Moo Over Miami
If the adage "you are what you eat" were true, the Argentine language would consist of just one word: moo. Cambalache, a new Argentine restaurant in Sunny Isles, features, as all Argentine restaurants seem to, the parillada, whose dual translation can imply "grill" as well as "many grilled meats, some strange cuts of which produce looks of puzzlement and apprehension on the faces of foreigners." The menu here informs that the meats get served on a special "refractory" plate heretofore used exclusively by the Restaurante Lucio in Madrid. The plate's dual purpose is to allow the customer to cook their steaks to desired doneness, while keeping the array of parillada meats warm. My mother would have referred to this as a hot plate with a pedigree.
The entrance to the restaurant is a butcher shop where the meat fabrication takes place; behind the counter is the grill. The word cambalache means "thrift shop," and, turning left from the front room, you'll enter a dining area whose décor reinforces the consignment-store theme. All manner of odd objects, authentically antique, are suspended from the ceiling: a baby carriage, sewing machine, dolls, mannequins, bicycles, and so on. If you were to remove all the bric-a-brac you'd be left with a ceramic tile floor and wooden tables and chairs that seat 64.
We were greeted and seated right away, then brought menus, water, and rolls by a courteous and competent waitstaff. The array of homestyle Argentine-Italian dishes includes matambre, omelets, puchero, buseca, milanesas, pastas, and meat meat meat meat meat.
Exceptionally light empanadas, the shell crackly like fried wontons, the insides hinting of piquancy, kicked things off in impressive fashion. Provoleta, an Argentine white cheese that gets grilled to a warm, soft consistency, likewise whetted our appetite for the entrées to come.
When the entrées did come, the accolades stopped. The chicken leg and thigh sitting atop the yellow rice of our arroz con pollo arrived undercooked. The dish was politely whisked away and another steaming hot, take-no-risk-this-time-so-we'll-microwave-it plate of chicken and rice took its place within minutes. This one was cooked through, but still wasn't an especially inspiring example of poultry.
Of course I had to try the parillada, but my beef-abstaining mate was not about to make an exception and delve into grilled morcilla (blood sausage). So I ordered the parillada for one, which, unbeknownst to me until it arrived, does not come on the acclaimed refractory plate from the Restaurante Lucio in Madrid. It comes instead on a very ordinary plate, the meats noticeably lacking in sizzle and spark. In fairness, I'm not an enthusiast of morcilla myself, but I wasn't overjoyed at the pork and beef sausage either, nor the greasy ribs or dried-out nuggets of sweetbreads. One worthwhile cut of meat was the baceo, a small, juicy square of skirt steak. All in all a generous amount of food for $13 ($21 for two), yet while I wasn't expecting steak-house quality, this parillada paled in comparison to other equally low-priced competitors.
A New York steak, pair of pork chops, or half-chicken would probably be safer grill items to start with. Pastas are likewise better bets, though neither the cannellonis stuffed with spinach and spicy ham, nor the chicken lasagna are particularly heady versions. If you want headiness, you'll have to get it from one of the wines of Argentina, extremely well-priced at $8 to $32 a bottle.
Flan, poached pears, tiramisu, and a pancake plumped with dulce de leche are also bargains at $3 to $4 apiece. Cambalache turns out to be like a thrift store after all -- the prices are cut-rate, and if you find something you like you'll go home happy.
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