My landlady in Argentina was often times like a mother to me, taking the place of my actual mama who was no longer just a T ride away. She’d sometimes become annoyed when I’d leave my room in disarray and she’d tell me (in front of friends) “Te engordaste. Se ve en tus brazos” when I put on my expat-15 from all the buttery medialunas. We bickered about a lot about a lot of things – whether weekend trysts to Punta would sustain a long-distance relationship with my Uruguayan boyfriend, whether her trips to see her Capitán on his boat in the Bahamas were enough for her to feel healthy, secure and loved. (Turned out the answer to both was “no”.) She’d take care of me when I was sick, hang my laundry to dry and cook when I desperately needed home cooking. She’d uncover for me hidden dove nests full of hairy little hatchlings on our terrace. She was also the one who took me out to my first proper meal in BsAs, to El Sanjuanino around the block.
El Sanjuanino was her favorite place in town and a remarkably accurate representation of her as a person. Rural and homey and real, but housed on a sleek, elegant street in Recoleta. She’s an Armani wearing, lentil eating lady who feels just as comfortable crunching numbers at her office as herding her cows bareback with her Rottweiler named “Bebe” by her side. She appreciates the good life but feels most comfortable drinking Gancia and Pomelo, smoking a cigarette or a joint at a bar down the country road. She’s tan and strong and smart and sincere, with a harsh but substantial soul to offset an overwhelming collection of dainty designer heels. She’s a badass if I’ve ever met one. Naturally, El Sanjuanino is the perfect fit for her. It seems like more than a coincidence that it’s 2 blocks away from her apartment.
I’ve already discussed ad nauseam the significance this place had to me later on. It’s where my roommates and I would go for cheap but fantastic empanadas, pinguinos full of wine and a hilarious, laid-back, always tranqui time. The menu is extensive, focusing strongly on baked empanadas, hearty stews, traditional comfort foods from the Northwestern region (the San Juan in “El Sanjuanino”), which make local hearts melt.
My favorite empanada here (and everywhere) is the pollo. Juicy shreds of white meat chicken are mixed with creamy soft onion and stuffed into a smooth and firm crescent of dough that snaps into sheets when bitten into. The crust is not too buttery, more doughy and crisp like a perfectly toasted flour tortilla or the bottom of an oven-roasted thin crust pizza. The filling is not seasoned too intensely, just a little sweet from the caramelized onions. Yet there is plenty of flavor from the chicken. It’s my favorite empanada in the entire city, and it seems pretty popular among those who are picky about this sort of thing. The great thing about El Sanjuanino is that their empanada menu includes a fried option, which is surprisingly uncommon at restaurants in Buenos Aires. I suspect this is because french fries are frozen and baked rather than fried to order, and thus a deep-fryer does not count as a necessary kitchen item. I grew weary of always hearing the same answer to my inquiry about fried empanadas: “That’s more of a Salta thing.” But El SJ has one and it’s damn good. The dough is golden brown and crunchy. The braided edges feel as buttery and flaky as a pie shell. Crumbly, tender ground beef soaked in plenty of spicy meat juice floods the face magnificently. It’s an incredibly satisfying mouthful if you can manage not to burn your palate. I would recommend tearing off the tip and letting some of the hot steam out before taking that first bite, even if it’s hard to bear the wait. Another house specialty is the Provoleta Cuyana, which is the version of provoleta apparently traditional in the Western region of Cuyo. A big bowlful of provolone is topped with thin slices of cooked ham and tomatoes and sprinkled with a few green olives and dried oregano. The bowl is baked until the interior melts and becomes gooey and stretchy. The cheese near the rim bubbles over and becomes crunchy, as do the edges of the ham on top. The tomatoes are not the best, as baking them dries them out and removes most of their flavor and freshness. But I guess they add a nice color. The key here is to swiftly slice the thing into four quarters and move a piece to the plate before it gets stringy and rubbery hard. For this you will need an Argentine man with the innate ability to carry out a smooth transfer. It’s also important to eat the thing before the oil separates from the cheese and before chewing it becomes laborious. Standard at best is how I would describe El Sanjuanino’s version of this dish, which can be found at pretty much every restaurant in BsAs. I would recommend skipping this one here and getting one of the many specialties El Sanjuanino has absolutely perfected – the locro, the humita, the modongo – instead. Or…
…the lentils! Oh the lentils at El Sanjuanino… My dinner companion and I could not stop talking about these, even days after the experience. I’m not really surprised he liked them and it’s not just because they were downright perfectly made. I’ve never met an Argentine male who hasn’t had a strong affinity to this dish. The most proper, Polo-toting porteño transforms into a trembling, wide-eyed puppy at the mention of lentejas. Just one spoonful of this rustic, earthy pot of goodness melts the most urban man-about-town into a puddle of affection. Maybe it’s a grandma-grandson thing, as it is in Hungary where nagymama’s often prepare it for their hungry, bunchy sweater wearing grandsons to warm them on cold winter afternoons. In the States grandma’s make casseroles and apple pie, not lentils. Only the most stylish of Brooklyn hipsters eat the stuff and they do so with irony and faux humility. They do it at some vegan restaurant where a bowlful cost $8.00. It makes no sense.
The real deal is exactly what El SJ serves up in a baked clay pot. It is a warm stew of woodsy lentils that are cooked until soft but firm, with plenty of bay leaf bringing out their natural rock-and-soil flavors. But what elevates this dish to its plateau of excellence is the addition of salty, smokey chorizo along with bits of bacon and tender chunks of shank or rump or shoulder. These meats breathe life into the little beads, imparting piggy essence that rounds out the earthy quality of the lentils. Salt, smoke, dry-cure, age combine with herbs to make the broth of the stew substantial and complex. It’s only an added bonus that the slices of chorizo get pillow-soft, melting readily on the tongue; and that the fatty, flavorful ham hunk falls apart into tender, juicy shreds of meat with each bite. This stew is one of those magical foods that have the power to remain fixed in one’s memory for years, for a lifetime even.
El Sanjuanino is a restaurant that can do no wrong. It’s genuine in a way that is hard to believe in a city where so many restaurants force a false sense of authenticity to get at that tourist dime. It caters to locals, ones who stay a while, ones that have been regulars for decades, folks like my dueña. Only a 5 minute walk from the miserably fake, polished-up parrillas of Plaza Francia El Sanjuanino sits, modestly beckoning customers with quality proven instead of with uniformed jackasses shouting “Argentine BBQ, gaucho style steaks” at English-speaking passersby. My well-meaning landlady brought me here for the same reason that I’ve returned so often. Wine, real food and a joyous, highly satisfied crowd. I only felt a little bit guilty after my dinner companion and I hid and took a pinguino engraved with the name and address of the place. It remains one of my most cherished (and practical!) possessions, a piece of another life and memories of anotha motha adorning my kitchen cabinet in D.C.