Burger Joint – Cheap can leave you Cheerful!

The UK press abounds with Shergar munching misery. Cheap food surprisingly appears to be made with cheap ingredients. Who would have thought it? The rare-breed, black face, Angus cow that you believed to be in your ready-made lasagne, turns out to have been an early faller in the 3.30 at Kempton races. Neigh, I don’t believe it, I hear you snort.

Well, your average Tesco rump steak costs £15 per kilo but you can buy frozen burgers at Iceland for £2.20 a kilo.  So what cut of meat is 6 times cheaper than rump steak? As they say in the States “you do the math!” And to save you the headache of nodulating over this inequilateral equation for too long, I’ll give you the answer. It’s called filler, something that is such a disgusting mixture of mechanically recovered gunge, dubious species, chemical flavourings, stabilisers and other atrocities, that no right thinking person would ever inflict a cheap burger on his nearest or dearest.

Actually, the horse meat is the least of your worries. It’s generally a lean, healthy, dark meat, though rather strong tasting and sweet for my tastes. Of course, no civilised person would ever eat it, let alone kill a horse (not an unbiased view, I consider myself a horseman after all). Unless of course it was a mercy killing, though thereinafter you are obliged to dig an unfeasibly large hole and erect a massive marble monument. Well, other than the French obviously, but despite our admiration for the rest of their wonderful cuisine, we still have doubts about their intimate shaving abilities.  Says it all doesn’t it? Horse murderers with hairy armpits!

Much has been made of the dangers of Bute, the equestrian painkiller of choice to relieve the swollen joints of the hardworking equine and its potentially toxic effect in the food chain. Well I had an arthritic friend that swore by it, demanding the vet prescribe it for her perfectly sound horse, so she could anaesthetise her own depleted synovials.  Given the small percentage of horse meat found in most filler, you would have to eat a hundred burgers a day to feel the beneficial effects of the Bute as you go for that yoga stretch. And by that time, the rest of the (totally legitimate, cow based) rubbish will have killed you.

Happily I live in Buenos Aires. The best meat at my not-inexpensive butcher costs about 52 pesos per kilo (£4.72 on the “blue” market). I want to make burgers? 70% rump (cuadril) fat left on, with 30% rib eye (ojo be bife). Passed through the mincer twice. While I watch! Like a bloody hawk!! My target is about 20% fat, which will keep the burger nice and moist as it cooks. If the meat is a bit older and has gone that browny-purple colour, so much the better. A kilo will do 8 decent burgers and guess what, it’s top quality steak. You can cook it rare.

There are a lot of theories about making and cooking a “proper” burger. They all have their merits. Some even use filler, but only nice things, breadcrumbs, onions, herbs, garlic, and eggs to bind? Whatever takes your fancy?……… Thin or thick is a reasonable debating point. Thin is about getting that tasty crust on the outside while leaving the inside moist and tender. It’s focussed on the Maillard reaction (nonenzymatic browning) that imparts the flavours that the burger chains try and replicate with their various additives. Done well it’s good, if a little crunchier. Thick is more about the meat’s inherent taste and texture. It’s more complicated to cook. You can squash a thin burger and it seems to “rise” during the cooking process, its texture loosening. Squash a fat one together (perhaps using that abomination, the hamburger press) and the heat penetrates unevenly, leaving you with a solid mass, overcooked on the outside with a cold blue interior.

Heston (Blumenthal) is a cook with an obsessive/compulsive disorder that a Buenos Aires psychiatrist could make their life’s work. It might take you three days just to prepare breakfast according to his strictures. However when he says a burger should be light and airy, I believe him. After all, if you want a steak, then buy a steak. The problem with a light, airy burger, is how do you get it to stick together? There are two things he recommends; one, add quite a lot of salt before you mix the meat (it breaks down certain enzymes and acts like a light glue and appears to render out with the fat) and two, align the fibres as they come out of the mincer, roll them in cling-film, chill, then cut in rounds. I’m sorry, the first I can handle but my butcher already thinks I’m weird (and overly demanding). If I ask him to match up the fibres, he’s going to slip Black Beauty’s nether regions into the mix, just for fun. Though maybe when I have my own mincing machine….?

