BY GEORGE ABSHER at Gjusta ||

“I am the asador, see?” said Chetoba.  “And an asador always has an assistant.  Do you know what a good assistant does?”

“Um… Hold the tools?” I guessed.

“Keep my wine glass full,” he said smiling.

“Oh, I can do that.” It was a Malbec from the ancient wine cellar next to the river.

“The oldest wine dealer in Argentina” the man in the clean black shirt had said after Chetoba told him I only spoke English.  Then he regaled us with stories from the past.  Bottles waiting ten years for customers, the old days, and the catacombs, and the reason a toast is called a toast.  “It’s because the they used to put pieces of toast in their glasses if the wine was especially shitty, and then they’d say, ‘toast’ to remember to take it out before they drank it.”

That was my kind of place, although I only believed maybe half of what the bald goateed merchant told us.  There were bottles everywhere.  An adobe crypt down an old staircase with rows of dusted reds and candlelight.  Bury me alive, I love this place.  I ended up buying four bottles: two reds, a sauvignon blanc, and a rosé.  Chetoba got another bottle of malbec and a bottle of Frenet Branca.

I had been drinking Frenet con Cocas all last night.  It was good.  A lot of spanish and me making up stories for the words I heard and didn’t understand, which was most of them.  I had my notebook too. Don’t worry though, the stories were shit.  I didn’t even write them down.  I’d been busy with other things, like wondering how to write a book.

Anyways, Chetoba and I polished off the first bottle of Malbec with impressive haste as we finally got all the meat onto the grill.  It was a mountain of meat.  All kinds, all cuts.  Pork slice, pork rib, filet mignon, bife de chorizo, regular old carne and regular old chorizo too, and this incredible blood sausage called morcilla.  The chimney on the grill was a smokin’ when we corked the second bottle.  It was a red blend that Chetoba had picked out for me at the Bodega.  It was better than the first even, a Malbec x Cereza blend bottled by DaDa.  I was a good assistant.  And Chetoba, he as a regular gaucho behind the grill, that guy.  A dash of salt, a spread of herbs, but not too much.

“Gaucho is not gourmet,” he told me.  “It’s simple.”  He told me everything about asado.  How to bring the coals up to heat on the side before shifting them under the grill.  It’s different than BBQ in the States.  Chetoba’s grill wasn’t fancy, just an outfitted oil drum on a rack with a chimney and a shelf on one side and a place to heat the coals on the other.  I good old-fashioned smoker.  But just under the iron grill-sheet there was a layer of ceramic bricks laid out under the whole thing.  When the coals were ready, he slid them onto the bricks, right under the meat, with a little flat-spade shovel, like something you’d find next to a nice fireplace.

“You can order these meats in a nice restaurant with marinade and fine sauces and spices, but that’s not Gaucho.  Gaucho lived on the land with just a fire and the cows and chorzio – you know, the pigs. Simple.  Nothing fancy.  But we still make the meat good.  You have to know what to choose at the carniceria.  If you don’t choose, and just ask for bife de chorizo, for example, yes, they give you bife de chorizo, but definitely not the best.  You see this?”  He pointed to a thick white piece of ligament or cartilage or what have you on a crackling piece of beef.  “The white eye, you see?  These are the best cuts.  That’s the best flavor, right there.  And see this?”  He poked the meat just next to one of the white eyes and it squealed with the steam and smoke.  “The meat’s softer there, not so, um… how do you say…”

“Chewy?” I guessed.

“Yes. Not so chewy.  Or tough, you know?” he said, pounding a fist into his other hand.  “It’s soft.  Tender! That’s the word.  It’s tender.”

“Mmm. Tender’s good,” I say.

We eat outside at a simple concrete table outside, decorated in colorful simple, yet beautiful ceramic mosaic on the seats.  The tablecloth was flying around in the wind, almost knocked over the wine, until Chetoba’s wife came out, glass in hand, half-full, and a green salad and bread, and tied the corners under the tabletop, and we ate.  Tito and Sofie came out too with a set of simple wooden plates and forks and knives.  We could hear the wind in the tall eucalyptus groves on the other side of the wall, it was whipping, monstrous, like a waterfall through the trees and the lore nests.  We couldn’t even hear them and their cacophony anymore over the sunlight thunder.  In the compound though, it was only light gusts.  It was a lovely lunch.

The meat exploded in my mouth.  First the pork slice.  Crispy.  Then the filet.  Then the bife de chorizo, my God.  We just ate it straight as Chetoba served it right off the grill, in what felt like a very specific order.  After the bife, a thick slice of carne, then the morcilla.  My god.  Coagulated blood never tasted so good.  It’s a strong flavor, mixed with onion and spices inside.  Amazing.  And finally the chorizo and pieces of thick provolone Chetoba had cooking in a tin on the grill at the very end, just to soften it up a bit.  Through the whole thing, Chetoba was always talking, explaining, storytelling, mystifying in my mind the Gaucho way.  Like a Latin cowboy Homer.  Around the dinner table.  That was his way.  To pass on stories.  Keep them alive through their telling.  Gauchito Gil.  His island paradise.  The road trip to Mountain View.  All the travelers that came through.

“There was this one Australian and his wife,” he started.  “Every year or so, maybe every two years, randomly, I’d get a call from him because they were in Argentina, and he’d say, ‘Chetoba, get the asado ready, I’m in Argentina.  And he’d come, and we’d go to the Bodega.  He was always drunk this guy.  A stumbler.”  He did his best impression, swaying and dazed in the face.  “He’d go up to the counter, stumbling, and say, ‘What’s your best red wine?’ and they’d look at him puzzled and um… apprehensive, yes.  Because he was so drunk and stumbling. Maybe they thought he was going to steal it, I don’t know.  But they would look at me, and I shrug, and they would show him and he would say, ‘Good, I want a case.’ He would get two cases! And we would come back and I would make asado everyday, and he would buy the finest wines, and the meat too!  We ate like kings and queens,” he said looking at his wife.  “And we drank well.  Like kings too.  When they would leave, I would have boxes of wine stacked in the living room.  It was a good business.  The last time he came, his wife wasn’t with him though, I think it was all the drinking, and the swaying.  But he was a good man.”

[stop]

 

@gbabsher