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So I am finally in BA. First impressions are cold but sunny, familiar but intimidating, colourful and vibrant… and from a culinary perspective there are a lot of dead cows.

Dad, are you reading this? For your benefit I am going to risk my life (the Argentines are very passionate about all things Argentinean) and say that BA is not the culinary highlight that you anticipated it would be, well not after Madrid anyway.

Now I have only been here a few days, so it is probably unfair to reach this conclusion so early on, but I am well informed from a gastronomic perspective, both through my Dad’s extensive research into the food here (after months of reading up on all that BA has to offer poor Dad never made it on account of the volcano in Chile) and, more importantly, via recommendations from the locals I have met.

Thanks to Heather, a local who a friend of the family put me in touch with, I have had one exceptionally good steak. Heather took me to her favourite parilla (the Argentine word for steakhouse, which literally means grill), Don Julio, in the Palermo district.

The restaurant had a lovely homely feel and the portions sizes were just right. I had not been brave enough to order a steak until I met Heather, as I had been told that one would be enough for two people in most places. However, Don Julio offers a half portion of Bife de Chorizo (sirloin steak), which was more than enough, along with the side orders of papas fritas provençal (potato fries with garlic and parsley) and ensalada mixta (mixed salad).

Kicking off with a grilled chorizo sausage and empanada de carne (meat pastie) and washed down with several glasses of Malbec from Mendoza, it was the perfect Argentine meal.

Now I do like a good steak but I am the kind of person who gets a craving for a big slab of beef once every few months to top up the iron levels and then forgets all about it until next time. So having eaten the obligatory steak I have not been inspired to go off in search of another at the various places recommended by other locals: La Cabrera, Des Nivel, Club Bochin to name a few. In any case, Heather confirmed my worry that in these places I was likely to struggle with the portions if I went alone and convincing other budget conscious travellers to join me for a sirloin isn’t really on the cards.

So if one does not want to eat steak in BA what does one eat? I have been told that there is extensive and varied international cuisine on offer in Palermo Viejo, in particular that sushi is very good and Peruvian food is currently in vogue, but I am going to Peru and I didn’t come to Argentina to eat Japanese. I want to discover Argentinian cuisine, and it seems that if I am not prepared to eat a lot of steak then my options are somewhat limited.

I have eaten plenty of empanadas since I arrived, they are one of my favourite things, although I am yet to have one that made me “open my legs”. I did venture to Des Nivel, albeit not for steak, because the person who recommended it to me, an Argentine guy, told me had the best empanadas in town,

“Better than my grandmother's!”

He said that they were delicious because they were served hot and crisp and that the seasoning was perfect. Well, perhaps I got the tourist treatment, because mine was served cold. Nonetheless, he was right about the seasoning and I can see that if mine had been freshly fried it would have been a different experience altogether. The empanada I had at Don Julio was freshly fried and it was the best I have had so far.

I had been told that I should look out for pasta casera (homemade pasta) on the menus here because the Italian heritage has left a legacy of widespread and fantastic Italian food. Well, Italian food is certainly abundant, but I am yet to find anything that comes close to the quality one finds in Italy. My first pasta dish was the worst of the two I’ve had; a ricotta and walnut ravioli with pesto.

It looks much nicer than it tasted. The pasta must have been rolled by hand because it was almost half a centimetre thick and, therefore, chewy and undercooked. Both the pesto and the filling were bland – the pesto had been made with parsley, rather than basil and both were underseasoned. The other pasta dish was at Des Nivel – ñoquis con salsa estofado de carne (gnocchi with stewed meat sauce). The stewed beef was nice, but the tomato element was thin and sweet like tin spaghetti sauce; not really what I anticipated. The gnocchi was average, not perfectly light and fluffy, but not horribly gluggy either.

It gets worse when it comes to pizza. My Lonely Planet guide has a cultural dos and don’t section at the front which says “Never tell an Argentine that Italian pizza is better than Argentine pizza”. Well, here I am safe. Why? Because what they call pizza in Argentina is so far removed from Italian pizza that in my mind they are not even remotely comparable.

