Argentine steak, empanadas and pizza play a big role in the country’s cuisine, but there’s much more to food in Argentina. From asado (barbecue) to the stew-like national dish of locro, our Argentina food guide offers an extensive list of traditional dishes, European-influenced Argentine food favorites, desserts and wine. And it’s drawn from our travels across Argentina for four months, including meals in family homes, cafes, wineries and restaurants.
When I think about my first contact with the concept of Argentine cuisine, I recall a discussion twelve years ago with an unassuming foodie friend in San Francisco.
“I bet the food in Argentina is great!” I offered with blind optimism as visions of gauchos stepping to a tango beat danced in my head. Argentina seemed so damn far away; therefore the food must be exotic and varied.
My food-wise friend brushed off my enthusiasm without skipping a beat, “Yeah, if the only thing you like is steak and wine.”
Twelve years later Audrey and I arrive in Argentina to find out for ourselves about its food.
Four months traveling in Argentina, we have some experience. We have some answers about Argentine food, but a few questions linger:
Did the spice trade ever make it to Argentina?
What happened to the vegetables?
Can man live on steak alone?
Let's dig in.
Note: This post was originally published on August 18, 2010 and updated on November 4, 2018.
Argentine Steak: How to Choose and Order
Man cannot live on steak alone, no. But a steak a week is an easy pull in Argentina. And since steak is such an important part of the cuisine in Argentina, it garners its own section.
Argentine cattle are grass fed (in contrast to more common grain-fed beef typical in the U.S.). As a result, Argentine beef is not only a better taste experience, but also an easier digestive experience. To boot, Argentine steaks are charcoal grilled on a parrilla (i.e. a giant grill; parrilla is also the word used to denote grill-style restaurants).
Although Argentine steak is rich and flavorful enough on its own, that doesn't prevent most restaurants from offering chimichurri, an olive oil and spice rub sauce to pick things up even more. In our opinion, when the meat tastes this good on its own, there's no need to dress it up with any sauce.
Steak servings in Argentina are typically large, tipping the scales at 400 grams or almost one pound a portion. So it's not a faux pas to share one steak between two people at a restaurant.
To balance out the meal, we typically ordered a salad to go with our steak. We always left satiated, but not overly full. If you are ravenous or eating in a larger group, consider ordering a provoleta (a small round of herbed, grilled cheese) as an appetizer to kick things off.
A few tips to navigate an Argentine steak restaurant and menu:
Typical cuts of meat in Argentina:
- bife de lomo (sirloin) – a very lean cut and usually the most expensive. Our favorite choice.
- bife de chorizo (strip loin steak) – fattier than the bife de lomo, but some prefer it because it's juicier.
- matambre (flank steak) – more fat and less expensive, still.
- vacio (London broil)
How to order your meat cooked in Argentina:
- jugoso – rare (literally translated as juicy). This is what we would recommend. Actually muy jugoso, or very rare, is what we usually asked for.
- a punto – medium rare
- bien cocido – well done
Traditional Argentine Food
Mixed Asado (Traditional Argentine barbecue)
Argentine asado, the sacred weekend barbecue ritual of Argentine families, goes well beyond steak. The grill and cooking style used is similar, but an asado selection might include other cuts of beef, sausages, mollejas (thymus glands) and other offal, pork, and chicken.
If you are not fortunate enough to have Argentine family to hang out with like we did, you can find asado plates offered at most parrilla restaurants.
Many hostels also offer an asado dinner option once or twice a week. Another approach: crash a village cowboy/gaucho festival like we did.
Locro (Traditional Argentine Stew)
A dish hailing from Argentina's Andean northwest, locro is like a stew or soup filled with grains, meat, vegetables and corn. What some might consider the traditional national dish of Argentina, it’s a hearty, heavy comfort food.
Milanesa (Argentinian Schnitzel)
Milanesa sits atop many “typical Argentine food” lists. A milanesa is a pounded piece of chicken or beef breaded and fried or baked. Milanesa can be considered an Argentinian version of schnitzel, the traditional dish you'll find across Central Europe.
Milanesa is a common lunch menu item and is usually served with fries or potatoes, or slapped between bread to make a sandwich. Considering we had eaten milanesas for months during our travels throughout Latin America — from Guatemala on south — we admittedly didn't often seek it out while snacking in Argentina.
Empanadas, the ubiquitous Latin American savory turnover. Flaky or doughy, empanadas come stuffed with just about anything: spinach, cheese, acelga (Swiss chard), mushrooms, ground beef, chicken, even seafood.
