The first hint that you've entered Argentinean/Uruguayan territory is the telephone pole on the corner of Corona Avenue and Junction Boulevard. It's painted blue and white, the colors of the flags of both countries. The second hint? El Gauchito: a butcher/restaurant. Don't be fooled by the seemingly small spot. Inside you'll find enough Argentinean goods to make any hardened expat or recent tourist ecstatic.
Most days, you'll find Mario José sitting at a corner table by the entrance, drinking tea and greeting regulars with a hearty hug as they come in. (On a busy Sunday it seemed most were regulars.) He's been there a full 34 years, and it's thanks to him and a few others that this corner of Queens has become the go-to spot for Argentinean treats. "The neighborhood isn't that Latino," he explained, "but it has a long history. You know, there's the [Argentinean] barber, Carlitos—he's been here some forty years. And then there's the bakery, Rio de la Plata, and [the restaurant] La Esquina Criolla, which is ours as well. We've been here a long time—even the C-Town now sells Argentinean products. So people know to come here for these kinds of things."*
* Note: quotes here translated from the Spanish by the author.
Mario José moved to New York almost a half century ago. He'd been a butcher in his hometown of Mendoza, Argentina, and his first job in his new home was at Los Pebetes, the now defunct—but at the time quite famous—Argentinean butcher at 95-22 37th Avenue in Queens. Mario José opened his own carnicería (butcher shop) a few blocks from Los Pebetes on Corona Avenue not long after. About ten years into his reign, he expanded to include a restaurant.
Full disclosure: my family is Argentinean, and it's hard to maintain objectivity and not faint straight away from joy when presented with such a wealth of nostalgia-inducing products as at El Guachito. The fainting-straight-away, however, should be indication enough that El Gauchito is about as Argentinean as you can get in NYC.
Though the bustling restaurant takes up most of the space, the "bodega" tucked in the back is worth the trip. For most, "Argentina" is synonymous with "beef," and the butcher will not disappoint. Here you'll find everything you need to host a proper Argentinean parrillada (barbecue/cookout), including typical cuts like asado de tira (short ribs) and bife de lomo (tenderloin), as well as morcilla (blood sausage) and homemade chimichurri. As an entrada, or appetizer, pick up patitas aliñadas, a typical pork dish from Mendoza; lengua a la vinagreta, marinated cow tongue; berenjenas en escabeche, pickled eggplant; or everyone's childhood favorite, matambre, something of a meat roll-up, stuffed with a hard-boiled egg and vegetables, sliced thinly, and served cold.
I was surprised to learn that only a few cuts of beef, like sirloin, are actually imported from Argentina. (This has been the case for more than a decade, something to do with travel time for perishable goods, and U.S.-imposed regulations, one has to imagine.) Still, Mario José assured me they have the next best thing: meats from, yes, Nebraska. "In Argentina, the best animals, the best meat, come from Santa Fe and Córdoba, but mostly Santa Fe. Here, in this country, Nebraska is the closest you can get to that kind of quality. Nebraska has good pastures, lots of open space, so the flavor of the meat is better." (Hello grass fed beef!)
In addition to la carnicería, El Gauchito doubles as an almacén, a typical provincial corner store. There's a wealth of classic Argentinean products tucked away neatly on shelves behind the butcher counter, and you ask the butcher for your groceries as he wraps up your order. There are several brands of dulce de leche, perhaps Argentina's most famous sweet export, in the two common types: "regular," for
eating by the spoonfulspreading on toast, and "repostería," a darker, more caramelized version better suited to baking. There are several brands of sweet alfajores, as well, including Jorgitos, Cabsha and the true crème de la crème (which I personally had never before seen on the shelves of a New York establishment), Cachafaz.
You'll find flat tins of dulce de membrillo (quince paste), bottles of terma (a bitter herbal drink akin to Fernet but without the alcohol), ground coffee, turrón (nougat), packets of criollitas and cerealita crackers, flour, polenta, sal parillera (grilling salt), and double-sized tins of hearts of palms, a popular snack when served with salsa golf. And of course, there's yerba mate—Unión, Taragui, Cachamate, Rosamonte, Cruz de Malta, CBSE and Nobleza Gaucha—sold by the kilo or as tea packets (for mate cocido, literally, "cooked mate"). If you don't have a gourd at home for drinking mate, you'll find a nice selection at El Guachito.
You can order sandwiches—morcilla, lomito, milanesa, molleja (sweetbreads)—for take-away at the counter if you don't have time to sit, and you can buy pasta casera, homemade pasta, and frozen empanadas—in beef, chicken, spinach, ham and cheese and humita (corn)—to cook at home as well. (It goes without saying that you'll find CDs of Argentinean music, and tiny fútbol jerseys for outfitting your kids à la Messi or Tevez, too.)
Like the neighborhood it calls home, El Guachito is itself a family affair. Two of Mario José's three children work at the restaurant, and most of his kitchen staff has been there more than fifteen years (one Argentinean cook has been at the grill more than two decades.) The walls are hung with paintings of idyllic Argentinean scenes or famous Argentineans, painted by Argentineans both in Buenos Aires and in New York. The recipes are Mario's, inherited from his own parents, and like any good family place, everything is made to order. Mario José shook his head, laughter in his eyes, at an impatient customer waiting for a sandwich. "It's like being at home," he jokingly admonished "The sausage doesn't cook itself faster because it's my kitchen instead of yours."
94-60 Corona Avenue, Elmhurst, NY 11373 (map) 718-271-8198