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April 4, 2006

Eat Your Heart Out—April 4, 2006

Everyone knows that Argentina is a country famed for its beef. After having spent spring break in Buenos Aires and Cordoba, a town in the northeast region of the country, I can attest wholeheartedly that Argentina is a country that is justly proud of its meat. But what I did not know about Argentina—until I got there—was that it is a country that is also proud of its ice cream (or helado, as it’s known en español). Of course this seems like a logical progression: Where there is good beef, there should be good dairy, and where there is good dairy, there should be good ice cream.

Now you might be asking, what makes Argentinean ice cream different from American ice cream? Ice cream that we would consider to be “American” is made from cream, milk, sugar, and a few other minor ingredients. Argentinean ice cream (like French or custard ice cream and Italian gelato) is much higher in butterfat and contains egg yolks, which keep ice crystals small. The overall texture is much smoother than American ice cream. The resulting ice cream is dense, thick, rich, and unbelievably creamy. And unlike American ice creams—which seem to be cluttered with chunks of this and chips or swirls of that—Argentinean ice creams usually come in single flavors, like my favorite dulce de leche (a kind of rich, milk-based caramel), sabayon (a kind of wine-laced egg custard), or chocolate, in addition to a variety of fruit flavors.

Needless to say, I ate a lot of ice cream in Argentina. So imagine my delight when my friend Chris told me about a restaurant on the North Side that specialized in pizza and—get this—Argentinean ice cream! So Chris, his friend Craig, and I drove up to the North Side to see if the ice cream made the grade.

Penguin sits in a strip-mall storefront on a stretch of Lawrence Avenue, basically in the middle of nowhere (although you can take the Brown Line to Western, I would really only recommend driving). The restaurant is a little lacking in decor. Nevertheless, the white boards behind the counter boast about 20 flavors of Argentinean ice cream—including several types of dulce de leche and chocolate. I opted for dulce de leche with nuts, which had a pronounced caramel flavor and a nice crunch from the walnuts studded throughout. Craig opted for chocolate with almonds, which had a strong chocolate flavor, and Chris chose cherries-and-cream, which I didn’t like as much. Then again, I tend not to not like fruit-flavored ice cream as much as some people.

The restaurant also serves decent cheesy pizzas and empanadas, though it is really the ice cream that makes it noteworthy. Was it as good as in Argentina? Well, perhaps it wasn’t quite the same (after all, how often can you get an enormous ice cream cone for a mere 30 cents in America?), but because Buenos Aires is a bit of a schlep from here, there’s no doubt that on hot spring days, the Penguin will be fulfilling my ice cream cravings.