How do you feel about dinner without drinks?” That’s the burning question on the lips of patrons of a number of new, mostly Brooklyn-based restaurants ever since a recent State Liquor Authority crackdown on unsanctioned BYO, and it’s worth noting the steps these innocent victims are taking to deal with the Draconian law. Take, for instance, a recently observed party of three at Williamsburg’s six-month-old El Almacén. These resourceful revelers would slip out of the restaurant, two at a time, amble over to Acqua Santa across the street (or, more accurately, to Acqua Santa’s bar), quickly toss back a refreshing tipple, and stagger back. But not all of El Almacén’s customers are driven to between-course booze runs. The rustic Argentine restaurant already has enough going for it culinarily to hold the attention of the Underground Gourmet—not one to teetotal at mealtime—even before the arrival of an impending beer-and-wine license.
The avocado fries, for one thing. These generously panko-crumbed morsels are butter-soft inside, with an audibly crunchy shell, and are served with a sauce that tastes, in a good way, like chile-spiked ketchup. They’re as toothsome a snack as you’ll find anywhere, and also a bit of a giveaway: The only other place we’ve spotted them is Toloache, a midtown Manhattan Mexican restaurant whose chef-partner, Julian Medina, seems to have served as El Almacén’s unofficial consultant—at least on the Pan-Latino part of the menu. That’s where the restaurant deviates from the mixed-grill-and-Malbec mold of Buenos Aires–themed joints typically dedicated exclusively to chimichurri-slathered meat orgies. It’s a rare Argentine restaurant, for instance, that serves hamachi seviche, let alone good hamachi seviche invigorated with yuzu juice, or even guacamole, and El Almacén’s is fresh, chunky, and suitably spicy. There are tacos too—another Medina contribution, we’d wager—that come two to an order, stuffed either with crisped-up bits of beef short rib given an Argentine twist in the form of a drizzle of chimichurri, or crunchy-battered tilapia, which is topped with cabbage slaw a mite too heavy on the chipotle mayo. The restaurant’s take on fried calamari is more elegant than most, with the skinny, tender rings dusted in a featherlight cornmeal batter and garnished with radish, pickled red onion, and a zingy citrus vinaigrette. In comparison, the empanadas seem a tad ho-hum, despite their unimpeachably flaky crusts.
Main courses are uniformly generous, to say the least, and shareable, especially if you start with a platter of the assorted cured meats or cheeses that the restaurant eventually aims to sell retail, along with imported Argentine products. (Almacén means general store, which, judging from the vintage counter scale, the hanging sausages, and the apothecary shelves stocked with dry goods, seems to be the restaurant’s decorative motif.) Of these “platos fuertes,” we’d steer you toward the succulent, mate-braised short ribs with boniato purée, and away from the pulled-chicken enchiladas, which came in a soupy, washed-out tomatillo salsa. Generally speaking, though, the “de la parrilla” section of the menu is better than the “platos fuertes” one. Grilled meats, after all, are manna for homesick porteños, and these grass-fed beefsteaks (Uruguayan, in this case) do not disappoint. Our favorite was the entraña, a hefty, grainy, flavorful skirt steak served, like all the other cuts, on what must have been a varnished 25-pound stump of wood with sea salt, shishito peppers, chimichurri, and potatoes. It’s best ordered medium rare with a $5 side of the excellent chorizo or blood sausage, and, until the paperwork comes through, an ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola.
Address: 557 Driggs Ave., nr. 7th St.; 718-218-7284
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.; weekends until midnight.
Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $15; entrées, $14 to $38.
Ideal Meal: Calamari or tacos de carne, skirt steak, avocado fries, dulce de leche panqueques.
Note: Cash only; lunch will be on brief hiatus while the garden is being built.
Scratchpad: This Argentine grill deserves a star for menu variety alone; another for warm, competent service and an ambience that’s at once transporting and homey.