Luis Gajer Discusses Lacy Thongs and Three-Foot Steaks at Las Vacas Gordas
What other cook do you know with three feet of meat?
Photo by Riki Altman
More flesh for your carnivores: At right you see the longest pieces of cow flesh you will come across at any local restaurant, for sure.
Chef/owner Luis Gajer of Las Vacas Gordas has been rolling up skirt steaks since 1996 when patrons first started rolling into his restaurant. When he and his wife moved from New York to Miami back then, they had no idea they'd go into the business. "I never knew nothing about restaurants," he confesses. "I never had a restaurant before and I never worked in a restaurant before. Everything I knew was about sales." Obviously, this means he never attended culinary school. However he is quick to add, "Anyone from Argentina or Uruguay... knows how to make a salad, barbecue, steak on the grill. We cook for pleasure. It's not a vocation."
When they found the location where they would create their dream eatery on Normandy Drive, Gajer recalls, he and his bride realized prostitutes, drug dealers and gangs were his neighbors. "I didn't care," he said. "People were laughing about me, giving me a couple of months." But now the joke is on them as Las Vacas Gordas has been going strong for nearly 15 years, even during a recent remodel, while restaurants located across the street have changed concepts repeatedly. The restaurant sells upwards of 2,000 pounds of skirt steak alone each week and diners can watch it all being prepared in the expansive open kitchen to the east of the tables and chairs.
New Times: So how did you survive in those early days?
Luis Gajer: For the first year and a half, I was cooking and doing the grill and my wife was in the dining room. I was so scared. I had never even seen a commercial kitchen before.
Aside from the remodel, what's changed about your restaurant since its grand opening?
We've added very little things. The steak you had 15 years ago is exactly the same we are still serving. Fifteen years ago it was $6.99. Now it's $23.99. Exactly the same size. Two or three weeks ago we started serving Kobe. I never thought people were willing to pay $70, $80 for a steak!
We never served anything with bones. Now we've started to serve wagyu tomahawks. I think there are only four ranches in the whole U.S. that can cut this particular steak.
Are you getting your meats from Argentina?
Everything is American beef. It's so much better. I never hid the fact that I use American beef.
What's your most popular dish?
The skirt steak. All portions are over a pound and a half.
And why are they rolled?
We had to roll it up to put it on a plate. We never cut it. Sometimes, when the cut is too small, we add a little piece.
And you serve it with chimichurri, I presume.
We put jalapeño in our chimichurri. I can't tell you 100 percent of the people love it, but 99 percent of the people love my chimichurri. We make 15 gallons of fresh chimichurri every day.
Is that some Argentinean recipe I've never heard of?
It's not a traditional chimichurri. In Argentina and Uruguay we don't eat spicy at all. Everything I do here I do because I like it.
Who is the most famous diner you've ever had?
Everyone coming here is important. But years ago someone called for Sylvester Stallone to make a reservation. We told him we don't take reservations.
Did you change that policy for him?
Eight years after that. We never took reservations until about a year ago.
No other famous people?
Before the renovation we had one full wall of pictures of people who used to come here. But people didn't care too much about that. Here are the pictures people are begging me to put back: The mens' room used to be full of pictures of naked women and the ladies' room, of course, naked men. Nothing pornographic. All ages were enjoying those pictures!
And now they're all gone?
Maybe I will put them back.
In the meantime, I noticed you have a lacy thong and pair of tighty whiteys framed outside the bathrooms now. Guess you're into potty humor?
When we first opened we put a couple of markers in the restrooms for people to write on the walls. I never painted those walls in 12 years.
Any interesting notes left for you?
Some very nice things, from important people. And there were some bad words.
Look for the second part of this interview tomorrow to learn Gajer's thoughts on sweetbreads, Malbec, and burly bovines.
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