THE GRILL AT EL BOLICHE VIEJO steak house, in the foothills along northern Patagonia's Limay River, near Bariloche, looks like something made from the recycled parts of a medieval torture chamber. It's built of fire brick and heat-blackened iron, and the grate is adjusted by a hand-powered system of chains and sprockets that move with a fine-tuned clink. For the past seven years, this grill, or parrilla, has been under the jurisdiction of Rafael Huemchal. He's about 40 years old, with a pudgy face and black hair that he keeps tucked beneath a cheap short-order cook's hat. He served a full ten years in the restaurant's back kitchen before ascending to his current@#95;box photo=image_2 alt=image_2_alt@#95;box position. The length of his apprenticeship suggests the national importance of his job, which bears the cool-sounding Argentinean name asador. That translates roughly as "grill man," though as I watched Rafael I thought of Dr. Frankenstein, who, if he'd wanted to assemble a cow instead of a human from miscellaneous body parts, could have come here and saved himself the hassle of digging around in old graveyards. Rafael regularly handles beef cuts from front legs, back legs, ribs, heads, necks, hearts, stomachs, intestines, kidneys, tongues, briskets, and diaphragms, and many of those were sizzling in front of us.
I'd been warned about this by my friend Diego Allolio. Born in Concordia, near Argentina's border with Uruguay, Diego, 40, co-owns Meridies, a Bariloche-based adventure travel company. The former rugby player often leads expeditions to such inhospitable places as 22,834-foot Aconcagua, the highest point in the Western Hemisphere. I had figured my humble quest to find the best steak in Argentina would be something he'd take lightly. If anything, I expected him to question my ability to adequately cover the culinary turf of a nation measuring more than a million square miles in nine days. Instead, he questioned my ability to cover the animal.
"Steak ?" he asked. "In Argentina, we eat every part of the cow."
"I can handle it," I said. "Just take me where I need to go."
Diego tipped his head and looked at me in the same way I'd look at my six-year-old neighbor if she threatened to drink me under the table. I hadn't paid much attention to the gesture at first, but then Rafael gave me the exact same look upon hearing my purposes for coming to his restaurant. I could almost hear him thinking, "OK, little American, let's see what you're made of." He began placing each forkload of beef on the grill with a slapping movement that seemed to say, "Take that! and that! and that!"
Such aggression caught me off guard. After all, I'd come to Argentina with the reverence of a Buddhist going to Tibet. If you were to add up my thoughts throughout the course of any given day, you'd see that I think about eating and cooking meat over other things by about three to one. I've tried everything from dog paws in Vietnam to antelope bladders in Montana, and I consider those line-drawn butcher's charts to be like fine art. I always figured I was an honorary Argentinean at heart. Residents of the country pack away 143 pounds of beef annually, much of it grilled on the parrilla (a word that can also refer to the restaurant or the grilled meat itself) and served with little more than a sprinkling of salt. That's almost 50 pounds more than burger-fanatic Americans drown in ketchup and mustard in the same period of time. No wonder former Argentinean president Carlos Menem offered this recommendation to the U.S. trade publication Western Beef Producer: "Tell your readers, 'Don't come to my country if they're vegetarian.'"