It's been quite a while since I had any significant quantity of meat when I receive Alejandro's invitation to Parrilla Tito the week before Christmas. Meat is ubiquitous in Argentina, but the quality of cooking can vary greatly, so the recommendation of a decent parrilla (restaurant serving barbecued meat) from a local is a valuable thing. To add intrigue, the place is often lovingly referred to as the 'secret parrilla', it being a well-guarded secret. Indeed my search for information online yields very few results so I have to wait for Ale's instructions on the precise location. All I know is that it's somewhere near Las Cañitas, a sub-neighbourhood of Palermo.
Devoid of any obvious sign, fronted by mirrored windows and heavy metal bars, I manage to walk past oblivious, before retracing my steps. A battered door opens onto a strip-light glow of a room, ceiling fans churning and porteños turning in their seats to see the novelty gringa step inside (it momentarily makes me think of The League of Gentleman T.V series quote "this is a local shop for local people, there's nothing for you here..."). Our table is upstairs on the terrace so I ascend the stairs out of the fluorescent glare with relief, and take a seat in the breezy, softer outdoor setting. For me, the bright strip-lighting can only be a positive indication of what is to come. A running joke-turned-truism between myself and several friends is that the brightness of a restaurant's lighting is in direct correlation with the quality of its food; the more luminous the lights, the tastier the grub. I can only imagine that the relationship is defined by a deep investment of energy in the preparation of the food meanwhile neglecting all the supposedly-trivial supplementary considerations that make up a dining experience.
Of eleven people I am the first to arrive a little before the agreed meeting time of 9 o'clock, but it's not long before I am joined by others. Half an hour later there are five or six of us, all the non-Argentines vaguely on time, all the Argentines neatly conforming to their stereotyped tardiness. By 10 o'clock Ale, grand organiser of the evening, and a few others have still not made an appearance – not that anyone is remotely surprised or concerned – so spurred on by our growing hunger, barely eroded by the glib baskets of bread on the table, we order a starter of Proveleta. This is a classic dish made of a distinctive kind of Argentine cheese, derived from Italian Provolone. It is meant to be barbecued to crispy perfection on the outside but left softly oozing in the middle, usually served as an appetiser before the asado (barbecue) proper. Parrilla Tito get the disparate consistencies just right, and washed down with red wine it makes the ideal prelude for the anticipated meat feast.
Parrilladas - table-top barbecues - are ordered, once the last straggling members of the group have arrived. Five or six different cuts of sizzling meat are served on mini grills: chorizo (pork and beef sausage), vacio (flank) bife de chorizo (sirloin), costillas de cerdo (pork chops). I lose count as I start to help myself. This is simple unadorned animal protein, what the Argentines do best, and what Parrilla Tito have mastered. Some cuts of beef could have been rarer, but that’s personal preference and the compromise of ordering a shared meal, something which is more than made up for by the innate pleasure of communal eating and having the opportunity to try un poco de todo.
The numerous bottles of wine and beer empty fast, evaporating rapidly in our large group, but the drinks keep on flowing until well past midnight. It is the Thursday before Christmas, a festive feeling permeates the air and numerous bars await us in Las Cañitas. We make an odd, but not entirely unusual group in the diverse and all-encompassing city of Buenos Aires. A mixture of expats, locals, people passing through; some know each other, others have never met, all brought together to enjoy the laid-back affable atmosphere of the beloved ‘secret parrilla’. Thank you for the invitation Ale, and for letting me in on the secret.