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.”
You’ll only know the surface of the moon if you walk on it.
Twelve years later Audrey and I arrive in Argentina to find out for ourselves.
Four months in country, we have some experience. We have some answers, 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: We have listed restaurant suggestions from our travels throughout Argentina at the bottom. If you are wondering about wine to go with your steak, we plan to cover Argentine wine and wine tasting in Mendoza, Cafayate and Patagonia another series. Buenos Aires restaurants will be covered in a separate article, too.
Live on steak alone, no. But a steak a week is an easy pull in Argentina. 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, also the word used to denote grill 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 to pick things up even more. In our opinion, when the meat's this good, there's no need to dress it up.
Steak servings 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 between multiple people. 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 a in a larger group, consider ordering a provoleta (a small round of herbed, grilled cheese) to kick things off.
A few tips to navigate an Argentine steak 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 you want your meat cooked:
- 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
Mixed Asado (barbecue)
Argentine asado, the sacred weekend 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 festival like we did.
At the top of “typical Argentine food” lists, a milanesa is a pounded piece of chicken or beef breaded and fried or baked. Think schnitzel. It's a common lunch menu item and is usually served with fries or potatoes, or slapped between bread to make a sandwich. Considering that we had eaten milanesas for months, from Guatemala on south, we didn’t often seek them 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, but occasionally you’ll find them fried, especially in the north. Empanadas are the perfect traveller 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 heat. The flavor can often transform a mediocre empanada into something bordering delicious.
Also, keep your eye out for empanadas arabes (literally, Arabic 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.
When you think Argentine tarta, think quiche with less egg and more filling. Our favorite tartas included tomato/mozeralla/ham/basil, mushroom, pumpkin/squash, and zucchini. Tartas can offer a safe bet for vegetarians. A small tarta (4-5 inches across) was usually rich and filling enough to feed the two of us for lunch. Have the deli heat it up for you, find a park bench and enjoy a picnic lunch.
Technically, Argentine pizzas fall into two categories: thick crust “pizza de molde” and thin crust “a la piedra (stone-cooked).” No matter what the classification, we found most Argentine pizzas err 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 (as in kilos) of cheese.
Pizza aficionados, manage those 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. That way, if the sauce is non-existent, the tang from the tomatoes will help to balance the fatty mounds of cheese.
Other things to try at an Argentine pizzeria:
– Fugazetta: Pizza crust covered with sweet onions. No tomato sauce involved.
– Faina: A thin bread made from chickpea flour. It’s often served on top of a slice of pizza, but we preferred to eat it separately.
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 (shockingly inexpensive) and cook it ourselves.
A dish hailing from Argentina's Andean northwest, locro is like a stew or soup filled with grains, meat, vegetables and corn. It’s a heavy comfort food.
Mate is the general name for the strong tea made from infusing yerba mate (dried tea leaves) in a gourd (technically called a mate) and drinking it through a bombilla (like a metal straw with a sieve at the end). Audrey remembers taking swigs of mate from her grandmother's bombilla when she was young and thinking, “Wow, this is bitter.”
We did enjoy the social element of mate – passing around the gourd and refilling the water methodically – but we didn't particularly enjoy the taste of the mate itself. But, this is just us. Millions of people adore mate, so try it out for yourself and come to your own conclusion.
Argentine Sweets and Desserts
Although usually eaten in the morning, medialunas (small croissants) are often sided with coffee throughout the day. Medialunas 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 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 Argentine sweets.
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 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 over a $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 cut it into tiny wedges and eat it like a pie.
Rumors are that Cachafaz was founded by the original owners of Havanna after they sold the company so that they could maintain the tradition of their original alfajores. We have no proof of the validity of this tale, but it strikes us as a good story.
Argentina fortunately takes its ice cream cues from Italy. Heladerias (ice cream places) hail on every other corner, making it too easy to pick up a three flavor half-kilo on your way home.
By this point, you are probably wondering, where's all the bad food?
There isn't anything bad about Argentine food, 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.
Argentina Restaurant Recommendations
Note: Buenos Aires restaurant recommendations are in a separate article.
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.
La Leñita on the corner of Balcarce and Alsina Streets has 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.
Cachi (Salta region)
The Cachi wine bar and cafe about 10 meters down the hill from the church. The empanadas combined 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.
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 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 aljfajores, but the chocolate variety are pretty exceptional.
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 around 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.
Estrella de Oriente Rotiseria y Reposteria Arabe: We almost danced in the streets when we found this Lebanese deli run by a mother and daughter team. The mother speaks English and will tell you about leaving Lebanon for Argentina when she was a young woman to get married. Stock up on freshly made hummus, babaganoush, flat breads, and other Lebanese specialties for a fantastic picnic that will slap your tastebuds from their slumber. Located on the 200-block of Derqui Street (a few doors down from Al Malek Restaurant listed in all the guidebooks).