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Argentina - Food and Restaurants

Rar

Enclosed in these notes is a rundown on how and where to eat well in Argentina. First my notes on the parrilla and bife (steak). Then notes of food by region: northern Argentina area, Patagonia, and Buenos Aires. In each geographic section are some restaurants that I particularly enjoyed.

Argentina is world famous for its cuisine. Well perhaps cuisine isn't the appropriate word. Maybe the right word, well words, are: delicious, flavorful, tender, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth, marbled-to-perfection. I think you can guess where I am heading with this: steak! Argentina has a worldwide reputation for incredible steak, probably more so than any other nation on Earth. Japan and its kobe beef would probably come a close second, with the bistecca fiorentina coming in third.

But alas! There is far more to food in Argentina than flesh o' cow (which at first might sound like good news to vegetarians - we'll get to that later though). With that said, beef is the national meat and general food of choice, and the only worse thing for Argentines than the specter of mad cow disease is the specter of Maradona's fledgling music career. Perhaps you saw his primetime TV special over there in Italy - I saw it in Argentina and I only got one word for it: yikes!

Parrilla and Bife

By far the most popular style of restaurant you will encounter is the parrilla. A parrilla is in essence a barbecue grill upon which various meats are cooked. They are generally visible from the dining room; just walking by one on the street gives your eyes a view delicious enough to make your mouth water. Good parrillas will also have an asador, or the long vertical skewer which rotates above the coals to slow-cook lamb and pork.

Traditionally at a parrilla you will find these items: steak in its variations, chicken, morcilla (blood sausage/black pudding), chorizo (sausage), mollejas (sweetbreads), rinones (kidneys), and chinchulines (intestines). You can order the smaller bits like mollejas or morcilla a la carte, or get a big ole grill full of these various goodies, as well as a cut of steak (normally vacio), called the parrilla completa.

I'm not a huge fan of the completa. Morcilla I can stand in small doses, but I am just not a big fan of kidneys and whatnot. Plus the cut of steak you generally get with the completa is inferior to others. Vacio simply isn't one of my favorite cuts of steak.

Speaking of cuts of steak, let's describe the most popular ones. Keep in mind Argentine cuts are different from ours in the US and Europe:

  • Bife de lomo: This is your filet equivalent; the highest priced steak, and the most tender. However I find it lacking in taste coming off the parrilla, it's pretty lean.
  • Bife de chorizo: Often comes with a rib bone inside the cut, like a rib-eye steak in the US. For my money this is the best cut of steak in Argentina. Not nearly as tender as the lomo, however far more flavorful. Typically the bife de chorizo and lomo are the two most popular steaks and the two you'll see the most often. How they got the name bife de chorizo is a mystery to me - there's no sausage involved here.
  • Bife de costilla: A T-bone steak. Usually this thing is gigantic.
  • Vacio: Vacio is a very fatty cut. A flank steak (bottom of the porterhouse). You really have to work for your meat on this one. But it's also the juiciest steak. Typically one of the cheapest cuts available.

What you'll realize straight away is the sheer size and thickness of these steaks. Lomo is typically the smallish as any filet, but some chorizos and costillas are simply gigantic. I've seen some that literally were the size of my entire face, and about three inches thick.

Secondly you'll realize that the parrillas use basically two ingredients in barbecuing their steaks: salt and fire. There's no garlic rub. No pepper marinade. Just coarse salt. So all you taste is meat. Argentina is very Italianized in terms of food, and they prize the art of simplicity just as much as their European cousins.

Steak cooking on a Parrilla in Argentina

Steak cooking on a Parrilla in Argentina

Northern Argentina

By far the most famous food of this region (essentially the area from Tucuman north to the border) is the empanada. You'll find empanadas all over the world, but nowhere are they elevated to such an art form as in Salta and Tucuman.

Well, perhaps art form is overdoing it, since the empanada is such a simple dish: a pastry with filling. A turnover. But until you bite into one, and send those juices running down your fingers as you munch on tender pastry and deliciously spiced fillings - why, well you haven't had a real empanada.

