Grilled meat has been at the heart of Argentinian cuisine for generations. Head to any traditional restaurant and your eyes will inevitably lock onto jumbo slabs of steak dribbled in chimichurri, accompanied by mountains of fried potatoes covered in chopped garlic and parsley.
Porteños, the people of Buenos Aires, have an insatiable appetite for beef. But while steakhouses and bodegones (Italo-Argentine cantinas) still dominate the dining scene, long gone are the days when diners were limited to a ‘three P’ diet of pizza, pasta, and parrilla (meat). A new culinary wave is ushering in variety and reinventing the classics.
Today, diversity defines a burgeoning Buenos Aires restaurant landscape. Young chefs have returned from spells of living and learning their craft abroad and are now taking their Argentine cooking to dizzy new heights by modernising the food of their Italian or Spanish grandmothers.
The city also attracts more than its fair share of cooks from around the world — most notably from Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. This new crop of culinary talent brings with it fresh approaches and is helping to educate the comparatively conservative local palates in the flavourful ways of their native countries.
Meanwhile, many of the city’s leading chefs have ditched fine dining tasting menus in favour of casual restaurants, where plant-centric dishes shine just as bright as the steak, while location-focused cooking has also moved into the spotlight.
Porteños have always been distinctly social creatures, and hedonists will still feel at home in Buenos Aires. Diners and drinkers love to go out, and not only in ever-pulsating barrios (districts) such as Palermo Soho and San Telmo. Quieter residential areas like Chacarita and Villa Crespo are going through a welcome renaissance, with speciality coffee houses and wine or craft beer bars popping up in surprising places.
But the best bet for any visitor is still the lively Palermo neighbourhood, where good vibes fill the air every night of the week. Revellers of all ages and walks of life can be found living it up in smart cocktail bars, ice cream parlours, pizzerias, steakhouses, trendy beer gardens, kiosk drinking dives and roadside chorizo grills.
The dining scene in Palermo reflects that of Buenos Aires as a whole. Both are young in spirit, with an eye on the latest trends, but with a healthy respect for their long-standing rituals and traditions too. Forget the hoary old cliche that Buenos Aires is the ‘Paris of South America’ — Argentina’s capital blends Latin vibes, Italian attitude and a surprisingly broad spread of culinary influences to create an identity that’s very much its own.
A day in Recoleta & Palermo
Most Porteños aren’t up at the crack of dawn — this is a city that likes to sleep in. So, to beat the crowds, skip breakfast and begin by wandering Recoleta Cemetery and its impressive mausoleums. For lunch, head to Roux, an elegant bistro that combines Spanish, Italian and Mediterranean influences. Headed up by acclaimed chef Martin Rebaudino, it focuses on locally sourced seafood dishes such as calamari with spinach gnocchi. Walk it off around Palermo’s Parque Tres de Febrero and Barrio Parque, a favourite haunt for local celebrities and the location of some beautiful French-style architecture. From 5pm through to 7pm, it’s time for merienda — a late-afternoon snack — so head to Varela Varelita. In the 1940s, the literary elite would gather here; today, the bar has gained a hipster following, without losing its charm. Keep it simple with a cortado (espresso with steamed milk) and tostado (toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich). Palermo Soho is popular for its shopping. Peruse the boutiques, leather shops, and designer showrooms. Afterwards, dine at Niño Gordo, the latest hotspot, which takes steakhouse fare to the Far East with its combinations of Argentinian and Asian flavours. Expect the likes of okonomiyaki (savoury Japanese pancakes), miso-chili sweetbreads, and ssamjang bife de chorizo (grilled sirloin steak in a spicy Korean sauce). Serious culinary tourists know about ‘second dinner’, and should go for dulce de leche flan for dessert at Proper Restaurant. Finally, skip the touristy tango venues and instead visit Salon Canning, a popular milonga (tango dance hall/bar). Snag a table near the dancefloor, order a fernet (bitter herbal liqueur) with coke, and be captivated by the art of tango.
