The gauchos are often considered to be South American versions of our cowboys. They rode horses, chased cattle and wore cowboy hats. But the gauchos were a more racially mixed breed, with European, native and sometimes African blood. They were just as often scavengers as herders, having refined their skills on the half-wild offspring of escaped cattle that filled the vast grassy pampas of southeastern South America. During the period when leather was the most valuable commodity offered by cattle, gauchos would glean the meaty carcasses left behind by the hide harvesters and preserve the beef over coals. Their grilling style has come to define Argentine cuisine.
Diego Grant’s gaucho cred is strong. He comes from a family of beef grillers, chimichurri mixers and fireside mate drinkers, with genealogical roots that extend across the pampas from Patagonia to southern Brazil.
Grant’s food truck, Gauchito Catering, has taken to the cashays of Albuquerque—cashay being how Argentines pronounce calle in their thick Castilian accents. In tow behind the truck is a custom-built trailer sporting a stainless steel, wood-fired parilla (pari-shah), or grill, where sheets of grass-fed beef and green chile pork sausage cook on mesquite coals. A smaller parilla, separated from the main one by a firebox, grills marinated portobello mushrooms for the vegetarian sandwich.
The meat—skirt steak—is tenderized mechanically at Nelson’s Meats, where the sausage is also made. The result of Nelson’s mechanical treatment is a soft, sponge-like holder of grease and sauce that becomes supersaturated with flavorful juices.
Both steak—asado—and the sausage—choripan—are served on Mexican torta-style bread baked by a guy named Tito, who charges more than all the other bakeries, even the French ones, for a comparable roll. But when it comes to the roll (and most other ingredients) price means nothing to El Gauchito.
He comes from a family of beef grillers, chimichurri mixers and fireside mate drinkers, with genealogical roots that extend across the pampas from Patagonia to southern Brazil.
“The French bread is so dry,” he told me with a look of disdain that few but true Argentines can pull off. He then looked fondly at Tito’s roll. “This bread is more salty, more sweet and more wet.”
The grilled bread is dressed with locally grown greens (Jardines de Montezuma), a slice of no-name tomato, and laden with meat. It’s served with a dish of chimichurri—a vinegar, oregano and onion-based sauce that’s nearly wine-like in its ability to complement the flavor of meat. It is in his chimichurri that Grant displays the depth of his culinary chops. Different elements of acid dance on your tongue, cutting through the meat and grease, while floating on the exotic aroma of imported Argentine oregano and red chile. Resonant, dissonant, symphonic complexity takes a moment to sink in.
Grant also serves big, delicate empanadas, including one with chopped, marinated grilled portobello with cheese and another filled with ground beef, milk and black pepper. The pastry on the empanadas is thin, crunchy and light, while the filling is generous.
Standing in front of his parilla, sipping mate, Grant described a new empanada he’ll soon be serving called the Gashayga. He was trying for “Gallega,” Spanish for “of Galicia, Spain.” The Gashayga, which contains tuna, onion, egg and red bell pepper, is a popular empanada in Buenos Aires, where Grant lived for 30 years before emigrating north.
Like the empanada filling that traveled from Spain to Argentina, the grill topping that came from Argentina to New Mexico has handled the journey well. It’s been subtly changed and arguably improved. The raw materials up here are different, but Grant has figured out how to make them sing gaucho music. He likes mesquite, which burns faster and with less smoke than the oak he’s used to. Green chile elevates the choripan sausage into something truly exceptional, which won’t surprise many New Mexicans. And the way Grant talks, even the bun that green chile sausage comes on might be an improvement over his beloved Miñoncitos of home.
But there are limits to any compromise. Grant would be the first to tell you, with that Argentine grimace, that the mate here sucks.