The Salta empanada is best known as a saltena, as they are referred to all over Argentina and Bolivia. These empanadas are known for their diminutive size and for being baked. Tucuman style empanadas are much larger, fried, and one or two makes a meal. Typical fillings for empanadas are: carne suave and picante (beef and spicy beef with spices, potatoes, and green onion), various types of queso (including cheeses you wouldn't expect, like Roquefort), and pollo (although, being in Argentina I'd obviously recommend beef over chicken).

Other great northern dishes include: humita, tamale, and locro. Humita and tamale are similar. If you have had a Mexican tamale you have the basic idea: corn leaf wrapping with a filling inside. However tamales and humitas in northern Argentina are wrapped into an enclosed rectangle and are tied at the top, rather than being open and a tube. The enclosed corn leaf wrapping has the effect of steaming the filling rather than baking it. Which means whatever is inside turns out to be tender and really moist.

"Whatever is inside" is invariably a corn, cheese, and spice combination. Humitas have sweet corn and cheese (never meat), whereas tamales have savory corn and perhaps shredded beef (I never saw this, but have read it's a possibility). Some put sugar on their humita, but I found mine was just the right level of sweetness thanks to the corn.

Locro is an entirely different beast: a soup made with lentils, lamb meat, and spices. It is very hearty and very traditional to the region (unlike humitas or empanadas you won't generally find this dish elsewhere). I quite liked locro the time I had it and it makes a nice meal on a cold day.

Restaurants in Salta

Doa Salta, Cordoba 46
The best empanadas of my entire stay in Argentina. Good humitas too. Gaucho-dressed waiters and a beautiful interior. Highly recommended.

El Solar del Convento, Caseros 444. A parrilla.
One of the best, if not the best, steaks I had in the country. Quite elegant, nice interior, quiet. Very professional service. Nice thing about Salta is that you get places like this, which anywhere else in the world would cost you 3-10 times more (or about 2 times more in Buenos Aires).

Dante, Alvarado or Urquiza, you'll definitely run by it, Salta has a small center.
Run by a wonderful old Italian man who immigrated to Argentina some 55 years ago. It's a pasteleria (pastry shop) and his little cakes are to die for.

Restaurants in Cafayate

El Rancho, On the plaza
This is the main restaurant on the main plaza, which from my experience in Europe is not something that bodes well. That said, my food here was really good (a slow cooked beef with deliciously spicy potatoes). We tried it because the hotel owner recommended it, and it turned out well.

Restaurants in Cachi

Automvil Club Argentino, Cachi is very small, ask for directions
Very upscale hotel and restaurant. The food here was decent, the deserts were sublime. Probably the best you'll do in Cachi.

Patagonia

The food of Patagonia is pretty unique within Argentina. Here beef is an important meat, but in restaurants it's placed alongside cordero, jabali, ciervo, and trucha (lamb, boar, deer, and trout). I had the pleasure of trying all four, both smoked or as steaks or racks, and my oh my they are amazing. The three meats are slow cooked, smoked or not, and can be so tender and flavorful that you never want to leave the restaurant. A very popular appetizer is the ahumado, or a platter with smoked meats and cheeses and fish, with olives and fruits. They are generally to die for. These three meats and the trout tend to be more expensive than the beef, but the expense is worth it as you're not likely to have such meals anywhere else. There can be a wide diversity in preparation and style in the dishes (whereas beef in Argentina tends to simply be steak).

Restaurants in Bariloche

El Boliche de Alberto, Villegas 347. A parrilla.
Best steak in town. You won't find anything on the menu here other than meat, not a place to go as a vegetarian. Very, very popular. Not to be confused with El Boliche de Alberto Pastas.

Trattoria La Famiglia Bianchi, Moreno 238
I had an incredibly good pesto here, and my friend's dishes were all excellent. Very good Italian option, and the lowest prices I saw in town to boot. Highly recommended!

Dias de Zapata, Morales 362
I'm a native Californian and a Mexican food freak, and I place my stamp of approval on this place. The fajitas here are really good, which makes sense because that's delicious Argentine steak you're putting in your tortilla. They even have a sauce that has some proper spice to it, but you'll have to ask for it as they don't put it on the table (hay una salsa muy picante, no?). The mole is pretty good too. Can be very popular at night but is usually empty for lunch.

