One of our main goals for Buenos Aires was to taste the world famous, deliciously tender, Argentinian beef from happy, grass-fed cows on the pampas. We’d heard that Buenos Aires is a culinary capitol of South America, not only because of the beef, but also because of the strong Italian influences, and we were eager to explore all that it had to offer.
Argentine dining customs
The first thing we learned when going out for dinner in Argentina was that Argentinians eat dinner late! Restaurants don’t normally open until 8.30 pm and most Argentinians don’t go out until 9-10 pm on weekdays (forget about weekends, when a dinner can start around midnight). They also have a big lunch in the middle of the day, coupled with a siesta. To fill the void between lunch and dinner they have coffee, cake and sweets (alfajores) around 5-6 pm, which is quite opposite for two Norwegians that have strict rules back home about not having your dessert before you have finished your dinner.
Other than having a sweet tooth, Argentinians also love their cheese, preferably melted/grilled, and a snack or starter can very well consist of only melted cheese (and maybe a little bread or chorizo). And of course they love their meat, and who can blame them when they have such high quality, succulent beef.
The best place to taste the Argentinian beef is at a parilla (a grill), where they grill the meat to perfection and usually serve it with chimichurri (a very typical sauce/dressing made with oil, vinegar and green spices), sometimes a salsa criolla (tomato/onion salsa), and an array of side dishes that you may order separately. To order a steak you need to know what cut you want and what degree of cooking.
The Argentinian cuts we tried were:
- Bife de Lomo – Tenderloin (Nor: indrefilet), Tuva’s favourite and 60% of our meat consumption in the restaurants
- Bife de Chorizo – Sirloin (Nor: ytrefilet), more fatty and tasty, Mathias’ favourite
- Ojo de Bife – Rib-Eye (Nor: entrecôte), more marbled and more taste, but also more work
- Asado de tira – Short ribs
As for degree of cooking the Argentinians like their meat well done, and with the quality of meat they have it stays quite juicy when cooked through, they call this “bien cocido“. However if you like your meat medium-raw you should order “jugoso” (juicy), which we did almost all the time and were very happy with. If you are a vampire or just love the taste of really red meat, you should order “blue” (raw), where the meat barely touches the grill.
The parillas also have a lot of delicious starters, and some of our favorites were:
- Cow’s heart – a waiter recommended us this and we were quite hesitant, but it was some of the best tasting meat we’ve ever tasted! (like very finely marbled, rich and tender beef)
- Pork belly – what it says, but quite delicious
- Chorizo – spicy sausage from the grill
- Grilled provolone cheese – melted, mozarella-type cheese. Good in moderations.
- Sweatbread – glands from the cow which is a specialty here. We had to try it and it was ok, but didn’t win our hearts.
Finally if you’re just looking for a quick snack you can visit one of the many street parillas and have a deliciously simple “choripan”, which is a baguette with a butterfly-cut chorizo inside and you lather it up with all the chimichurri and salsa criolla your heart desires.. yum!
- La Cabrera (Palermo area) – we ate here 5 times as they have a genious happy-hour from 7pm-8pm where you get 40% off but have pay up and leave shortly after 8 :) Tuva loved their bife de lomo and proclaimed their french fries to be the best (and she knows her fries). They also served lots of scrumptious tiny side dishes and sauces which varied a bit each time. We also tried their dry-aged angus beef (bife de chorizo dried for 28 days). Not the best chimichurri, but a great deal, especially at happy-hour. Price for two: 250 – 350 ARG pesos (at happy hour)
- Don Julio (Palermo area) – a cozy parilla with the best oven-fresh bread basket we had. We went there 3 times and had their bife de lomo and bife de chorizo cooked to perfection. Their fries “Española” (almost like waffles) challenges La Cabrera for the best fries and they have a really good beet salad and chimichurri. Also, if you drink a whole bottle of wine you can write something funny on it and put it on their shelves for display forever. Price for two: 300 – 630 ARG
- La Brigada (San Telmo area) – home of the famous 900g baby beef, so tender it is only served blue (raw) and cut with a spoon. This is also the place were we had a mind-blowing experience with cow’s heart and they had the best chimichurri (two types!) that we tried. A little minus for not so interesting bread basket. It’s not cheap but the waiters give you a warm good-bye (by your name) when you leave (not sure if this is common for everybody or if it was just because of our generous tip..). Price for two: +/- 500 ARG
- El Desnivel (San Telmo area) – maybe not our first choice, but a cheaper option with lots of locals. We had the ribs and chicken BBQ which were okay. Price for two: +/- 180 ARG
Italian ice cream
One of the best things that have ever come from the Italians is their ice cream, and Buenos Aires is full of small to medium sized ice cream shops of various brands. Our favorites were Bianca and Freddo, which we frequented more than we’d care to admit. The dulce de leche flavor and its variations with chocolate and nuts is a must try, and best of all you can order take-away of 1/2 liter or more with free delivery! (dangerously simple from buenosairesdelivery.com)
- Freddo (all over town) – considered by many as the best
- Bianca (Palermo area) – we really enjoyed their dulce de leche with brownies and oreo cream
- Persicco (all over town) – if you like it really sweet
Pizzas and Empanadas
Another Italian influence is the pizza, and you’ll find plenty of pizza-restaurants as well as take-away all over BA. Unfortunately they haven’t adopted the classical Italian thin crust (at least on the places we tried) and if you don’t specifically order “thin”, you will get quite a thick crust. Also they love a ton of cheese.
Most pizza places also make empanadas, which are those delicious little bread pockets filled with chicken, beef or vegetables. Empanadas is a typical quick snack or starter. You can find varying types of empanadas all over Latin America, and the biggest difference with the Argentinian empanada is that it isn’t deep fried, like in many other countries, but oven-baked.
- Pizzeria Guerrin – a decent italian pizza restaurant very popular among the locals. The best pizza we had in Argentina (although we didn’t eat much pizza)
A good way to get a taste of BA is to do a food tour, where you’ll try some of the most typical dishes in interesting restaurants outside the typical tourist track. We chose Parilla tour Buenos Aires where we got to try choripan, empanadas, a “secret” parilla (it’s usually closed to all people who don’t know about the place and whom the owner doesn’t recognize), and finally Italian ice cream. It was a good experience although not great, and is probably best to do in the beginning of your stay or if you only have a few days in BA. An added bonus is that you get a lot of good tips for other restaurants to visit and things to do.
Closed door restaurants
Another special thing in BA is the “closed door” restaurants. They are basically restaurants in people’s apartments or in not very typical restaurant locations, and you have to order in advance to get a table, sometimes weeks in advance for the most popular ones. Many of them give you a good deal on a multicourse tasting menu, paired with delicious Argentinian wine.
After recommendation from Time Out Buenos Aires (a great magazine about what’s happening in BA) we chose Casa Coupage. We had a 8 course meal paired with 5 wines + aperitif. The waiter asked us which types of wine we like and customized the wine pairings to each of our preferences. We got two wines at the same time in order to taste the food with each one of them. All of it was tasty and very good, although we have to admit it didn’t blow our socks off. We were the first to come to the restaurant and almost the last to leave after our 4,5 hour feast. It was a great experience and a great deal at about 1250 ARG pesos incl tips for the two of us.
During our 3,5 weeks we ate our way through BA, eating more steak in those weeks than we have done in our previous 27 years. After this experience we can honestly say there is nothing better in this world than a jugoso bife de lomo paired with a good Malbec from Mendoza, some chimichurri and crispy french fries!