier lunch, there are baguettes, large sandwiches made with fresh, crunchy rolls, also
served with a small salad. The choripan (argentine sausage) is mouth-watering and not too spicy.

The menu lists several pastas. Ñoquis (the Spanish spelling of gnocchi) and ravioli are home-made and served with several choices of sauce. I tried the salsa rosa, tomato sauce made richer and prettier by a splash of cream. It was light and didn’t overwhelm the flavor of the pasta.
The stars of the show, as always in an Argentine restaurant, are the meats. El Rincon Criollo’s are of consistently high quality. The house special is called bife de chorizo. The chef explained to me that this has nothing to do with our chorizo, but is an argentine cut of beef, round, juicy and tender. The name refers to its shape, not its flavor. The meat here is grilled to perfection and served with either chimichurri, or a more Mexican-style salsa picante. The standard arrachera is tender and succulent.

Finally, for dessert, order a traditional Argentine mate (a type of tea, the country's national drink) and some alfajor Santafecino del Bono, airy cookies filled with dulce de leche, the sweet caramel popular all over South America. These typically Argentine sweets are hand-made daily.
Prices are very reasonable; empanadas are only $16 pesos, baguettes are under $50 and a full meal will not set you back more than $100.
As for ambience, there’s an eclectic mix of music, from Argentine tango to American country and Cuban salsa, with the occasional honking of our eternally impatient D.F. drivers thrown in. But what’s a little urban chaos? It will all seem irrelevant from the comfort of your Argentine home.

El Rincón Criollo - Comida Argentina al Paso
Yucatán 40-A, corner of Insurgentes
Tel. 4195-2143
Open Monday-Friday 12-10PM, Saturday 1:30-7PM

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A Room with a View: El Mayor, Puro Corazón and La Terraza del Zócalo

Why is the combination of a beautiful view and great food so hard to find? Too often I’ve encountered lousy food while enjoying some of the world’s most spectacular vistas, from the rooftops of Paris to the docks of Singapore. A new venue called El Mayor is, unfortunately, no exception. Situated atop a colonial edifice in the heart of Mexico City’s centro histórico, El Mayor overlooks the northeast side of our capital’s Plaza de la Constitución, popularly known as the Zócalo. The view is spectacular, encompassing the ruins of the great Aztec pyramid of Tenochtitlán, the famed Templo Mayor, in its entirety. You enter through the Librería Porrúa and take the elevator to the 2nd floor. Doors open to a broad terrace, a nicely appointed space with white tablecloths and simple, modern furniture —all very appealing The menu looks promising, too. We begin with a classic ceviche, but it’s insipid--no aromatic cilantro, no chile, just lemon juice, and way too much of it. The tostadas de pato are better, the shredded duck nicely complimented by a mildly sweet mole with a hint of chocolate, set atop crunchy tostadas. The standard huachinango a la Veracruzana is hard to ruin, and they don’t, but it has no spark, and nary a caper to be seen. Spaghetti with calamares, however, is barely edible, suspiciously fishy tasting and bland. We leave most of it untouched. “This is the work of a cook, not a chef,” comments my dining partner, Veronica Moctezuma, while surveying the ruined kingdom of her ancestors. Even the service is inadequate. Dirty dishes sit forlornly on the table for 20 minutes, almost unheard of in Mexico, and getting the waiter’s attention is like hailing a taxi during a rush hour rain storm. So my advice to the view hungry: just keep to your right as you exit the elevator. There’s a café in one corner of the terrace where you can order coffee and a sandwich, enjoying the same fabulous view for a fraction of the price. Next time I’ll save my 600 pesos and sit there.
Another top floor restaurant, Puro Corazón, fares much better. Located on a sixth floor terrace at the west side of the Zócalo, it offers a breath-taking panorama of the entire plaza (the largest in the Americas). the food here is decent, if nothing to write home about. The unpretentious menu utilizes typical local ingredients such as pulque, tequila, squash blossom flowers and huitlacoche. You’ll find such interesting sounding dishes as tortas de huazontle (a green vegetable used by the Aztecs, common in the market but unusual in restaurants), tacos de machaca de camarón (made with dried shrimp), and chile en escabeche relleno de tinga de pollo (vinegared chile stuffed with chicken). Bring your out-of-town guests and share a couple of dishes; you won’t be disappointed.
Finally, worth a try is the newly reopened Terraza del Zócalo. Don’t let the entry, in a cluttered jewelry mall put you off. This terrace atop a colonial building on the west side of the Zócalo, affords optimum views of the Plaza and the Cathedral. The menu offers well-done Mexican standards - great for a drink and snack. .And on a clear day you can see forever...well, maybe as far as Popocatéptel.

