“But we can go somewhere else,” he offered nervously. Even before landing in Mendoza he had brought up the idea of treking out to this place on the outskirts of the city. But he seemed to think I wanted to sit on touristed Sarmiento swirling a glass of overpriced wine with the sun bouncing off my chalk-white skin. I assured him that the place he was describing – only locals, outside the comfort zone, they only really sell one signature item and it’s a sandwich – was exactly what I always want when it comes to just about any city. Better when there is a fixer who drives us there and orders for us. All the more ideal when that fixer happens to be a young candidate in the midst of his political campaign who needs to show face and support local businesses.
The place is local, yes. Sketchy it is not. Families and friends sit inside and out, sipping copas of vino or sharing a liter of Quilmes while waiting for the waitress to come around. When she appears at the door all eyes aim at her like one hundred hungry darts. Loyal minions trace her every move to guage whether her tray is bound for their table. I was no exception. What she carries is a stack of the one and only item the place is known and beloved for: the lomito sandwich.
Barloa seems to be good for more than just a sandwich though. It’s a spot overflowing with onda, obviously a cultural landmark of the city and province. It’s a hang-out where people of all walks of life gather – the bohemian, the artsy, workers and politicians – to get away from the glitz and glam of Mendoza’s overtouristed central avenues and to experience something real and timeless. Apparently Barloa burnt to the ground last January, but was rebuilt within a few months due to a dramatic push from regulars who refused to accept the loss of an establishment so culturally irreplaceable. Founded by mendocino boxer “Papito” Barloa, the restaurant offers just a handful of things – chorizos, chicharrones, ice cold beer – but specializes on a lomito sandwich with house-made garlic mayo made with the Papito’s secret recipe. It is the lomito that keeps the place constantly packed. Stacks of them circulate on trays, a somewhat sloppy looking sandwich but one that keeps the clientele thoroughly satisfied.
It is popular procedure to pop over to the rotisería across the street to buy french fries while your friend orders the beer + sandwiches and holds the table. There is no deep-fryer at Barloa and crappy french fries are not really something they want to be known for. When our friend returned with the thin, white, way too consistently shaped frites, I had a handful to soak up the first few sips of our Heineken. They were pretty bad. Not even Burger King bad… McDonald’s bad. He asked me how I liked them and I politely lied, “They’re great.” When the sandwich came out I was dreading doing the same again.
I didn’t have to. The last thing I remember was the crunch of bread and the out-squirting of creamy, aioli-like mayonnaise upon my first bite before I blacked right out. When I came to I was lowering the last small corner onto my plate, whipping smudges from my face with not enough napkins. Neither myself nor my two dinner companions had uttered a single word between bites. Aside from the initial “Mmm…woah,” the experience had been a silent one. It’s hard to describe what exactly made this sandwich so absolutely wonderful. The bread reminded me of a thin marraqueta (a.k.a. pan francés, I don’t know why…) which I had grown to love while living in Chile. It had yeasty, doughy layers in the middle but became incredibly crunchy and brittle on the toasted surface. Then, a grilled hunk of tenderloin gushed forth savory meat juice. The grill smoke was present on the charred exterior but it did not come at the expense of dryness. Into each bite of meat was injected a bit of garlicky, herbal twang by an ethereal mayonnaise “casera.” Its frothy, whipped texture stood out as surprisingly gourmande for a sandwich that cost around $3 USD. Other than that, there was only a thin layer of negligible lettuce that could have been just as absent as tomato was. It really just came down to the mayo breathing moisture into the bread and adding a luxurious, creamy base to tender meat. An interplay of three ingredients. It was a rough and messy steak sandwich but with juicy Argentine beef that was never tough, never chewy. Definitely not what $3 would buy ya in the States.
Papito Barloa is not a place I would’ve heard about or trekked out to in the company of my gringa besties either the first time I visited Mendoza or the second. You kind of need to go with a local to get the smiles and nods from folks at other tables that complete any dining experience here. My companion put his black hoodie over my shiny RL top upon arrival and non-verbally implored me to not make obvious that I’m (North-)American. But my heels were not a problem. The sandwich was amazing, the beer bien helada and the smiles genuine all around. The vibe helped me understand Mendoza as a city of mendocinos rather than the Argentine Napa that tourists flock to for bikes-and-wine tours through lush vineyards (…Guilty!) A delicious revelation indeed.