A day in Centro & San Telmo
Try the quintessential coffee and carb breakfast combo at Los Galgos: cortado and a medialuna (croissant). Get the best views of the city at Palacio Barolo — an office building that was the tallest in South America when it was built in 1923 — before hopping across what’s allegedly the world’s widest street, Avenida 9 de Julio, for an up-close look at the Obelisco de Buenos Aires, an iconic monument commemorating the quadricentennial of the city’s founding.The Casa Rosada (Pink House), Metropolitan Cathedral, City Hall, National Bank and the Buenos Aires Cabildo all surround the Plaza de Mayo, BA’s main square and the heart of the city. Journey through San Telmo’s cobbled streets en route to Mercado de San Telmo, a market built in 1897 that’s home to some of the city’s best butcher shops. While here, try a sausage at Nuestra Parrilla (aka Lo de Freddy), a hole-in-the-wall grill known for its first-class choripán (chorizo sandwiches). As the afternoon rolls on, partake in BA’s strong aperitivo drinking culture at local hangout El Refuerzo. Here, try Porteño favourites like Cynar (a bitter, artichoke-based liqueur) with grapefruit juice or Amargo Obrero, a light brown bitter known as ‘the aperitif of the Argentine people’.
Steakhouses abound in Buenos Aires, but Don Julio is arguably the most famous. Oenophiles take note, Don Julio has one of the most extensive wine lists around.
Housed in an iconic 1930s building, Los Calgos specialises in Porteño comfort food: cortado and medialunas, milanesa (schnitzel) sandwiches, charcuterie platters and Negroni on tap.
This bodegón, across from La Bombonera football stadium in La Boca, has no menu. Instead, owner and chef Carlos brings diners whatever he thinks they should eat, with pasta and meaty dishes most common. The final price? That’s up to Carlos too. T: 00 54 11 4362 2433
Cheese lovers should pick up a Porteño-style slice. This standing-room-only pizza institution, well removed from the tourist trail, has become synonymous with fugazetta, a thick-crusted pan pizza smothered in cheese, ham and caramelised onions.
A hole-in-the-wall near La Recoleta Cemetery, La Cocina specialises in empanadas from Catamarca, a province in northwest Argentina. Try fillings like beef, chicken, onion, and the ‘Pikachu’ (cheese, onions and mild, spicy sauce). Each empanada has its own characteristic repulgue (a fold in the dough), to bring out the flavour. T: 00 54 11 4825 3171
Ice cream is big in Argentina, especially flavours like dulce de leche, chocolate, and zabaione (an Italian dessert made with eggs and wine). At Rapa Nui, order by the cup, cone or kilo, and don’t forget to try the chocolate-covered frozen raspberries.
La Noire Café
Caffeine is essential for surviving the nocturnal Porteño lifestyle, but it hasn’t always been easy to find a great cup of coffee in the city. Many of the historic coffeehouses, although steeped in heritage, tend to be a little too stuck in the past, serving brews made with burnt, sugar-roasted beans. Luckily, a new wave of baristas, roasters and coffee connoisseurs has emerged, and this off-the-beaten-track cafe brings quality speciality coffee to the Chacarita barrio.
Vico Wine Bar
Go beyond Argentina’s signature malbec and enter into a world of torrontés and Patagonian pinot noir. At recently opened Vico Wine Bar, in Villa Crespo, drinkers can try over 140 different wines by the glass, all on tap in high-tech dispensers. vicowinebar.com.ar
Buenos Aires is the nightlife capital of South America, known for its lively bar scene and skilled mixologists. This beloved vermouth bar in San Telmo has attracted serious drinkers for years. Ask the city’s respected bartenders where they go to drink, and Doppelganger will almost always be the answer.
The new wave
Medialunas, toast, and coffee are key components of the typical Buenos Aires breakfast. However, at Salvaje, a crew of hipster bakers take the most important meal of the day up a notch, serving quality sourdough loaves and buttery croissants alongside freshly squeezed juice and excellent flat whites.
This vegetable-focused restaurant, set inside a former mechanic’s workshop, serves small plates cooked over a wood-fired grill. The industrial vibe and open kitchen make it a magnet for foodies. Go with friends and order everything — just save room for flan with dulce de leche for dessert.
The choripán, Argentina’s favourite snack, brings together two major food groups: chorizo and bread. In trendy Palermo Soho, fast-food joint Chrori (pictured above) serves a modern take on this beloved dish. Try some of the more creative variants, involving smoked pork or wild boar sausage, and wash it down with a G&T flavoured with yerba mate, a herbal drink.
Published in Issue 1 of National Geographic Traveller Food