When we poked around Buenos Aires earlier this year, our food quests were focused not only on understanding Argentine cuisine but also seeking out various ethnic cuisines that we hadn't encountered much while traveling the Andes and Paraguay. A couple of times a week, we’d head out with a restaurant recommendation, a gigantic map of the city, and scribbled notes as to our bus route.
We often got lost. We always ate. And we discovered something.
There's some nice food in Buenos Aires. But mediocrity in the cuisine scene is well represented across various budget levels. It's easy to drop a bunch of money on a lackluster meal.
We understand that Buenos Aires is not the only city that suffers from this phenomenon. But perhaps because of the imagery that often precedes it, expectations rise. Particularly if you expect to spend a short time in the city (and food is important to you), it may just be worth doing a little more restaurant research than usual.
The following intends to capture a random culinary walk through the city and is meant to answer the “Where did you eat? What did you have? Anything of note?” questions we get all the time.
Now, let's eat!
Parrillas (Steak Restaurants)
Although the scene may appear a bit formal at first (e.g., waiters in aprons and bow ties), the atmosphere inside is that of a classy, but unpretentious, neighborhood restaurant where families and friends gather for a meal. Our waiter was exceptionally friendly. After noticing that we had a thing for photographing our food, he began to bring other peoples' orders to our table so we could take a shot.
Very good bife de lomo. If you need something to balance your meat intake, try the radish greens salad. All that, a recommended bottle of Malbec and dessert ran about 100 pesos ($28) for two. Go early (as in 8:30 or 9 PM) as this place fills up quickly. Address: Honorio Pueyrredón 1406, Villa Crespo
A simple neighborhood spot that seems to have gotten its name into a couple of guidebooks, judging by the tourist crowd. But, it's still good. Nicely grilled provoleta (herbed cheese) and a solid bife del lomo serving large enough for three people. Prices are reasonable and staff are patient: we lost track of time, closed out the place and they didn’t fuss. Address: Rodríguez Peña 682, Recoleta
One part football (soccer) shrine, another part parrilla, El Obrero is a place for visual fun, what with all the Boca Juniors football paraphernalia. Large, juicy steaks won't empty your wallet. Leave room for the pave de vainilla sided with a daunting dollop of dulce de leche. Get a pull of espresso to balance out all that sweetness.
Stories of people getting mugged in La Boca are plentiful. During the daytime, it seemed fine — we walked the few blocks from where the bus dropped us off (the #64 bus from Barrio Norte is a terrific visual sample of BA, by the way). If you feel apprehensive, go while it's light or take a taxi at night.
Address: Agustín R. Caffarena 64, La Boca
Looking a bit more upscale than most restaurants we chose, El Caldon was a neighborhood favorite of a friend in Palermo. Service is good, if a bit over-the-top in a tourist courtship sort of way. Steaks are high quality and grilled vegetables done perfectly. Crockpot garlic spread cover is a nice touch. Very reasonably priced wine list given the all the above. A good experience and not quite as expensive as it may look at first glance. Address: Corner of Salvador and Armenia Streets, Palermo Viejo
Empanadas and Tartas
Spend any time in Argentina and you’ll quickly realize that not all empanadas are created equal. Here are a few places we'd recommend for freshness and variety.
No Name Barrio Norte Deli
This is the sort of place we live and die for. A take-out deli with a gregarious chef (often in a paper chef’s hat) behind the counter. He loves to talk, but his porteño accent makes it a bit difficult for newcomers to keep up.
Everything here is good, but the tartas are exceptional. Our favorites were the ham/cheese/basil/tomato and pumpkin squash varieties. The empanadas arabes, filled with spiced meat and topped with lemon rind, are a revelation. The giant beef empanadas do the salty-sweet thing like only grandmothers know how.
Very inexpensive and high quality – this is why you'll see both construction workers and businessmen in suits waiting for their food. We were regulars here several times a week to pick up lunch.
Address: 2907 Juncal Street (Bustamante cross street), Barrio Norte
Note: This place is open only at lunchtime until around 3-4 PM.
