I ate pretty well in 2014. Bun rieu cua (crab and tomato soup) in Hanoi, baked bbq pork buns in Hong Kong, Thai red curry in Bangkok, gado gado (stir fried veggies in peanut sauce) in Bali and kulfi ice cream with rose sauce in Kolkata are a few notable standouts. But after a year in countries that were mostly devoid of cheese, I was giddy with lactose anticipation for Argentina. Similarly, I had a lot of making up to do from months in beef-free Hindu zones, and let’s not forget how wine deficient Asia is! I had my fill of watery beer (sometimes with ice cubes to render it even thinner), longing for the substantial legs of a full-bodied glass of red. Sometimes a girl just needs her wine.
Buenos Aires quelled those cravings and more, wonderfully rounding out my 15-month eating blitz. During my stay I was introduced to pickupthefork.com, an expat food blog and Buenos Aires food bible. That girl knows her food, and she’s saucy to boot (no pun intended). Here I offer some highlights, in no particular order of deliciousness.
Steak, Glorious Steak
Argentina and beef are almost synonymous thanks to the introduction of cows by the Spaniards, and the large, grassy pampas that helped them flourish. Beef isn’t an ingredient in Argentine cuisine- it’s a food group all its own. You will often find various cuts atop fiery coals at an asado (what we Americans call a barbecue) or at a parilla, which is a steakhouse, but not necessarily the kind with dim lighting and big, leather banquettes. Unlike in the US where a steakhouse is reserved for special occasions, you’ll find parillas packed on a Tuesday night. Many are loud and crowded where the focus is food instead of atmosphere. Sure there are your upscale options, but the neighborhood shop is where you’ll find locals dining. Step inside to find a massive grill covered with meat and sausage, smoke rising as hot coals are shoveled beneath the grate; the smell of smokey char wafting past.
Some of the most popular cuts are bife de lomo (tenderloin), bife de chorizo (NY strip), entraña (skirt steak), asado de tira (beef ribs, cut) and vascio (flank steak).
My favorite is thick-cut bife de chorizo which just oozes with juice- if you get it cooked properly. Argentines like their steak dead twice over, so you have to specify your temperature if you want any amount of pink. Vuelta y vuelta is rare, and basically translates to flip and flip. Jugoso (literally juicy) is medium rare and a punto is medium. Cocido is well done, but I don’t know why anyone would need to know that. It’s always a good idea to order on the rarer side because they tend to slightly overcook each temperature.
Pretty pieces of steak aren’t all that’s on offer. Offal, or organ meat, is widely eaten. Sweetbreads with a squeeze of lemon are actually light, tender and delicious. Some less tasty options include kidneys and intestines. Without getting into details, the latter should be avoided at all costs. Another meaty option is chorizo, a sausage that sputters with juice when you pierce it. Argentines aren’t big into spicy, but they sure know how to kick up the flavor despite that. Morcilla (blood sausage) is an option for the slightly more adventurous. I tried it, but just couldn’t get over the blood part. Other sides include the heavenly provoleta which is a thick disc of melted cheese, grilled morrones (red bell pepper), fries and pureed butternut squash. Some menus have pasta for the non-flesh eaters and often an assortment of empanadas as a starter. In most places, everything is served a la carte, unless you order the mixed grill which comes with several cuts of beef, sausages, offal and sometimes chicken.
I frequented several parillas– you know, for research purposes- and was rarely disappointed. You just need to remember to salt your meat as it’s often just slapped on the grill as-is. When you can stuff yourself with steak, a side and wine for less than $15USD, that’s what I call a successful meal. A few standouts include Don Julio’s, Parilla Peña and Tito’s Secret Parilla (no website because, well, it’s secret).To ward off tourists like me, there is no sign outside and the windows are completely blacked out. My kind of place.Tito’s was particularly memorable for their $2.50 bottle of Norton Malbec. Yes, for the WHOLE BOTTLE. You can also pre-order a whole roasted pig, which we did. The teeth were a little disconcerting, though.
