Yes, you can eat a skillet of bubbling, melty cheese for dinner
When is the last time you completely lost yourself in a meal? This week’s recommendations will have you dreaming of Buenos Aires in a tiny Van Nuys strip mall and reminiscing about the last time you went camping and licked marshmallows off your sticky fingers.
The sizzling hot things at Mercado Buenos Aires
Ribbons of steam rise from a round of cheese on a jet-black oval skillet. The cheese is violently bubbling around the edges, quickly collapsing on the hot surface but never quite losing its shape. On top is a mess of dried herbs, forming a dark green crust of oregano and chile flakes. On the side sits a pile of finely chopped tomato, the grease from the cheese seeping under the fruit, making everything look slick and shiny. Thrust in a fork and pull away a strand of cheese as long as your arm. This is how dinner begins at Mercado Buenos Aires in Van Nuys.
Owner Paul Rodriguez says the provoleta is also a common way to start a meal back home in Argentina. To prepare the cheese for the extreme heat, he air-dries the provolone with dried herbs for 48 hours. It’s a darker, more bitter provolone than what you might be used to, with a sharpness made even more dramatic by the dry aging.
The trick, Rodriguez says, is to get the cheese hot enough on the grill to approach molten but not so hot that it loses its structural integrity entirely. The asador at the Van Nuys restaurant is a master, getting it just right before transferring the cheese to the skillet for service. The amount of dairy is staggering. I popped two Lactaid pills (now might be a good time to admit that I’m lactose intolerant but just accept the discomfort). It was worth it.
Next is a parrilla, a tabletop grill loaded with your choice of meat. Rodriguez wanted to bring a taste of his weekend barbecues in Argentina to his restaurant and market. The grills, filled with hot charcoals, are meant to evoke stealing a piece of meat straight off the grill in Rodriguez’s family backyard.
“Saturdays, your family gets around the grill,” he said. “You grill some meat, and when the asador says it’s ready, people start grabbing pieces. That’s a very typical meal in Argentina.”
The parrilla Argentina is a deluge of hissing skirt steak, short ribs and links of chorizo. It’s served with both a green chimichurri and salsa criolla. The salsa you can eat with a spoon like a heavily dressed tomato salad, with chunks of tomato and bell pepper, onion and paprika. I added copious amounts of the green chimichurri onto my meat, drowning it in the parsley, garlic, oregano and pepper-flake dressing.
Good chimichurri is one of those condiments you can use to enhance anything. Meat, fish, chicken, rice, pasta, salad. It all works. I left with a jar of the stuff (they sell it in the adjacent market to go).
The greatest hits at the Rose Venice
Over the past seven years, Jason Neroni estimates that he has served at least 3 million covers at his Venice restaurant. That’s thousands of bowls of cacio e pepe, thousands of bowls of crispy Brussels sprouts in dashi broth, and too many slabs of avocado toast to count. To celebrate the restaurant’s seven-year anniversary, he put together a seven-course tasting menu available for the month of November. It’s a compilation of his greatest hits, the dishes that keep the restaurant’s dining rooms consistently buzzing.
I’ve spent a lot of time in those rooms over the years. On each visit, the mood seems to shift. The bar is ideal for drinks with friends or first dates. It’s where I once suffered through a date with an L.A.-transplant acupuncturist who wanted to be an actor and had just come from a silent dance party on the beach with his yoga buddies. The atmosphere can save most duds. The patio is lively, the place for brunch with friends or dinner with family members visiting from out of town.
Cacio e pepe is everywhere. How this simple Italian dish with four ingredients became the dish of the moment.
The tasting menu is best experienced at the counter seats facing the large open kitchen, so you can watch your focaccia emerge from the oven or the pasta chef twirl your noodles seconds before they arrive. But really, any seat will do.
The cacio e pepe, now an off-menu item, makes an appearance on the tasting menu. Neroni introduced the pasta back in 2015, but its popularity eventually proved problematic for the staff.
“If the cacio e pepe were on the menu, it would be the only thing we would sell,” Neroni said. “We still go through 20 orders a night on average.”
And when is the last time you had s’mores? I found myself pondering that question while I dug into dessert, a deconstructed s’mores with a quenelle of smooth chocolate ganache, brûléed marshmallow peaks and a graham cracker crumble. I couldn’t quite remember but decided it had been way too long.
For now, you can make reservations for the tasting menu using OpenTable. But Neroni said you should be able to request the menu the night of. It’s worthy of a celebration, even if it’s just for mustering the energy to leave the house.
It's a date
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