No Name Empanada Place on Scalabrini Ortiz
We stumbled upon this place in a food daze when we underestimated walking distances in the city. Freshly cooked empanadas heated to perfection were just the ticket. We returned several times. Up there in the top echelon of our Argentine empanada experiences.
Address: 1800 block of Scalabrini Ortiz (cross street is Nicaragua), Palermo
Pizza and Pasta
We’ve already written about keeping expectations at bay when it comes to Argentine pizza. Here are a few places that, for various reasons, were notable.
Thin Crust: Albamonte
The first time we dined here, our American friends joining us joked that everyone in the place did a double take when they first walked in.
The point: not many tourists make it out here. Though the neighborhood may look a little rough around the edges to some, it's fine. And Albamontes has a friendly put-your-arm-around-your-neighbor feel to it. More importantly, perhaps, the food is great – pleasing even the most discerning of our Italian-American friends. The pizza here is probably the closest you’ll come to pizza that resembles real Italian pizza – thin crust, ample sauce, and not kilos of cheese. The calamari is also very good. Not expensive. Address: Avenida Corrientes 6735, Chacarita
Thick crust: El Cuartito
The well-known, overgrown red-headed stepchild of Buenos Aires pizza joints, El Cuartito is almost universally panned by anyone doing the food critic thing. So why did we go? Our discerning landlord suggested we do so despite the bad reviews.
However, she recommended a strategy: understand that it's thick crust pizza and order the Napolitana. So we did. Although we're not usually awed by thick crust pizza, this one was sufficiently crispy and the sauce was flavorful. More importantly, the sauce:cheese ratio was balanced, perhaps because of the sliced tomato topping. Tables are graced with cans of olive oil and fresh oregano and roasted red pepper flakes — this behavior earns bonus points in our book.
El Cuartito is packed in the evenings with both tourists and locals. Go early or prepare to wait a bit.
Address: Talcahuano 937, Recoleta
Fresh Pasta at Coto Supermarket (Barrio Norte, Santa Fe location):
What?!?! A supermarket? We realize we may lose points among our foodie friends for recommending fresh pasta from a chain supermarket, but hear us out. At first, we were attracted to boxes of flour-dusted fresh pasta because of the price. How can you beat $2.50 for two sheets of fresh ricotta-filled ravioli, or $4 for a tray of spinach and ricotta sorrentinos?
A tad skeptical, we brought them home and cooked them. The taste and texture: spot on. We also tried other fresh pasta factories in the city to compare. As difficult as this may be to believe, Coto boxed fresh pasta beat out many of the corner store ravioli and sorrentino factories charging two and three times the price. If you are looking for a satisfying, inexpensive meal to cook at home, Coto fresh pasta is where it's at.
If you are renting an apartment in Buenos Aires, consider that a decent bottle of Tempranillo/Malbec/Cabernet/Syrah and a two-person serving of ravioli would run you about $5-$10.
Price is an indicator of nothing, except perhaps economy of scale.
Medialunas, Cafés, Gelato and Happy Hour
Buenos Aires' streets are literally lined with cafés. One of the city's defining features are its great cafes, in the sort that spill out onto sidewalks. Most coffee will come with a glass of mineral water and a little sweet treat. So beautiful, so civilized.
Café de Arenales
Does a great continental breakfast of café con leche and 3 medialunas for 10 pesos ($2.50). Coffee is stand-up and the medialunas even better. Address: Corner of Larrea and Arenales Streets, Barrio Norte
Medialunas del Abuelo
A bakery churning out big trays of medialunas and other facturas (pastries) day in and day out. Try both the grasa (salty) and manteca (sweet) varieties. There are several outlets scattered around town. Address: Juncal 2190, Barrio Norte
Determined to find us the best medialunas in town, our landlord sent us to Lucio's. Their crescents are very, very rich — so buttery, they almost melt in your mouth. Decadent.Address: Scalabrini Ortiz and Güemes Streets, Palermo
Tienda de Café
This is a chain café, but the coffee is good and the little treats alongside are tasty, too. Free wifi is also a nice touch. Our favorite location was in Barrio Norte.Address: Juncal 2295, Barrio Norte
One of the best gelato places in Buenos Aires. Try a combination of passion fruit mousse with dark chocolate. Address: There are many shops around Buenos Aires but the one at Santa Fe 1826 has a pleasant garden seating area in the back.
