Welcome to Dining On A Dime, a feature in which Lucas Kwan Peterson surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive and, well, quite tasty in this here city. Where do you want us to go next? Do share.
The reputation of the San Fernando Valley for being something of a culinary wasteland is certainly not undeserved -- a highly scientific study I conducted shows that if you are standing literally anywhere in the Valley's 260 square miles and blindly throw a rock, you are 97% certain to hit either a California Pizza Kitchen or a mediocre sushi place on Ventura Blvd.
This is why places like Mercado Buenos Aires in Van Nuys are so special. It would be enough if it only served delicious food -- fatty and tender steaks, plump chorizo sausages that snap satisfyingly when you bite into them -- but the Mercado also happens to be one of those rare places that, while frequented by outsiders like me, is primarily a bastion for local expats.
Let me explain: everyone inside this large restaurant/deli/market seems to be Argentine -- ladies' lunch groups chatting up the waitstaff under the watchful eye of a Lionel Messi poster, tables of old men playing cards and pounding espressos, an enormous man shoehorned into a booth, tucking into a Milanesa steak sandwich while keeping one eye on his newspaper and another on the fùtbol game showing on one of the Mercado's many television sets.
In Argentina, nearly 70% of the population identifies as White (in Mexico it's 6%, by contrast); this is due largely to the huge influx of Italian immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Naturally, this is reflected in the cuisine: the aforementioned Milanesa as well as a wide selection of pizzas and pastas. The caprese salad, for example, at $5.99, is clean, delicious, and a stronger choice than the uninteresting "Ensalada Buenos Aires," which is essentially just mixed greens with a couple hearts of palm thrown in.
The meat, as one might expect (the average per capita beef consumption in Argentina is 150 lbs/year), is where the Mercado really shines. The lomo (filet) has a lot of give -- pushing down on it is like testing the meaty part of your palm right by your thumb -- but yields easily to the knife and is not remotely chewy. The filet is generally maligned as being an "uninteresting" cut of meat, but in this case I prefer it to the sirloin -- it's still tender and nicely marbled as well as modestly seasoned, tasting of little more than salt and black pepper. Both cuts can be ordered as sandwiches for around $10, or as more expensive entrees. The "Parrillada Buenos Aires" -- a huge selection of grilled steak, blood sausage, short ribs, and sweetbreads, can be had for $33.99 and is big enough to share.
No discussion of Argentinian food would be complete without empanadas. The Mercado serves six or seven kinds -- flaky, yielding pastry that is cutely stamped on the outside with a letter indicating what meat or vegetable lies within. The chicken might the strongest, full of soft, smoky dark meat. The spinach is excellent as well, but also contains hard-boiled eggs (for those of you who aren't down with that). Empanadas can be ordered at the restaurant but also purchased fresh or frozen in the deli section. In the market section, opposite the restaurant, one can purchase, in addition to local Argentine products, jars of the outstanding and sharply garlicky chimichurri sauce which is served on every table at the restaurant and goes well with everything.
— Lucas Kwan Peterson
Mercado Buenos Aires is located at 7540 Sepulveda Blvd in Van Nuys. The restaurant is open Sunday - Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday & Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
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