So my burgers I want quite rare. Thick and loose! And with the full benefit of the Maillard reaction. What’s the plan? Well I mix the above-described mince with salt, very finely cut garlic, a dollop of oyster sauce (and optionally finely minced onions). I kind of throw them lightly between my hands, minimum pressure, hoping the salt has made them a bit sticky. And then I take Gordon Ramsey’s steak cooking advice, which can be summed up as, turn the heat up to inferno temperature and keep the buggers moving. As with a steak you will gradually achieve the lovely brown exterior, but if you flip every 30 seconds, the inside will be evenly done; none of the graduations from grey to blue. And remember, you have just bought quality meat. You could eat it as tartare!

As a side note, English public health fanatics are trying to ban the occurrence of the rare burger, I kid you not;

(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/9731808/Is-this-the-end-of-the-rare-burger.html )

Hopefully, they may now have something more important to worry about? Neigh?

Anyway, to the point of this ramble; The girlfriend and I went off on one of those long directionless walks and we passed a hamburger joint, called the “Hamburger Joint “ that a Chef friend of mine had recently written up. http://nolachef.net/2013/02/27/ba-faves-burger-joint-palermo/

I don’t always follow Lisa’s recommendations. She’s a yank. I’m not. And while she is a great cook, there is a fast-food cultural difference. She wants better quality fast-food (http://nolachef.net/2013/02/13/burger-bliss/). I don’t care!!! However, this place had a different “Onda” and we were peckish. Surely worth giving a shot?

To be fair, I’m spending a lot of time studying the food scene here. I for one remember how badly you could eat in London 15 years ago. Or how badly you can eat in Sheffield now? I suspect that in ten years Buenos Aires will be the new gourmet venue and I really want to be a part of it. If I ever serve you horse, it will have a family tree back to Nijinsky, and be charged accordingly. And maybe smoked over the tobacco of pure Cuban cigars?

Other than Lisa’s recommendation, the other thing that encouraged me to try the Burger Joint was a complaint on another review site. “It took them 20 minutes to cook my burger,” moaned Mr Never Cooked.  Well of course it does if they have a successful business, people waiting, and cook everything from fresh. What do you want, a pre-cooked horse patty that comes out in 3 minutes?

The place? Scruffy chic, kind of Rock and Roll, who cares? The burger, biggish, a bit more of the flattened ilk, quality meat, looks like beef, tastes like beef, they ask you how you want it cooked but it all comes out medium-well done. Chips that actually taste of potatoes. Nice fresh guacamole, red onions and salad. Big squeezy bottles of different sauces including a picante that is actually picante.

The fact is, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, I went to Wendy’s recently. I heard a lot of ex-pats squealing joyfully about this addition to BA’s cultural continuum. And while I’d tried Mickey D and Burger King in extremis, this sounded different. I don’t think we have them in England. The American dream or at least the genuine diner experience? Turns out it’s the same dross but with a rectangular burger, so it protrudes enticingly from the round bun. Disgusting all the same! And the interesting thing is, is that their equivalent, hyper processed, artificially enhanced, hamburger interloper combo (fries and a drink), is MORE expensive than the same at Hamburger Joint, a place where the potatoes taste shockingly of potatoes.

Hamburger Joint annoys me. It’s a business I’ve given a lot of thought to. Six months ago it wouldn’t have been difficult to compete in a market where it was virtually impossible to find an edible burger. Now, looking at how busy they are for their 55 peso Mexican combo’s, (with real potatoes and drink) maybe I should just ask for a franchise?

And by the way, the people were nice, enthusiastic, no problem changing the mistaken diet coke for the full fat version. I hope they stay that way as success leads to their commercial roll out! I hope they keep the 5 different homemade squeezy bottles of sauce, including a proper picante. More than anything, I hope they have got their numbers right and will stick around.

If so, count me in for the next 5 franchises boys!!!!!

And yes I know I repeated myself about the picante, but it has taken me years to train a couple of Chinese restaurants to up the spice levels to something detectable by the non-porteño human palate. Finding it in a Hamburger Joint, well how rare it that?

(No pictures with this review but you can click through to Lisa’s above; she takes better photos than me).

Tiger’s Milk

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When my father behaved badly, which was not infrequent and invariably booze fuelled, my mother would undertake a subtle but cruel revenge the next morning. All in the interest of his health you understand? If my youthful memory serves me right he would be presented (obviously feeling a little worse for wear), with a strange witches brew of live (read fizzily fermenting) yogurt, mixed with all kinds of other well-being inducing but totally unpalatable ingredients, with a couple of gloopy raw eggs stirred in at the last minute. “Tiger’s Milk” she called it. Maybe there was tabasco, maybe not. That could have been the Bullshot. A consomme and egg yolk concoction which was as close as he came to eating solids before midday.

