We met an expat friend for dinner in Palermo Soho the day we’d been gathering prices for our Buenos Aires Price Check post and expressed surprise to him that prices hadn’t gone up much since we were last here a few years ago. He said he thought they had increased and that he didn’t even buy groceries much any more to make meals because the restaurant food in the city was so good and so cheap!
And we don’t blame him. Eating out in Buenos Aires is a real treat – especially if you like meat.
We always find it amusing when travel writers and bloggers complain that there is little else but empanadas and steak to eat in Buenos Aires because there is plenty of food from other cultures served up in the city, albeit with varying degrees of authenticity.
If you know where to look you’ll find just as much variety in Buenos Aires as you will in Paris, London or New York. There is excellent Italian everywhere, there is authentic French, the Peruvian ceviche is divine, and sushi is omnipresent – and that’s just for starters. But we’re not here to write a guidebook to Buenos Aires. We’ve done that before. For us, this time, it’s all about the beef…
On this trip, which is focused on eating what’s local and authentic in a place, we decided to try as many parrillas (the word simply means ‘grill’) or steakhouses that we could in our area. We had eaten at most of them before, when researching a city guidebook, and we were pleased to see that the economic downturn had weeded out the steakhouses that weren’t up to scratch. What was left was the cream of the crop, the parillas that Porteños frequent.
So what makes the beef in Buenos Aires so special? Every waiter and chef we ask always has the same answer: happy cows eating Pampas grass. The cows are happy because they’re allowed to roam the Pampas (plains), free of antibiotics and growth hormones, and they don’t even know what corn feed is! The meat is not aged, and ‘cooking’ just means starting with the beef at room temperature, seasoning it, cooking it over hot charcoals, and serving.
The full parrilla experience usually starts with the first course: some sausages, chorizo and/or morcilla (pork/beef and ‘blood’ sausages respectively), perhaps an offal selection (you must try sweetbreads – Mollejas de Ternera, our favourites, are the veal ones), and maybe some provoleta (deliciously smoky grilled cheese). This is accompanied by chimichurri, a sauce generally made by the chef to his own recipe (and strength of heat), but which usually includes parsley, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and red pepper flakes.
By this time you’re probably starting to feel full and wishing that you’d brought along more friends, because the next course is what you’re really here for – the beef! There are many cuts that you can order, but our favourites are the Bife de Lomo (tenderloin), Bife de Chorizo (no – not the sausage, it’s actually strip loin) and Ojo de Bife (rib eye). While the lomo is the most tender cut, the other two actually have the best flavour in our opinion, although they can occasionally be a little chewy.
Expats and visitors often tell us that they have trouble getting the right ‘doneness’ they want on the plate. We agree that it can be confusing, but we completely disagree on the widely-held notion among many travel writers that Argentines cook all their steaks well-done. These writers obviously don’t know any Argentines! Nor have they spent much time in the city.
The asador (grill guy) is probably cooking your steak well-done because of Argentines’ perceived notion that tourists want everything cooked right through! Because of this, in recent years, we’ve taken to ordering our steaks rosado con y bien jugoso literally meaning ‘red and juicy’. Which is just the way you want this steak!
As part of our meat-focussed mission in Palermo, we tried parrillas of all levels, from posh to plain. In the next post we’ll discuss whether a single steak at one place is really worth an entire meal at another less fancy parrilla and we’ll take you through our list of local favourites.