A bar and restaurant in a converted mansion with an awesome outdoor garden area. Inside décor is also cool. Check out the stairways and you'll feel like you've gone back in time or stepped onto a movie set. Serves tapas as well as full meals. We usually went for the happy hour special from 7 PM onwards because the bar featured good deals on beer (something like $2/beer). A really nice place to meet friends in the evening. Make reservations on good weather days because the garden and other outdoor seating are likely to fill up. Address: Parana 1048, Recoleta
Hat tip to Jon Brandt for introducing us to this place.
Ethnic Restaurants (A break from steaks, pizza, pasta and empanadas)
Sarkis Armenian Restaurant
One of our favorite ethnic food spots in Buenos Aires. We recommend the jambra (roasted red pepper and walnut dip) and babaganoush to start. Follow it with an outstanding minced lamb kebab covered in plain yogurt and onions. Having been to Armenia, we can say that we wouldn't have left if the food was this good.
Delicious, reasonably priced and a good place for vegetarians. Arrive early because this place fills up quickly. Address: Thames 1101, Palermo Viejo
A great deli and sweets shop to pick up Armenian food for a picnic. Thick, Greek-style yogurt, babaganoush, hummos and an incredible selection of sweets. Buy your stuff and head to the nearby park in Palermo for an outdoor nosh. Address: Scalibrini Ortiz 1317, Palermo Viejo
Lotus Neo Thai
Not cheap by any stretch, but the Penang curry was spicy, full of flavor and just what we needed for our Asian food fix. Nice rooftop terrace where you can start your evening with cocktails and appetizers (recommend the satay beef skewers). Address: Arribeños 2265 (same street as Chinatown), Belgrano
Surprisingly good Indian food for this part of the world. A good selection of vegetarian food and nicely spiced meat dishes (including saag/lamb). Tandoor also has a reasonably priced lunch menu. Address: Laprida 1293, Barrio Norte
When you need a Mexican or street-food style fix, this busy place does the trick. Our favorite was the Volcan Taco, but all the grilled meat tacos were good. A decent selection for vegetarians, too. Don't forget to take advantage of the 2 for 1 drinks during happy hour each night. Address: Gorriti 5092, Palermo Soho
Buying Asian ingredients
If you happen to have your own kitchen and want to stock up on spices, fresh herbs, curry pastes, vegetables and anything else Asian you might desire, then head over to Chinatown on Arribeños street in the Belgrano neighborhood. Chinatown only stretches a couple of blocks, but it includes two big supermarkets specializing in foreign foods.
Skip it. Really. It's not worth it. Wait until you return home or book a flight to Lima, Peru. You'll probably save money if you do. Otherwise, be prepared to pay an arm and a leg and indulge in mediocre salmon swimming in cream cheese.
Recommendations for navigating Buenos Aires' restaurants
1) Check out Layne's Buenos Aires restaurant recommendations at TaxiGourmet. She tipped us off to some of her favorite restaurants that she discovered through her taxi cab adventures. Several of our recommendations are thanks to her.
2) Find reviews, average meal prices, addresses, maps, phone numbers, opening hours and loads more information for almost any restaurant in Buenos Aires at Guia Oleo. Very useful.
3) Taxis in Buenos Aires are relatively easy and inexpensive, but it can be fun to take on the city's bus system. Como Viajo is a great website to figure out your public transportation route to the restaurant. Just put in your start and end addresses. We found Como Viajo easier to navigate than the labyrinthine Buenos Aires bus guides. Just make sure you have coins to pay for your bus fare.
We understand that this list is far from exhaustive. Buenos Aires is a huge city of over 13 million people spread out over close to 50 neighborhoods.
What is your favorite Buenos Aires food, restaurant or dining experience? Please add your own recommendations in the comments so that other visitors to the city may benefit.