A few years ago, I was road-tripping north to south across Argentina with two friends, following an old trade route that persists as a mostly dirt “highway” called Ruta Cuarenta (Route 40). We were maybe three days in when some teenagers working the snack bar in the shadows of the red-rock monoliths of Talampaya National Park offered us a tip. Drawing up a map, they insisted it would lead us to the best restaurant in an area otherwise known for vast, unpopulated expanses. La Rioja Province is fantastic country, but not the sort of place you venture to in search of gastronomic highlights.
But that was how we found ourselves at La Palmera, a primitive stone building with clay floors and pale yellow walls adorned with puma and wolverine skins and a single antler hung from a nail. It had no menu and served just one dish: chivito, or baby goat, a tantalizingly tender meat cooked perfectly over open flames in a kitchen with half walls and no ceiling. Our waiter, a jolly sixtysomething with a huge smile, greasy comb-over, and black bow tie, brought out plate after plate of the stuff—piled high and dropped in the middle of the table—until we couldn’t eat any more of what is the tastiest unseasoned meat this side of suckling pig.
Over ten servings, silverware was never offered and we uselessly dabbed at our faces with thin, waxy napkins. Three bottles of Malbec and untold baskets of wood-fired bread later, we stumbled out, having spent a grand total of $30. It was one of the best meals of my life.