So imagine my consternation when stumbling puffy-eyed around the bedroom, squinting through the window at the bright blue sky and the first shimmers of midday heat, wondering how I was going to get through the cultural agenda that I had enthusiastically planned the previous day, before getting intimate with a Mr Maker and his Mark via a succession of Old Fashioneds and the girlfriend suddenly says;

“I think you need some leche de tigre.”

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I’ve never thought of her as sadistic, not even passive-agressive but images of my father’s sad face as he swigged his penance flooded back.

“Was I really that badly behaved last night?” I mutter.

“No you were fine, unusually charming for you, but it will set you up for the day. Why don’t we drive down to Abasto and visit Mochica?”

There is not much I like about Abasto apart from the fine Art Deco building that was converted into its central shopping center. From the outside only you understand? And the idea that a restaurant had institutionalised morning-after punishment, failed to fill me with joy. But much gets lost in translation and the girlfriend has spent 7 years living in Peru. Perhaps my panic was premature.

“So describe this tiger’s milk.”

“Its a creamy mixture of the juices that ceviche is cured in. You’ll like it. We’ll ask for it spicy…and they do a great pisco sour.”

So all of a sudden this is sounding an enticing option. Presumably if you get the milk you get the ceviche it came from. And other than the fraudulent Chilean variety which only makes me sad, I haven’t drunk a decent pisco for a year, sour or otherwise.

“And the owner’s called Elvis,” she tells me. Sold! I love restaurant owners with ridiculous names.

So we wander down there around 3.00 pm and find ourselves in a vaguely smart (if this were the 70’s), airy restaurant packed full of Peruvian families tucking into mountains of food. They have extreme fighting on a couple of TV screens. My head still hurts a bit and I wonder whether it would be acceptable to try a couple of the moves on some of the noisier kids who are running around unchecked (normally I would find this sweet and tell the girlfriend glowingly how the UK is so child unfriendly and how wonderful it is that families can socialise together).

The girlfriend turns out to be well-known. Ordering is not complicated. The big house-special mixed ceviche, extra leche de tigre, Peruvian spice levels, after all we are not Argentine’s who will cry like young girls at the first hint of chilli. All the same, as I dip my bread into an innocuous looking dish of green chilli sauce, the waiter hurls himself towards us with cardiac resuscitation equipment. Maybe I’m beginning to look like an Argentine. I regale him with stories of mutton phal down Brick Lane. It calms him.

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So the ceviche? My father would have probably actually enjoyed it, even though it contained solids. A great selection of fresh (this is a high throughput restaurant, it doesn’t hang about in the fridge) white fish, prawns, squid, mussels and clams, though strangely also those weird-coloured artificial crab stick. Fresh citric flavours, undertones of coriander and smooth green-tasting spice. And a big cup of leche de tigre whose creaminess toned down the acid assault on my delicate stomach lining. Plus a proper pisco, single distilled and matured in those strange looking clay vessels.

Taste buds zing, vitamins flow into the system, spice inspires a gentle sweat, pisco smooths out the remnants of abuse.

Truly the breakfast of kings!

If I was a proper food journalist I’d be able to tell you about the history, the menu, the other dishes. I can tell you about the price though. About 200 pesos all done, including the artificial looking, but apparently completely natural drink made from purple corn, that Veronica drank. While we shared a starter between two, believe me it was enough (believe me? How old fashioned. These days we have photos). I did stroll round the tables though. Frituras of fish, copious enough for four. Chicken and rice, kind of Peruvian paella style. Sadly not a Guinea Pig in sight.

So yes, there are the fine tiraditos at Osaka, and vibrant ceviches at Sipan, but if you want a man’s breakfast, a meaty portion not a minimalist art work, something that will chase your hangover to the next week? And while for an expat it isn’t that expensive, for its Sunday regulars its probably a treat and they know what their cuisine is all about, so you have to accept that the flavours are the real deal. Veronica confirms as much.

Sorry my pictures aren’t great but hope they say enough.

