The room was dim enough to not quite discern the contents of the grill tray. But in the candlelight, one could make out its outline in slabs, links and chunks. The appropriate collective noun here would be a juggernaut of beef. Around us were none of the formalities of a Chicago steakhouse. No pressed suits. No mahogany bars. No maitre’d butter, no maitre’d. Tonight, we would scale the steak peaks and eat our way down.
By our strict Chicago definition, the steaks at Wicker Park’s Folklore are steaks by technicality, presented without the precise, trimmed-by-a-band saw fussiness of its Rush Street equivalents. Chicago steakhouses have forever been a genre with an immutable template, of Caesar salads and Key lime pies as the Count Basie Orchestra plays. Folklore, meanwhile, is an Argentine steakhouse by way of Italy, operating defiantly within city limits.
The Argentina-Italy connection is a strong bond, its highest-profile ambassador being Pope Francis, born in Buenos Aires to Piedmontese parents. During World War II, Argentina was the destination for a large Italian diaspora. In food, the influence is indelible. Unlike in many parts of Latin America, pasta is the preferred starch over rice in Argentina, transliterated into Spanish spellings — gnocchi, for example, becomes noqui. You’ll find provoleta at Folklore — provolone cheese with red peppers and oregano grilled to a crusty edge — a dish that might as well be served on Taylor Street. Same goes for Milanesa Napolitana, a breaded beef cutlet baked with ham, mozzarella and tomato sauce.
Where Argentina flexes its culinary muscle is with beef, much of it raised by cattle-ranching gauchos on the vast expanse of grassland called the Pampas. So the Argentine mania for steak is one relatable to Chicagoans.
Folklore isn’t the knee-jerk answer when Chicagoans think of Argentine steakhouses; that would be Tango Sur, the BYOB grill going on 20 years in Lakeview. But both are owned by the same family — the Di Sapios — with nearly identical menus. Patriarch Rodolfo Di Sapio also heads El Mercado, a butcher shop and grocery next door to Tango Sur that supplies meats to both restaurants. The advantage with Folklore, which opened in 2009, is its roomier space, a larger kitchen for more dish specials, and most importantly for this stretch of Division Street, a liquor license. It satisfies the requirements within a Wicker Park ZIP code: Folklore might claim the most stylishly subterranean dining room in town with its labyrinth of light fixtures made from pipes. You’re reminded how steaks and cowboy culture are intertwined, with Argentine horse tack hung from the brick wall.
The dark mood lighting makes the foreign beef cuts even more unfamiliar. Flap meat (vacio) comes from the bottom sirloin and is shaped like a runners’ baton, lean with a flank-steak chew. Morcilla is a dark and intimidating blood sausage, the texture of sloppy Joe meat but with a pleasant spiced flavor minus the iron aftertaste. Short ribs are cut in the three-boned Korean style that resembles a shoe insert. These are the most flavor-dense and indulgent of the lot, only because they’re streaked with so much marbled fat my left arm numbs just picturing it. Delicious? Oh yes. But here’s a case when five small bites — as concentrated and intense as beef tastes — might be enough.
The most compelling reason to try an Argentine steakhouse is to settle a debate. Is chimichurri the best accompanying sauce for grilled beef? Better than bearnaise or red wine demi glace? I am leaning toward yes. It’s a sauce that’s first cousin to Italian salsa verde, sharing a bloodline of parsley, garlic, vinegar and oil. A murky dollop of chimichurri turns a slice of steak slick, tart and grassy; the sauce is cool against the warm beef. It also leaves a haunting garlic linger for the deviant among us (this reporter is a card-carrying member). It’s not far off from a bistecca alla fiorentina. I especially love dunking the grilled-then-baked beef sweetbreads into the chimichurri, which can form into a dangerous habit (it comes alive further with a squeeze of lemon). If crispy beef tendon nuggets existed, they would resemble this.
All the cuts identified thus far — we haven’t even mentioned the bratwurstlike chorizo — come on that parrillada grill tray. The steak is preceded by a lifeless salad of lettuce, out-of-season tomatoes and thick rings of raw onions. I stomached a few leaves and pushed it out of the way with a tinge of guilt.
Really, it’s about that tray with the staggering amount of meat. It’s also $40 for two, which, considering a bone-in sirloin for one at Gibson’s starts at $5 more, proves that Chicago steakhouses aren’t exclusive to suits with black credit cards.