Does that look like Italian pizza to you? I think think this legacy looks more American to me. This was in the place I had been told was the best place in Buenos Aires for pizza, “all the Argentine’s agree”. Yes, well perhaps therein lies the problem. This, by Argentine standards, is good pizza. As my Argentine dinner companion, Leo, told me, this is how they like it: thick pan crust, plenty of topping, loads of cheese. They also have a strange local tradition of topping their pizza with a slice of fainá, a crispy fried flatbread made of chickpea flour and olive oil which adds nothing in terms of flavour but which Leo told me is to satisfy you if you are really hungry and just ordering one slice of pizza.

One thing from their Italian heritage that the Argentine’s do do well are the Milanesas (schnitzel). I have had two since I have been here, one chicken and one veal, and both have been delicious. The first was at Plaza la Victoria, across from my hostel, and was my first meal in Argentina. Just the hearty meal I needed after the horrendous flight from Madrid with Air Europa (the Ryan Air of longhaul flights).

The second, and the best of the two, was at El Trapiche, a restaurant recommended to me by some family friends who were in Argentina recently. It was one of the places that Dad and I were going to go together and I have to admit it was a little sad going alone, not least because there were so many fantastic things on the menu but all far too much for just one person. Indeed, all the especialidades de la casa (house specialties) were for 2 – 4 people.

Choripán was another item on Dad’s list. I was in search of empanadas when I went to Palermo, so I didn’t try the choripán suggested in this article, but I found somewhere at San Telmo market called El Rey de Choripán (The King of Choripán) and judging by the queue it looked like the local people agreed.

Like steak, choripan is usually offered with chimichirri and salsa criolla, and this one also came with a piccante (hot) sauce that the vendor told me was really hot. Please! These Argentine’s really can’t handle any heat. Next they'll be telling me the chimichurri is going to blow my socks off.

It doesn’t look much in the photo (that blue tinge reflects the light and, therefore, the weather - f**king freezing!) but it was just what I needed to warm up after wandering the streets of San Telmo in search of a hat and gloves.

Well, I have had enough of city life for the time being so I am getting on bus in a few hours and heading up to Iguazu falls. I have just one more meal to fit in before I go and if it is a worthy one I will let you know. There is still one more chance to convince me, Porteños, give it your best shot!


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Reader Comments (4)

Fantastic introduction to BA culinary experiences - but my absolute favourite is the idea of describing the food as being something that will "open the legs" !!! Muy expressivo y tambien muy gracioso !!! Look forward to more insights !!!!

June 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMa

...but have you tried the "criadillas" yet? I think that was the name for the barbecued lamb testicles. I have very fond culinary memories of my time in Argentina. Once at a bar down in patagonia where we ate every internal organ of the lamb. And on another occasion at an outdoor meal on a Serbian Estancia where they "crucified" the whole lamb on a metal cross and stuck it in a fire pit. That was some of the best meat I have ever eaten in my life.

June 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSara

first and foremost you must change 'dad's' recommendation of MY recommendation...i do believe i told him about it and even have a tshirt that says i love chorripan...they are just about my favourite things...and when they are only $1...theres no complaints! hahaha
ahhhhh it all sounds wonderful...well not the food but you know the experience! The photos bring back lots of memories...i think i had one slice of pizza when i was there and decided that was most definately enough! and i remember the pasta being awful aswell! but ofcourse as you say argentines just can't fault themselves or their country!
Hoping despite the lack of culinary delights you are enjoying yourself anyway...and happy to be there?!
lots of love...

June 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercharlie Brown

Hi Ma, thanks for your comment - if you click the link you will see that the idea is not mine. The article it clicks through to explains that a BA chef once said that a good empanada should make you open your legs because the sauce drips everywhere... I have since had several which I will write about soon.

Hi Sara, things have improved remarkably on the culinary front since I left BA. Surprisingly, I even found great food in Puerto Iguazú - a tourist town. I haven't tried any testicles yet, not sure if I am game, but I am definitely up for gizzards.

Hi Cha, well I didn't say it was his recommendation, I just said it was on his list! I know most of his ideas came from you! I was a bit disappointed to discover that a chorizo sausage here is nothing like it is in Spain - misleading - but then the Argentine's don't like their spices much and at least it means you can taste the chimmichurri! I have been recommended a pizza place in Mendoza that apparently does a thin crust, it is 15mins in a taxi from town and not sure I am prepared to take the risk but I do feel a need to fill the void after the last... Things have improved since I left BA - lots of delicious empanadas, riverfish in Iguazú and awesome carpaccio for lunch today... will try to write it all up soon!

July 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterVix

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