A vacation in Buenos Aires is bound to leave you many things: overwhelmed, awe-inspired, exhausted and blissfully happy. Yet the one thing it will definitely not leave you…is hungry. Renowned as the capital of the most eclectic and satisfying cuisine in South America, Buenos Aires is one of the most gastronomically satisfying destinations in the world and its varied fare a universe away from the ubiquitous ham & cheese concoctions found in obscene abundance everywhere else in this continent. Oh there are still plenty of jamon y queso snacks to be found (no need to panic) yet if you’ve been travelling around for a while, and have the sneaking suspicion that there must be more to Latino-cuisine, then you’ve landed in the right place.
Follow our guide to the most delectable epicurean delights Buenos Aires has to offer and feast your way through the city like a true porteño.
The truth behind the beef myth
Argentina may well be the world’s beef capital, but due to the country’s on-going economic woes, it should be noted that the very best cuts of meat are now set away for export. This does not mean that you won’t find amazing bife or lomo here; it simply means that you won’t find it cheap. On the upside, considering just how inexpensive all other food is in this city, compared to most other parts of the world, splurging a little on a superb steak won’t hurt one bit.
The street-food deal
Whenever we mention food-on-the-run we’ll always be pointing you towards touristy areas like the Microcentro, Palermo and San Telmo. This is not because we don’t urge you to explore more of the city (we really do), but rather because eating food on the go is not a popular concept in Buenos Aires. You simply won’t find food-carts in most other suburbs, so if it’s a milanesa (schnitzel) sandwich you’re after, or anything else whipped up by a ‘mobile parilla’, then best you head to the more foreign-visited hoods. Having said that, there are still plenty of bakeries, restaurants and hole-in-the-wall eateries which can wrap your yummies to go, so don’t be afraid to ask the chef to make your food ‘para llevar’.
Asado: the ultimate BBQ
Unsurprisingly, Argentina’s national meal consists of an indecent amount of red meat perfectly grilled over open coals. Included in this delectable concoction will be bife, of course, as well as chorizo (spicy sausage), morcilla (black pudding), chinchuline (cow intestines) and all sorts of other inner bits and bobs we best not identify.
Do note that locals like their meat very, very well cooked so if you prefer your steak medium-rare you need to make a point of it. Several times and with lots of hand movements. The important words to remember are ‘jugoso’ for rare and ‘a punto’ for medium, but don’t be surprised if your steak arrives well-cooked nonetheless. Much like the soup-nazi in NYC, most asador in Buenos Aires can be considered steak-nazis so we suggest you do the right thing and eat what’s on your plate! If picking a local restaurant you should also ensure that bife is added to the asado; due to its expense, most local (ie. cheaper) joints won’t add it to the menu and will list it separately.
Many tourist website and travel guides swear that La Cabrera in Palermo Viejo is the best steak house in the city, yet we have an inkling this place has succumbed to its popularity and find both the quality of the fare, and the service, has greatly decreased over the last few years. Be a cunning carnivore and head to a place like La Brigada in San Telmo, or any other which is just starting to build a name for itself. These places are much more likely to still be making a tremendous effort by offering the best cuts of beef money can buy and accompanying them with an assortment of delicious side-dishes.
PS: To avoid embarrassment and possible eternal castigation, fight the urge to ask for ketchup as soon as your humongous platter of grilled beast arrives. If you must dip your meat in anything then it MUST (we repeat MUST) be the ever-present garlicky chimichurri sauce which will undoubtedly come served on the side. No questions, no options and, for Pete’s sake…no criticism!
Empanadas: the best snacks in town
Every South American country considers their empanadas to be the best in the continent, yet on this particular note…we agree with the Argentinians. Don’t tell the Chileans!
These addictive pockets of yumminess come filled with beef, ham & cheese (surprise!), chicken, pork, cheese, fish, corn or about 101 other ingredients, including fruit. You’ll find them on all restaurant menus (it’s the preferred entrée), in bakeries and even a few dedicated food carts in and around the Microcentro. These cheap and mouth-watering treats are, along with churros, the most revered and exported ‘snacks’ to ever emerge out of the Amazon region and you will no doubt already be very familiar with them.
If you’re a frugal traveller and you’re wondering if it is at all possible to survive a whole week on empanadas alone…the answer is an emphatic SI!
Churros: the reason everyone walks in Buenos Aires
If the Simpsons had been a Latin invention, it’s safe to say that Homer would be drooling over a boxful of churros in every single episode. He also would’ve been double the size.
The humble Spanish doughnut has an ambiguous origin; no-one seems to be quite sure where in the world it originated, but if you’re anything like us, you won’t really care where it was invented…you’ll just be thankful it exists.
Devoured at any time of day either sprinkled with sugar, dipped in thick hot chocolate or smothered with dulce de leche, churros are as popular as empanadas in Buenos Aires, and just as revered. Found in dedicated street carts, almost all bakeries and cafes, churros are said to be the reason why Buenos Aires is such a pedestrian friendly city. Going a full day without gorging on at least two servings is damn near impossible and fitting into your clothes after just a few days a near-miracle. Gorge and walk…that’s the porteño secret!
Dulce de everything
Dulce de leche is a caramel-like gooeyness created from the bosom of a sweetened condensed milk can. The dessert of choice of all Latinos is found everywhere and in just about every single dessert made in Buenos Aires. As a dip for churros, filling for alfajores or as an ice-cream flavour, dulce seems to have limitless-uses potential even though, to be brutally honest, it is a little too sickly sweet for most foreign palates. Not that we’d ever repeat this in front of an Argentinian.
In our humble opinion, there’s just no getting away from the taste of the condensed milk and, although perhaps a thin layer on a cookie would be just fine, the Argys tend to spread the stuff on as if Armageddon is coming. In the end, you may start wondering why they even bother with the pastry, cake-layers and churros…just eat the stuff out of the jar and be done with it we say!
Mate: where the Argys lose us…and then win us back!
Ouch. Here’s another opinion which would get our visa revoked.
Mate-drinking is a national past-time in Argentina and something which most foreigners find a little hard to digest in more ways than one. The exceedingly bitter loose-leaf tea (yerba mate) is drunk in a traditional cup (called mate), through a metal straw called a bombilla. It’s drunk at anytime, anywhere.
Whilst we may not be huge fans of the taste of mate (women are at least not frowned upon if they add sugar) and find it peculiar that people are willing to walk around the streets all day long with a thermos of hot water and mate cup under their arms; we do love everything that mate-drinking represents.
An icon of friendship, brotherhood and trust, a mate shared is akin to a drunken hug in an English pub or a tearful embrace anywhere in the Mediterranean world. Mate is only ever shared among good friends and the bombilla never swapped (or even moved for that matter); the level of intimacy reached by a simple sharing of beverage is a very unique South American habit and an incredibly deep and symbolic experience.
Should you happen to make some new friends when visiting Buenos Aires and are offered a sip of mate, then you’ll know you could be making a friend for life. Manage to maintain a straight face when you sip…and you may well be granted honorary Argentinian citizenship.
Typical asado via Wiki
Empanadas via Wiki
Oh Churros! Via Wiki
Dulce-filled Alfajores by Sarah Katzenell via Flickr
Dulce de leche via Wiki
Mate & bombilla via Wiki
Mate on the go via Wiki