Photo by Ron Jasin

August 8, 2012

Back home again in Argentina at Palermo Viejo

Think globally, eat locally: I can hardly think of a better place to do both of these things than Palermo Viejo, Louisville’s only Argentine restaurant and a perennial favorite among ethnic eateries.

Where is Argentina? If you answered “Down past Mexico somewhere,” you’ve probably come closer than many Americans, sadly, to locating this major nation that runs down the southern part of South America, below Brazil between the Atlantic Ocean and the Andes mountains.

Let’s take a bold step toward geographical literacy through a fine dinner at Palermo Viejo. It’s likely that your dinner will include beef, since Argentina — like the United States — boasts an international reputation as a beef producer. Our cowboys swung lariats on the prairies; their gauchos wielded bolos on the pampas. Unfortunately, both countries nowadays are seeing dramatic change in the beef industry as industrial producers move cattle from grazing lands into mass feedlots, but that’s another sad story for another day.

Indeed, Palermo Viejo’s bill of fare is heavily focused on beef. Sure, you’ll find lamb, pork and veggie options, but much of the menu is devoted to Carnes la Parrilla (meats on the grill), with beefy options ranging in price from $18 (for Tira de Asado, beef short ribs) to $20 (for Lomo, a 6-ounce grilled beef tenderloin).

Grilled meat combos are $20 for the basic model with a flank steak, chorizo sausage and a bite of beef sweetbreads; $25 gets you the all-beef version with rib eye, strip, flank and chorizo served, in South American style, atop a bed of crispy fries and drizzled with garlicky Argentine chimichurri sauce. Super-size it for $28 and get the Completa, a meat lover’s special with all the above plus chicken breast and pork tenderloin.

Argentina resembles the United States as a beacon that drew in immigrants from all over Europe. As many Italians came to Argentina as arrived in America during Ellis Island days; roughly one-third of modern Argentines boast Italian heritage, and that’s distinctly represented in Argentine food. Palermo Viejo offers such Italian delights as Milanese ($13, Milan-style breaded-and-fried steak, chicken or portobello cutlets); and pasta, pasta, pasta, including canelones, ravioli and fideo pasta (all $16).

Italian immigrants drove Argentina’s wine industry, too. One of the world’s leading wine regions, it’s centered in Mendoza in the high Andes, and these wines are well represented on Palermo Viejo’s affordable wine list. (We enjoyed a fine Malbec from Valentin Bianchi, $30, poured brimful in small trattoria-style glasses.)

Our friends Sarah and Kelly joined Mary and me for dinner on a steamy summer evening. Palermo’s smallish dining room is casual and comfortable, exposed brick walls and wood floors providing a rustic feel, with white tablecloths and napkins a bit more upscale. Leather tablemats and menus bound in wood add an eclectic touch.

Warm sliced Italian bread with whipped butter got us started, and we quickly filled the table with four entradas (appetizers).

Provoleta ($6) is a Palermo Viejo specialty that is mighty hard to pass up: Provolone cheese is slapped on the parrilla grill, allowed to melt into a warm disk, then slathered with olive oil and showered with aromatic chopped oregano.

Chorizos ($7), Palermo’s house-made Argentine-style sausages, come in a pair of fat, juicy links, with garlicky chimichurri on the side for dipping.

Argentina’s Tortilla Espanola ($6) is a Spanish-style tortilla, not Mexican flatbread but a frittata-style egg dish loaded with thin slices of tender potato and herbs. Four thin wedges with garlicky aioli on the side make for a filling app.

Sweetbreads ($3 for an appetizer portion) are so much easier when you don’t think of them as a calf’s thymus gland or pancreas. If you like organ meats, Argentine-style sweetbreads seared on the parrilla are as good as it gets.

All the beef came packed on a charcoal-loaded parrilla: Bife de chorizo ($19, a 10-ounce strip steak; Ojo de bife ($19, a 12-ounce rib eye), and more sweetbreads came out sizzling, cooked medium-rare as ordered. In the not-beef department, bite-size ravioli ($16) dressed with tuco fresh tomato sauce were as good as I’d expect of a mom ’n’ pop Italian eatery.

We had nothing but praise for Palermo’s signature desserts, banana cream ice cream and crepe and a caramel flan with dulce de leche ($5.50).

The share of dinner for two, with a bottle of Malbec making up about one-third of the toll, came to $92.75, plus a $20 tip for excellent service.

Palermo Viejo
1359 Bardstown Road
456-6461
Rating: 92

Field-to-Fork dinner to benefit Food Literacy Project
Mark your calendar now so you won’t miss this one: The Food Literacy Project’s annual Field-to-Fork Dinner will be 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, at Marketplace Restaurant at Theatre Square. A battery of the city’s top chefs will be paired with local farmers to take advantage of the autumn harvest bounty, creating an elegant five-course dinner featuring fresh locavore meats and produce. Advance tickets, $85 per person, will go on sale in September. Your support helps Food Literacy Project connect Louisville’s young people to healthy, sustainable food. For more about Food Literacy Project, visit foodliteracyproject.org.

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