Restaurants in San Martin de los Andes

El Regional, Villegas 955
Incredible ahumado appetizer and my jabali was succulent. On top of it, the place also features several microbrews from the local brewery. The honey lager was delicious!

Restaurants in Villa La Angostura

Ok, so I don't remember the name of this restaurant. However! Angostura is a one-road town, meaning you can't miss this restaurant. Description: interior features various meats hanging from above its bar, and a fireplace smack dab in the middle of the room. If you're walking down the main road, going in the direction away from Bariloche and towards San Martin, it's on the left. The bife de chorizo steak here is the size of your head, and the jabali is simply perfection. One of my best meals in Argentina.

Buenos Aires

There is no "Buenos Aires" style cuisine. What sets BsAs apart from the rest of the country is the plethora of international foods (and their high quality). During my two weeks in the city, I had the pleasure of eating Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Italian, and various fusion styles. There is no food not represented here, and they all are done well. I had the luck of hanging out with a guy who had spent four months in the city, and had a local girlfriend to boot. Thus he and she knew the places to go, and we ate almost too well. That being said, you'll notice a ton of Italian restaurants in BsAs. There is a very large Italian population in Argentina, reflected in its language (you'll hear the Italian singsong in Argentine Spanish, as well as some Italian words), and its choice of dinner.

Restaurants

Piola, Santa Fe and Libertad, center
Pizza like you'd find in Italy (which makes sense given that Piola originally opened in Treviso 11 years ago). So good we had to go back a second time. Rucola and proscuitto crudo does that to me. Very much recommend this. Try their desserts, and their frozen lemon cocktail. Imagine limoncello mixed with ice cream and you get the idea.

Green Bamboo, Costa Rica 5802, Palermo
Really good Vietnamese-Thai food. If you are a lover of spicy Asian food, this is the place for it. They ask you how hot you want your dish, from 1 to 3. I asked for 3, the dish came and it wasn't that spicy at all. So I asked if they could make it a 6, and it came back damn spicy! Delicious too! The dish was a coconut hollowed out with different octopus and other seafoods and vegetables inside it, with a delicious cocount curry sauce.

Siga La Vaca, Alicia Monreau and Estados Unidos, Puerto Madero
A tenedor libre (or all you can eat) with a parrilla to die for. They cook up epic amounts of meat here and you can basically have your choice of any style and any manner. Ask them to make one fresh for you and you'll be in heaven. There's also a full salad bar with all the fixings. Always full, a true BsAs institution.

Dashi, Fitz Roy + Gorriti, Palermo
The best sushi in the city (and most expensive meal for me in Argentina - 80 pesos, or about $28). Really fresh fish and it's wonderfully put together. Some inventive rolls and some typical favorites. Extensive wine list, most of them quit expensive. We also went to Kayoko (Palermo) but found Dashi to be definitely superior.

Guido's, Republica de la India 2843, Palermo
Guido from Napoli has a wonderful little trattoria here. There's no menu, you sit down and get presented with appetizers, and then the waiter suggests the special of the day. They'll cook up anything you request too. Very nice place for a lunch. Open Monday through Friday.


And finally, for those who read all this, the best food you'll find in all of Argentina: the alfajor. You'll find these for sale all over the country (it's estimated that about 6 million alfajores are eaten per day). Essentially these are a small round cake with dulce de leche between two biscuits, coated on the outside with chocolate or powdered sugar. They are incredible.

A great place to get them in BsAs is at the Havanna shop on Santa Fe in the center. You can find Havanna shops and cafes all over the country, and they have specialized in alfajores for a long, long time. Artisanal alfajores are sold everywhere as well, but I found the Havanna variety to be the best. They come in a nice box and wrappings, making them a cool gift too.

Photos

www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3436: Rar's photos from his 2005 Argentina trip.

www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3468: Photo essays on South America, from Slow Travelers.

Resources

Rar's Slow Travel Articles

Argentina - Slow Travel: Planning your trip, things to do and see.

Argentina - Skiing

Peru - Guide to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley (Peru)


Rar lived in Bologna in 2003 while studying at the university. He is now living in the United States, completing his studies and looking for a way back to Italy.

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