Salmonella on a Stick

With lots of other foodies out there doing an admirable job of reviewing BA’s burgeoning restaurant scene my original intention was only to write reviews about restaurants I really like, as an aide memoir prompting me where to direct my guests. And indeed I went to a new one, a puerta cerrada in Palermo called Ocho Once, on Thursday night and frankly it may rank as the best closed door restaurant in Buenos Aires. Possibly, taking into account its reasonable price point for 5 courses ( 200 pesos and the fact that it provided us with a stunning Catalpa 2011 Pinot Noir for 120 pesos) it may shortly be declared the best restaurant in Buenos Aires. But I didn’t take my camera and I know foodies love pictures and the food was pretty, as well as strong flavoured and complex with sauces clearly made from lovingly constructed stocks, so I wouldn’t be doing it justice to review it now. Anyway I need an excuse to go back next week, for the sake of professionalism you understand.

And then last night I ate, no that’s an exaggeration, I tasted, rejected, changed dishes, tasted again and buried my head in my hands in despair, the worst food that BA has to offer, subtly combined with the most obtuse and annoying service that people can only perfect when they know that they are selling you something of embarrassingly low quality but wish to retain a certain pride in their valueless existences.

To be honest we didn’t go to Bangalore (imitation Brit pub and alleged Curry House – there, I’ve named and shamed it) for the food. We went for the Gin, which they do in jugs with homemade tonic and which is actually quite good, especially when you swap out the Beefeater for Tanquerey and go for the cucumber infused version. But then my girlfriend mentioned being peckish and despite misgivings, I didn’t want her to pass out through lack of sustenance so we went for the simple, hard to get wrong, minced chicken kebab.

Wrong as in I was. You can get a minced chicken sausage on a stick wrong. Horribly so! Dangerously so!! Now Veronica is a pleasant person, so I am not saying that this was a deliberate attempt to assassinate her. After all they had only known her for a few minutes. But she’s not stupid, she made sure I took the first bite. It was in a word unusual. Flavoured with spices that I certainly didn’t recognise and I am certain no Indian would. Possibly with something that might be familiar to a pet shop owner that trades in small rodents? Chargrilled on the outside and entertainingly stone cold within. Mushy. Totally disgusting. I mentioned the amusing lack of heat to the guy behind the bar.

“We always serve it cold in the middle”, he replied with no hint of a nervous twitch.

“But this is chicken,” I ventured, “a well known carrier of salmonella”.

“Ah but we cook it before we make the kebabs”. Maybe a flicker in the peripheral muscles around his right eye.

“So how do you achieve the desired mushy, raw chicken texture that you are clearly aspiring to?”

“Ah, that will be the egg we bind it with.”

“Raw, of course?”

And obviously we should have left then but we had just ordered another jug of gin so we asked nicely if he might change said plate for something that had had a more intimate relationship with a source of heat. And he kindly said of course he would but we still had to pay for it. And of course I asked whether he was F•••••g joking to which he replied he wasn’t so I thought it best to talk about the dangers of Salmonella poisoning and the very nasty after effects in a very loud voice that would be adequate to cause concern to all the happy diners who were likely to spend the next day getting acquainted with God’s telephone. Until the owner arrived and kindly agreed to change this abomination of a raw chicken and egg bacteria bomb for his recommended 3 curry taster special.

Now I don’t look much like Marilyn Monroe. Even if I call myself Marilyn and persuade all my friends to call me Marilyn, even if I shave my legs, stuff my chest, wear flouncy dresses and spend a lot of time posing over an air vent, I am never going to resemble that unique confection of womanliness that drove punters and presidents crazy. No matter how much I want to be Marilyn you will still see me as a middle aged English guy with a little belly and skinny legs. And this was the problem with the curry. Just calling it curry doesn’t make it so. Yes the meat one was vaguely curry coloured but so is goulash. And the chicken and pumpkin ones could have been in a creamy curried sauce but were in fact just in cream and strangely cheesy tasting cream at that. Other than being served with something that resembled naan bread this food had no more connection with India than I have with life on Mars. Not one spice, bulb of garlic or stick of ginger had been even vaguely waved in its direction. So let’s cut a long story short. Even though I’m a timid guy, I suspect the closest the owners have ever got to Bangalore is Quilmes so I’m going to risk a Fatwa here. If you want a jug of (not bad) gin (they also have decent draft beer) and beef goulash and stuff in cheesy cream sauces then Bangalore is perfect for you. The “curry” dishes are cooked through so probably won’t kill you. Anything else probably will.

If however you didn’t come to Buenos Aires in search of the famous Delhi Belly, avoid Bangalore like the plague.