Chori (short for chorizo) and pan (bread) come together to create the most honored street food: the choripan. Argentina isn’t exactly a street food leader, but they sure do this one right. Vendors are often found at outdoor markets, street fairs and parks. Don’t worry, your nose will lead you straight to the barbecue where you’ll find juicy sausages just waiting to burst. Your choripan chef will delicately remove one from the grill, slice it lengthwise and slap it on a French roll. Some may offer grilled onions, but the most important topping is the chimichurri. Slather on this ubiquitous Argentine sauce made of parsley, garlic (LOTS of garlic), vinegar and oil, and an operatic note might just slip from your lips. Sometimes a spicy variety is on offer as well. By the time I’m done chimi-ing it up, you can barely see what’s underneath. Did I mention it will run you about $1.50? That will have you crying for Argentina.
Empanar means “to cover in pastry,” which is where the empanada gets its name. It can be traced back to Spain and Portugal, after which it spread throughout Latin America, but now it’s most closely associated with Argentina. Empanada/pizza shops are everywhere. It’s Argentina’s answer to fast food. Style varies by region and my favorite is from the north. Instead of the typical pastry, these are lighter with a more pizza dough-like covering. La Querencia and La Aguada both do great northern style. They can also be baked or fried, although baking is more common. I mean, when you have butter or lard in the crust, isn’t frying slightly overkill?
As for fillings, the most traditional is carne (beef), but even that has multiple variations. Sometimes the meat is ground and sometimes it’s in small stew-like pieces. You can get it picante (spicy) or suave (mild), but even the spicy ones are pretty tame. Also common is chicken, ham/cheese, onion/cheese, spinach/cheese and humita, which is a sweetish creamed corn. Pick up some gourmet empanadas and you might find yourself with ham/blue cheese, mozzarella/chorizo or plum/pancetta. Cumen Cumen has a wide selection of gourmet options and they deliver from several shops city-wide. Have a few on a blanket in the park and you’ve got yourself a perfect afternoon.
My quest for empanada greatness ran so deep that I took a cooking class with Norma, a psychotherapist turned food mistress who conducts classes from her home in the Belgrano neighborhood. We made carne empanadas, guiso de lentejas (lentil stew) and alfajores, a traditional Argentine sandwich cookie with dulce de leche (caramel) in the middle. The hardest part of the lesson was making the repulgue, which is the crimping around the edge of the empanada. Traditionally there was a different repulgue for each empanada filling so you could tell what was inside. Simple, yet genius. As with past cooking class experiences, I left doubled over from so much delicious food.
Argentine pizza is a little on the strange side. It’s not quite thick crust, but definitely not thin. Rather it has this soft and bready foundation. Not my favorite style, but there’s clearly a market for it because there are pizza/empanada shops on nearly every corner. What I did enjoy was the fugazetta pizza, an Argentine specialty that I’ve never seen anywhere else. It’s kind of a focaccia/pizza hybrid with crust, mozzarella, and a whole mess of thinly sliced onions. No sauce on this baby. The onions get a slight char, making them sweet and crispy. El Cuarito, an Argentine institution since 1934, was a notable exception to the weird crust epidemic. They go heavy on the ooey gooey cheese and make a denser pie. Good thing it was a bus ride away or I would’ve needed to buy stretchy pants.
There are a few other food items you can’t escape in Argentina. They sure do love their Milanesa– pounded veal or chicken, breaded and pan fried to a golden brown. You’ll find it on nearly every Argentine restaurant menu, and even in the supermarkets or butcher shops ready to cook. It actually provided an amazingly quick and easy meal. I’d get chicken, already pounded thin and breaded, then throw it into a pan with a little oil and finish it off with a squeeze of lemon. Pair it with a salad (or even ON the salad), and you’ve got a pretty healthy meal. I ate that in between empanada gorging. Another ubiquitous food is butternut squash. I don’t know why. You’ll find it mashed up as a side at parillas, added to stews, layered in a tarta (savory quiche/tart) or baked with ham and cheese on top as a dish all its own. I’m a fan of the butternut squash, don’t get me wrong, but I was surprised at how many times it made an appearance.
As you can tell, I didn’t go hungry. In fact my pants got a little tight towards the end as I filled up on meat and bread and wine. It was worth it, though. I just wish they’d get a little more acquainted with the chili pepper. This stuff ain’t spicy. Even the red pepper flakes in the grocery store are mild. I guess I know what to pack in my suitcase next time… along with elastic waist pants.
For more information on Argentina, including practicalities, visit my article on TourMatters.