BY JOE DISTEFANO
As the Culinary King of Queens, I’m so very fortunate to live in the most diverse and delicious destination in all of New York City. Really I’m not royalty though, I’m an ambassador, and a hungry one at that. Today we visit Argentina via Corona at El Gauchito, one of my favorite steakhouses in Queens.
You might think I chose this Argentine emporium, whose name means “the little cowboy” for my first column because I’m covering the myriad international cuisines of Queens in alphabetical order and you might be right, but really it has more to do with summertime. After all summer’s the perfect time for grilled beef and cold beer, but sometimes it’s just too hot in New York City to do it yourself, and that’s when I like to head to this temple to Argentine gastronomy — i.e. sumptuous grilled meats served with plenty of garlicky chimichurri.
Antipasto El Gauchito, a platter laden with creamy beef tongue, a terrine of pig feet, pickled eggplant and matambre, is a great way to begin a feast here. The name of that last specialty, matambre — a rolled veal breast stuffed with spinach, olives and cheese — translates to “hunger killer.” Should you be dining solo, or have a hunger that doesn’t require slaying opt for the beef empanadas; there is also the distinct possibility you might be in the wrong place if your appetite is not up to the task.
El Gauchito started out as a butcher shop in 1978, which Mario Civelli named for the mascot of his home country’s football team in that year’s World Cup. The butcher counter, filled with special Argentine cuts like vacio or flap steak and homemade blood sausage, is still there as is the mascot El Gauchito. These days the restaurant, which started as little more than a butcher shop with a grill in the front window, has expanded to take up two storefronts with two dining rooms, each a museum of Argentine culture lined with pictures of cowboys, accordions and tiles created by Argentine artist Anibal Cicada that depict celebrities like famed musicians Frank Valiente and Carlos Gardel, the country’s most famous tango singer.
The main event at El Gauchito is of course beef. The steaks here — including the bife de chorizo (shell steak) and entraña (skirt steak) — are excellent and take well to the garlicky, herbaceous chimichurri sauce. A better option though is the mixed grill, which includes entrana, asado de tira (short ribs), vacio (flap steak), mollejas (sweetbreads) and morcilla (blood sausage). The latter — made from beef blood, and secret spices — is so good that Mario’s son, Marcello has begun wholesaling it to other Argentine restaurants throughout New York City.
Offal lovers can also opt for riñones, or beef kidneys, a specialty which are particularly prized by El Guachito’s Ecuadorean customers, according to Marcello. He noted that the restaurant’s customer base is almost as diverse as Queens itself. Colombians, Peruvians, Paraguayans, Brazilians and Korean all come to worship at Corona’s temple of meat.
“Koreans like the short ribs because they are used to thin cut kalbi style short ribs,” Marcello said.
Those short ribs used to be Marcello’s favorite, too, but he says these days he’s not much of a steak eater.
“I love seafood and fish. Astoria Seafood is my favorite,” he said with a laugh.
In the not unlikely event that you need to make room for dessert — flan and dainty shortbread alfajores filled with dulce de leche — avail your self of some siphon, as sparkling water is called in Argentina, and a shot of Fernet Branca.
El Gauchito is located 94-60 Corona Ave. in Elmhurst. Visit elgauchitonyc.com for more information about their menu, or call 718-271-1917 to make a reservation.