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Argentina - Food and Restaurants
Matthew Lepori (MattL)
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:
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
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
El Solar del Convento, Caseros 444. A parrilla.
Dante, Alvarado or Urquiza, you'll definitely run by it, Salta has
a small center.
Restaurants in Cafayate
El Rancho, On the plaza
Restaurants in Cachi
Automvil Club Argentino, Cachi is very small, ask for directions
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.
Trattoria La Famiglia Bianchi, Moreno 238
Dias de Zapata, Morales 362
Restaurants in San Martin de los Andes
El Regional, Villegas 955
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.
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.
Piola, Santa Fe and Libertad, center
Green Bamboo, Costa Rica 5802, Palermo
Siga La Vaca, Alicia Monreau and Estados Unidos, Puerto Madero
Dashi, Fitz Roy + Gorriti, Palermo
Guido's, Republica de la India 2843, Palermo
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.
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3436: Matt's photos from his 2005 Argentina trip.
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3468: Photo essays on South America, from Slow Travelers.
Argentina - Slow Travel: Planning your trip, things to do and see.
Argentina - Skiing: Coming soon
Peru - Guide to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley (Peru): Coming soon
© Matthew Lepori, 2005
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