Restaurante el Mayor
Republica de Argentina 15 (corner of Justo Sierra)
Tel. 5704-7580
Open daily form 1:30 to 7PM

Puro Corazón
Monte de piedad 11. 6th floorbetween Madero and 5 de Mayo, Zócalo.Tel.: 5518-0300 ext. 121.Open daily for breakfast and lunch
Take the elevator to the 6th floor, but walk down so you won’t miss the excellent crafts shop occupying several floors of the building.

La Terraza del Zócalo
Plaza de la Constitución 13, 6th floor, Centro Metro: Zócalo
Tel. 5521-7934
Open Monday-Thursday 1-8 PM, Friday, Saturday 1 PM - 12 AM, Sunday 1-6 PM
This article was previously published, in part, in The News Mexico City


Counting Sheep: La Oveja Negra

Santa Maria la Ribera, one of the oldest colonias in the capital, is a mixture of dreamy nostalgia and scrappy urban growth. Its streets are lined with crumbling 19th-century mansions, cantinas and small family-run businesses, which evoke a genteel long-gone era – if walls could talk…. A Moorish fantasy kiosk reigns majestically over the central plaza, here called the alameda, (it’s a leftover from a forgotten world fair), and the time-warp Museo de Geologia sits like a set from a Steven Spielberg movie. Old-timers and recently settled young artists hang out there like they do in any provincial Mexican town. Three blocks west is the justly famous La Oveja Negra, family-owned since the 1950’s, where you’ll find the best barbacoa (or BBQ) I’ve eaten in Mexico.
Feasting on barbacoa is a weekend tradition all over central Mexico. Our version is nothing like American BBQ as it is wrapped and steamed, not roasted over coals.
The restaurant’s open façade is decorated with lovely Talavera tiles. On the left, an efficient assembly line of apron-clad women produces hand-made tortillas. Behind the counter chefs serve up consomé while others grill sausages. But the star attraction is proudly displayed in the entryway. Buried beneath enormous leaves of maguey (similar to what is used to produce tequila) in a huge tin tub, the wrapped meat has been pit-roasted above a wood fire. The juices from the tub are seasoned and served as consomé, a hearty lamb broth , garnished with cilantro and onion, and jazzed up with a squirt of lime.
Start your meal with nopales aztecas , tart cactus stewed in a complex chili sauce. The plato oveja combines smoked chorizo, fresh cheese, chicharrón, and guacamole. Both tasty and filling, it’s a perfect appetizer, big enough to share.
The curtain doesn’t rise, however, until the star attraction arrives: enter La Oveja herself. Barbacoa is best ordered by weight–I suggest a half kilo for four. The meat is served wrapped in a penque de maguey (its cooking wrapper), and accompanied by tortillas. The tender, juicy meat hits all the marks. Swathed in a smoky corn tortilla, doused with their earthy salsa, this is Mexican food nirvana. What’s their secret? Only the best quality sheep are used. The family has its own ranch in the state of Hidalgo, where they raise organic livestock, as well as producing cheeses and chorizos. How can you go wrong?
To wash this feast down, there are fresh aguas de frutas, beer, or for the more adventurous, curados (fruit flavored pulques), offering a rare chance to sample this essential Mexican beverage.
A few standard desserts, such as flan or strawberries and cream are laid out as an afterthought-- most diners will be too sated to consider them.
As this carnivorous feast will set you back about 100 pesos per person, it shouldn’t break the already teetering bank.
A Sunday comida at La Oveja Negra is an essential Mexican experience that I happily recommend to all – save the hardcore vegetarians.

La Oveja Negra
Sabino 215, Santa María la Ribera
Tel.: 5541-0405
Open Saturday and Sunday only, from 7:30 AM until around 6 or when the meat runs out, whichever comes first.
No cards – bring cash; parking next door.