Monday, May 16, 2011

Argentinien: Wo ist das Rindfleisch?

The problem with trying to eat at an Argentine (or Agentinean(ian) if you prefer) restaurant in Berlin is trying to pick which one isn't a super cheesy German interpretation of what the owner thinks an Argentine restaurant might be, i.e. a restaurant serving mediocre steak with mediocre German side dishes. In the end, I feel pretty confident that we found the most typically Argentine restaurant in Berlin. Alas, this is not the same as saying that it was good. In my very thorough internet research, Camba-la-che de Mafalda seemed to be the only Argentine restaurant in Berlin run my actual Argentines. My dining companion, who lived in Buenos Aires for several years set the requirement that the restaurant must serve empanadas, Italian food, Spanish food, and several cuts of beef. Camba's menu meets most of those requirements: several kinds of empanadas, Italian food in the form of pizzas and gnocchi, and Spanish tortillas. They only have two cuts of beef, but given that they fulfilled all the other requirements and we couldn't find anywhere else that even came close, we decided to check it out.

I speak Castillian and Chilean pretty well, but I only get by in Argentine Spanish and all I can tell you is that the fun name refers to a popular Argentine comic strip, Mafalda. Cambalache seems to have something to do with tango. Anyway, the restaurant has a very cozy, interesting vibe; you can tell someone has put something of themselves into the place and, refreshingly, it doesn't feel like every other restaurant in Berlin. (You can check it out from the comfort of your laptop in this somewhat random, oddly (for a restaurant) lacking in food shots, and after a few minutes, really boring video from the restaurant's myspace page. Unfortunately, the video seems to have been done before most of the decorating was complete, so you don't get to see the nice artwork, much of which was done by the owner and his wife. The owner (pictured here), I must add, was the real highlight of the evening. His flowing white locks, killer Argentine accent, and jovial manner just about made up for what was sadly, a less than stellar meal.

I'm normally all for drinking European wine in Europe, but I thought it would be nice to have a glass of Argentine wine to go with my Argentine food. Alas, my dining companion was feeling under the weather and the only way to order Argentine wine is by the bottle. My glass of Spanish house wine was perfectly fine and very affordable , but ... it really seems like this place could find one affordable, drinkable Argentine wine to offer by the glass. Moving on ... we shared an Argentine empanada (the classic variety with a ground beef filling) and Argentine rump steak. Having lived in the Southern Cone myself (albeit on the other side of the Andes (different accent, similar empanadas), I can attest to the fact that it is common knowledge that a good empanada is made with beef that is hand chopped with a knife. Ground beef provides a different texture entirely and ground beef empanadas are the kind of thing you find in sad, dingy restaurants in back alleys. Ultimately, we could get over the fact that the empanada was round (they are pretty much always half-circles) because the crust was decent, but the filling sort of ruined it for us. The side salad (iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and onions (the classic components of an Argentine salad) were not really helped by the mayonnaise-y dressing (even if I was thrilled to eat in a restaurant in Berlin sans ubiquitous overly sweet Balsamic vinaigrette). The steak was OK. I'm sure it really was Argentine beef (as promised on the menu), but I would have rather had some nice organic German beef with actual flavor. This is not to say that all Argentine beef is flavorless - the beef I had when I was actually in Argentina was excellent, but I've eaten plenty of Argentine beef in Berlin at nice places and I'm not sure they are exporting the good stuff. In any case, this restaurant, lacking a real fire over which to grill our meat, was not able to make it taste like much. A little chimichurri would have done wonders, but Camba serves a red chimichurri, which the internet suggests may also be traditional, but is just not as good as the bright, herby green chimichurri I was hoping for. I hate to be negative about the pizza, because the extremely nice, adorable owner gave us each a slice of his own dinner (pizza with anchovies), but it was just not good. My friend the Argentine food expert assured me that the crust was exactly like what you would get in Argentina and that may be so and I suppose it counts for something, but it tasted like a frozen pizza crust to me. Did I mention how nice and adorable the owner was? I feel really guilty for not liking his pizza. I wish I could invite him over and make something that he wouldn't like so that we could be even.

Alas, I should know better than to have high hopes when dining out in this town. We were too disappointed to order the Panqueques with Dulce de Leche. If you're ever in the neighborhood on a Wednesday night, though, they have concerts with Argentine music. If you had a friend or two in tow (or a higher tolerance than I do), you could even enjoy some Argentine wine.

Camba-la-Che de Mafalda
Skalitzer Strasse 45


  1. Dear Becca, thank you for this.

    One comment, though. To give your reader a fair view of the price-quality relationship, would you mind telling us how much you paid for your food at Cambalache? Now, here comes my question. Let's say the restaurant pleased you with beef that is hand-chopped with a knife, some nice organic German beef, a real fire over which to grill the meat and one affordable, and drinkable Argentine wine to offer by the glass among the rest of your wishes...with these requirements, do you think that it would be possible to keep Cambalache the way it is, a place into which you can tell someone has put something of themselves, with its adorable owner (Renato) who has made the beautiful artwork with his wife and runs the family business with the support of his adorable children, all of this in a charming basement amidst skyrocketing rents in Kreuzberg?

  2. Unfortunately, I don't remember how much I paid for a meal I ate more than a year ago, though you are probably correct that I should provide those details. These days, many restaurants have websites with their menus that anyone can reference, but Camba la Che only has an odd My Space page with limited useful information. As for my "requirements," I never said I wanted Argentine wine by the glass, hand-chopped meat in the empanadas, and fire-grilled local organic beef for the same price as Spanish wine, ground beef empanadas, and non-grilled imported Argentine beef for the same price. I work in the hospitality industry and am well aware that hand-chopping meat takes time (which costs money) and that organic meat costs more than non-organic just like Spanish wine in Germany is cheaper than Argentine wine. I almost always wish, when dining out in Berlin, that restaurants used better ingredients and would be more than willing to pay for them. I'm all too aware that most Berlin residents would rather have the cheaper option and thus, it isn't a realistic option for most restaurants. I think that's sad.

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