On balance, Argentine empanadas are usually baked. You'll occasionally find them fried, especially in the north. Empanadas are the perfect traveler food — they are cheap, quick, high comfort and often oozing with cheesiness.
Argentina's Salta region claims the best empanadas. We agree.
Salteña empanadas are smaller and tastier; there's something special about the dough. Salta also gets extra points for serving their empanadas with a hot sauce. Outside of Salta, we recommend packing your own bottle of hot sauce heat. The flavor of a homemade hot sauce can often transform a mediocre empanada eating experience into something bordering delicious.
Keep your eye out for empanadas arabes (literally, Arabian empanadas) stuffed with cumin-herbed ground meat and lemon rind. When done well, they offer a new set of flavors to wake up tired taste buds in Argentina.
When you think Argentine tarta, think quiche with less egg and more filling. Our favorite Argentinian tartas included tomato/mozeralla/ham/basil, mushroom, pumpkin/squash, and zucchini. Tartas can also offer a safe bet for vegetarians traveling in Argentina.
One small tarta (typically 4-5 inches across) was usually rich and filling enough to feed the two of us for lunch. Have the deli where you purchase your tarta heat it up for you, find a park bench nearby and enjoy a picnic lunch.
Italian Specialties in Argentina
Pizza in Argentina typically falls into one of two categories: thick crust “pizza de molde” and thin crust “a la piedra (stone-cooked).”
No matter its classification, we found most pizzas in Argentina erring on the side of thick crusts, scant tomato sauce (one example featured an after-thought teaspoon of sauce in the middle of the pie) and and loads of cheese.
Pizza aficionados, manage your expectations.
We offer two recommendations when ordering pizza in Argentina:
1) Ask for extra sauce on your pizza. Yes, you will look the crazy tourist for this one but who really cares if it improves your eating experience.
2) Order the Napolitana pizza which features sliced tomatoes on top. This way, if the sauce is non-existent, the tang from the tomatoes will help to balance the rich, fatty mounds of cheese.
Other things to try at an Argentine pizzeria:
– Fugazetta: Pizza crust covered (or sometimes stuffed) with sweet onions. Depending on the version, fugazetta resembles focaccia or stuffed white pizza. No tomato sauce involved.
– Fainá Argentina (Farinata): A thin flatbread made from chickpea flour. It’s often served in addition to (or on top of) a slice of pizza, but we preferred to eat it separately.
Argentine Pasta, Ravioli, and Sorrentinos
Thanks to a profound ethnic Italian influence, Argentina features fresh pasta shops offering ravioli and their oversized brother, sorrentinos, on almost every city corner. Although there's no shortage of Italian restaurants in Argentina, we often opted to buy fresh ravioli from the grocery store or deli (shockingly inexpensive) and cook it ourselves at home.
Argentine Desserts and Sweets
Medialunas (Argentinian Croissants)
Although usually eaten in the morning, medialunas (small croissants) are often sided with coffee throughout the day. Medialunas (literally “half moons”) come in two broad categories – grasas (salty) and manteca (slightly sweet). When you find a good medialuna, you'll know it instantly: it melts in your mouth.
Perhaps the best medialunas in all of Argentina were made known to us thanks to a distant relative baker (Audrey's mother's cousin's daughter's husband…if you figure out the term, let us know) in La Falda. Unfortunately, we can't remember the name of the place, so just ask someone in La Falda which medialuna is so good it will bring tears to your eyes.
Dulce de Leche
Dulce de leche (literally “sweet of milk”), is a caramelized liquid made from thickened, sweetened, boiled cream. While many find it overly sweet, we enjoyed it. If you don't enjoy the stuff, you may have a difficult time navigating desserts in Argentina and the roster of Argentine sweets.
Alfajores in Argentina
When it comes to alfajores, we prefer simple and traditional: two shortbread style cookies stuffed with dulce de leche and maybe rolled in a bit of shaved coconut.
Alfajores come in oodles of varieties, including chocolate-dipped. Although the Havanna cafe chain is well-known for its alfajores, we found their cookies a bit dry and airy, a little off in the way of density.
Our favorite alfajores: Cachafaz. These cookies are sold at corner kiosks for a little more than $1. They may not look like much from their packaging, but looks can be deceiving. The cookie crumbles just right and the dulce de leche filling is adequate. It is so rich, you can share it by cutting it into tiny pie-like wedges.
Rumors are that Cachafaz was founded by the original owners of Havanna so they could maintain the tradition of their original alfajores after selling the original business. We have no proof of the validity of this tale, but it strikes us as a good story.
