La Boca is modeled after the steakhouses of Argentina and ordering a steak here is not automatic -- like calling out your go-to T-bone or strip -- but rather something requiring a new look and in some cases significant tableside coaching from the staff.
So it goes with that skirt steak special, which is grilled with the animal's silver skin -- a membranelike organic cellophane that is normally removed by the butcher. La Boca renders it into a crust that actually does crackle under the teeth, like a beefy potato chip fused to the surface. But its essence has seeped back into the steak, with the result being something intriguing, delicious and quite unlike steak you'll encounter at any other local restaurant.
Difference is the dynamic at La Boca. Each bite of steak can seem different from one to the next because of combinations of textures and the variety of tart chimichurri sauces that come with most selections.
La Boca's bife de lomo is the house filet mignon, and while it may technically be the finest cut on the menu it is, for that reason, not my favorite choice here. Any number of restaurants might do the filet as good or better, but no one in these parts is cooking the vacio -- a huge marinated flank steak -- like this, much less the centro de entrana, a hanger steak that has made cameo appearances in my dreams since our first encounter under the heavy timbers of La Boca's low ceiling. It's listed on the menu as a 12-oz. cut but seems closer to a whole pork tenderloin grilled just for you. The exterior is crusty to the point of carbon then works its way back through a ruby color chart to the center for a mouth-pleasing dance of flavor and texture that goes on and on.
The steakhouse is the latest restaurant from chef Adolfo Garcia and his business partner Nick Bazan. They also run RioMar, the Latin-Creole seafood house that is on my personal short list of the city's best restaurants. It is located on the opposite end of the same block and that's usually where you'll find Garcia cooking most nights. At La Boca, chef Jared Ralls, formerly of Vega Tapas Caf in Metairie, runs the kitchen.
As much as La Boca embraces the South American steak aesthetic -- i.e., make it crusty and make it big -- the restaurant also has an Italian streak that is just as much a part of its Buenos Aires idiom. Italian immigrants poured into the city late in the 19th century and their culinary traditions made the same kind of impact on the Argentine palate as they did in New York or New Orleans. There is always a pasta dish or two at La Boca, the best of which is the "noqui," the potato pasta known outside Argentina as gnocchi. Here it has a toasty flavor and a rich creamy sauce, al dente bursts of crisp green peas and flecks of pancetta. Another example is the ravioli, tender bundles of cheese lightly drizzled with olive oil and served with shiitake mushroom and disks of sliced asparagus.
The appetizers share a South American/Italian theme. There's bruschetta with a topping of smoked trout and sweet relish, but the cross-cultural star is provoleta, a skillet of provolone cheese that comes out not quite bubbling but stretchy, gilded with olive oil and seasoned with pungent oregano. The provoleta cries out for something crustier than the just-okay house bread to make it perfect, but that won't stop you from eating it all by itself.
Sweetbreads, or mollejas, are quite distinctive here. Served in portions as large as chicken cutlets, they have the texture of well-done scallops and the smoky taste of something pulled straight off the grill. Even people who don't like offal don't need to be persuaded to try more than one bite. More crowd pleasing, though, are the empanadas, meat pies with braids of dough at their lips sealing in mildly seasoned ground beef.
Steaks are served a la carte with a short list of side dishes on which the fries reign supreme. Served in a cone of butcher paper like a bride's bouquet, they are irresistible, no matter how much meat you know is en route to your table.
The restaurant stays open until midnight Thursday through Saturday, which is the conventional time for dinner to start in many Buenos Aires restaurants. The staff at La Boca doesn't always share that cultural enthusiasm for vampiric dining hours, however, and showing up after 11 p.m. can invite some brusque service. Otherwise, they are eager to please and knowledgeable in explaining what for many visitors will be a completely new approach to steak.
The bartenders can mix cocktails made with the South American brandy pisco and the bar also stocks Quilmes, a crisp Argentine lager. A few samples of just the Malbecs on the wine list will answer any question as to why Argentines are known for having one of the highest rates of wine consumption of any civilization.
One Argentine brag, in fact, is that their wine has only lately begun catching on internationally because so few bottles manage to escape the domestic thirst. That's changing these days, and in our own little corner of the world La Boca could stand as an import center for the joys of their country's robust culinary heritage.