La Boca Restaurant
857 Fulton St
New Orleans, LA 70130
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
Places like Crescent City Steakhouse and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse have a lock on the New Orleans-style steak - a meltingly tender slab of beef served sizzling in butter. La Boca, however, is a steakhouse cut from quite a different cloth. This Warehouse District restaurant is inspired by the carnivore-centric cuisine of Argentina, and its specialties are big, crusty steaks of a type we don't see much in New Orleans, served with tart, tangy chimichurri sauces of parsley, garlic and oil.
This is a small, low-key restaurant on a backstreet in the Warehouse District, not far from the convention center. It's in a very old warehouse building with thick timbers on the ceiling, which helps give the relatively new restaurant an antiquated, serious look. There's a small, sturdy bar for solo diners and those popping in for a drink. It's a much more casual-feeling place than the big steakhouses.
Staff is generally good at explaining the menu, which is a different approach to steak for many newcomers. They even bring a tray with different types of steak knives for diners to choose from. Beware, though, of an often-pushy host. Show up late, but before the restaurant's posted closing hour, and you may be rudely run off if things are slow.
Italian immigrants of the late 19th century made a huge impact on Argentine culture, including its cuisine. That shows up most clearly on La Boca's appetizer menu. The most interesting choice is a hot, iron skillet of melted provolone cheese, herbs and olive oil called the provoleta, ready for dipping with some crusty bread. It's filling but hard to resist. The mollejas, or grilled sweetbreads, are smoky and substantial and even people normally put off by the idea of eating glands seem to like these. Bruschetta with goat cheese and empanadas stuffed with ground beef are more straightforward.
There are only a few steaks on La Boca's menu that could be described as tender. These are fine but also available at any number of other places. To put this restaurant through its paces, try one of its South American specialty steaks.
The vacio is a very large flank steak, marinated but still chewy and heavily textured. So goes the centro de entrana, or hanger steak, which might be downright crusty on the exterior though still red and soft within. Nightly specials can sometimes go far beyond that. One skirt steak is even served with the cow's silver skin membrane intact, which renders during cooking into a thin, crackling layer of crunch.
One of the more unusual choices is the Milanesa, which is thin-cut, breaded, fried beef, topped with an optional fried egg. It's different, but too tough and bland to recommend next to the much more interesting grilled steaks.
All steaks come with an assortment of tart, sharp or smooth chimichurri sauces, which pair beautifully with the crusty mouth feel of the meat. The Italian influence comes back with a few pasta entrees, including the highly-recommended "noqui," a dish of potato pasta dumplings better known as gnocchi, cooked with a rich cream sauce, bits of pancetta and green peas.
Steaks are served a la carte, so you practically have to order some kind of side dish. The don't-miss choice is an order of fries, which are clearly cut in-house, served crisp and salty and are as irresistible as popcorn at the movies.
Desserts aren't that big of a deal at La Boca, since most people gorge on meat and potatoes. But if you save room there are some interesting Latin American sweet flavors, led by the dulce de leche ice cream and the coconut ice cream cake with amaretto sauce.
Malbecs are practically the default wine order with Argentine steaks like this, and La Boca stocks plenty of them at different prices. The bar also serves the Argentine beer Quilmes and South American brandies to mix pisco sour cocktails.
La Boca is an expensive restaurant, though not when compared to other high-end steakhouses. The filet mignon and the 20-oz. rib eye break the $30 barrier, though some of the Argentine specialty cuts are less than $20. Still, with side dishes, an appetizer or two and bottle of Argentine red, a couple should expect to spend between $120 and $150 for dinner.
La Boca's steaks are more likely to be chewy and crisp than buttery-smooth, but it's a style that is winning many fans, including me. Throw in some traditional South American sides and some Italian dishes, which are also big in Argentina, and you have a unique and memorable restaurant.