Gelato (Argentinian Ice Cream)
Argentina fortunately takes its ice cream cues from Italy. Heladerias (ice cream shops) hail on every other corner, making it far too easy to pick up a hand-packed three flavor half-kilo container of gelato on your way home from dinner.
Argentina Wine and Drinks
Wine Tasting in Argentina
We won't cover Argentine wines in depth here because we address wine tasting at wineries in the major Argentine wine-producing areas in the following articles: wine in Mendoza, wine in Cafayate and Patagonian wine.
However, a solid, locally-fit red wine varietal like Malbec is just about as perfect a pairing as you can get with a nicely grilled Argentine steak. It's as if they were made for each other.
If wine is of interest to you, it's worth seeking out wine bars in Buenos Aires, Mendoza and other cities where you can undertake a series of Argentine wine tastings and learn about the different varietals and characteristics of each of the country's wine-producing regions. In addition, you can find very drinkable Argentine wine at grocery stores or wine shops throughout the country for $5-$10. This approach provides an excellent and cost-effective method to taste and explore wines in Argentina.
Mate (Argentina Yerba Mate)
Mate is the general name for the strong tea made from infusing yerba mate (dried tea leaves) in a water-filled gourd (technically called a mate) and drinking the result through a bombilla (like a metal straw with a sieve at the end). Audrey remembers taking swigs of mate from her Argentina-born grandmother's bombilla when she was young and thinking, “Wow, this is bitter.”
While we enjoyed the social element of mate — passing around the gourd and methodically refilling the water inside — we didn't particularly enjoy the taste of mate itself. This is just a personal preference. Millions of people adore mate, so try it for yourself and come to your own conclusion.
Argentina Restaurant Recommendations
The following are a collection of our recommended restaurants and eating experiences from the four months we spent traveling around Argentina. So as to not overwhelm this article, we published a separate article devoted entirely to our Buenos Aires restaurant recommendations.
Restaurants in Puerto Iguazu (near Iguazu Falls)
Colors Restaurant on Av. Córdoba 135 looks touristy at first glance, but it served up our most memorable bife de lomo in Argentina. The owner took us back into the kitchen and allowed us to choose our cut of meat. The price for a 400 gram steak, bottle of Reserve Malbec, substantial arugula salad and sparkling water: around $20.
Restaurants in Salta
La Leñita on the corner of Balcarce and Alsina Streets features a nice atmosphere, quality steaks and a good salad bar.
Casona de Molina on the corner of Luis Burela and Caseros Streets. A “2-person” asado — with its variety of meats and sausages — is truly enough for four hungry people, runs $15. Empanadas are also top notch.
Note: Thanks goes to Leigh and her family for introducing us to these Salta restaurants.
Restaurants in Cachi (Salta region)
The Cachi wine bar and cafe stands about 10 meters down the hill from the church. Their empanadas combine a blended cornmeal crust with goat cheese filling to put them at the top of our list. The accompanying homemade salsa is pretty fantastic, too.
Restaurants in Cafayate (Salta region)
Casa de Empanadas: 12 kinds of empanadas, from four-cheese to chicken, made fresh to order. Vegetarians will love the wide variety of veggie options. We paid a daily visit during our stay in the town of Cafayate.
Alfajores Calchaquitos: Near the main square on Catamarca 253. For some reason, this alfajoreria (we're aware this is probably not a word) does not sell traditional alfajores. Despite this, the chocolate alfajores are pretty exceptional.
Restaurants in Bariloche
Almazen: A delightful little restaurant (20 de Febrero #40) specializing in daily specials like chicken curry or ravioli with cherry tomatoes and forest mushrooms. Some of the most unique and fresh food we found in Argentina. The lunch menu features about 8-10 specialties while the evening menu is focused on tapas dishes. Highly recommended.
Mamushka Chocolates in Bariloche: Much of the chocolate we found sold in stores throughout Argentina was waxy and not very good. But, Bariloche makes up for that with a main street dotted with chocolate shops. Though each chocolateria has its specialty, our overall favorite: Mamushka.
Variety in Argentine Cuisine
By this point, you are probably wondering, where's all the bad food?
There isn't anything bad about food in Argentina, but there just isn't a lot of variety (e.g., compared with Peruvian food). Let's just say that after a couple of weeks, eating Argentine food can feel like hanging out at a piano bar with One-note Charlie.
And what about those vegetables? They are there, but someone seems to be hiding them, for Argentina certainly has the capability to grow just about anything.
And the spices? They are there too. But the European-dominated palate seems to have flattened any of the highlights carried down the cone from the Andes.
That said, if you do believe man can live on steak alone then it's time to book your tickets to Argentina.