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.
Prior to this impromptu Argentine feast, none of us had tried goat, much less heard of chivito, but we’ve all longed for it ever since. The memories intensified as I began to read articles proclaiming goat the hot new meat—it’s lean (less fat than chicken), low in cholesterol, and the animals are easy to raise; they’ll eat almost anything that grows and can graze on rocky hills and scrappy pastureland, making them a sustainable option in areas seemingly worthless for raising livestock. Many developing nations adore goat—especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and on the Indian subcontinent—but we Americans are only beginning to wrap our heads around the idea of it as a legitimate protein. Ranchers like Bill Niman—founder of California’s venerable Niman Ranch, who has since struck out on his own—have started responsibly raising a variety of goat better suited to American palates (more tender, less musty), and chefs are taking notice.
David Schuttenberg is the executive chef of Cabrito in New York City, a restaurant named for the baby goat that’s become its specialty. (Cabrito is, more or less, a synonym for chivito.) As I watched him butcher a 20-pound goat kid with a dull cleaver, he explained that he’d love to be able to imitate the a la parrilla style of cooking I’d witnessed in Argentina, but it wasn’t always feasible to fire-roast a whole goat. Instead his inspiration comes from Mexican peasant cooking: marinate for a day, then braise for hours. Mature goat meat has a (deserved) reputation for toughness that is obviated when using kids. But any size goat lacks a barrier layer of fat under the skin and benefits from slow cooking at low heat, as well as marinating.
Cabrito’s namesake dish is the priciest thing on the menu; at $26, it’s nearly as much as the entire bill in Argentina—but it’s also damn good. As good as the original? A tiebreaking trip to La Palmera might be in order. Now to find that map.
CABRITO 101: Recipe by chef David Schuttenberg
Marinate a hind leg for 24 hours in a pureed rub of white onion, garlic, salt, serrano chiles, Seville orange juice (or half lime, half OJ), and a wet, spicy salsa. Before cooking, season with salt and place in a roasting pan on a bed of chopped onion, pineapple, halved garlic heads, and serrano chiles. Add the remaining marinade and enough chicken stock to cover the veggies. Cook at 225°F for about five hours or until fork tender. Then cool, pick the meat from the bone, and sear the chunks over high heat in a sauté pan to add a caramelized crispness.