Argentinians consume approximately 130lbs of beef per head annually. Americans, on the other hand, barely make it to 70lbs. This is the sort of fact that sounds apocryphal. Almost twice the beef consumption of the home of the quarter-pounder; it can’t possibly be true. However, when you sit down to lunch in Buenos Aires, you realize it’s probably an underestimate.
Having flown into the Argentine capital overnight, we arrive in Palermo early on a Sunday morning. During the week, and particularly at night, the district is one of the city’s most vibrant, particularly the areas known as Palermo Soho or Palermo Hollywood which, as the names suggest, are a buzzy mix of smart, glam, edgy and hip. On a Sunday morning, however, there’s a sense of recovery in the air, particularly in Palermo Viejo, where we’re staying. There’s a distinctly European vibe to the entire city, and that goes double for this neighborhood. Cafés are just opening up for brunch, stallholders are just setting up for the morning market and some of the city’s finest espresso is already being served at Full City Coffee House.
According to friends who do the trip regularly, Full City is step one in their cure for jetlag. “Get coffee, drop your bags, shower, and head to La Cabrera for lunch,” they’d instructed.
La Cabrera is one of the city’s most celebrated parrillas (a traditional restaurant with a charcoal grill). It’s a regular fixture on South America’s 50 best restaurant lists and given how popular the original is (we arrive five minutes after it’s opened and it’s already full) they’ve opened a second spot some 50 yards around the corner. With the help of Google Translate, we discover that ojo is ribeye, but we still need to peruse the cow map on the wall to work out that lomo is a sort of Argentinian tenderloin, and thus somewhere in the vicinity of leaner sirloin or fattier fillet.
We don’t recall being asked for a cooking preference. That could be hazy, jet-lagged memory but seems more likely that you just leave it to them. After all, this is a country that knows steak. According to our guidebook, “if you don’t specify, your steak will be cooked a punto (medium). To get it pink on the inside ask for jugoso (medium rare) or vuelta y vuelta or poco cocido (rare).” To ask for it well done will get you deported.
What arrives is superb. The lomo is a good inch-and-a-half deep and about six inches across. There’s a dark brown, caramelized crust, which yields almost sensually to the knife, to reveal a deep red, succulent, perfect interior. Oh, and there are four pieces just like that in the portion.
Welcome to Argentina, where 130lbs of beef per person isn’t an exaggeration.
What strikes home, even more than the quantity, is the simplicity. There’s no marinating, no slow cooking, no smoking, no basting in sauce. What’s on the plate is well-aged, expertly grilled cow in all its beefy glory. “It’s meat, salt, fire and time,” a local chef tells me one day during our stay. “You don’t need anything else.”
This simple philosophy also extends to just about every other dish we try in Buenos Aires. Whether it’s in one of the city’s elegant cafés (Buenos Aires is dotted with glorious 19th century grand cafés) in one of the many ultra-modern restaurants, or any culinary point in between, there’s a delightfully straightforward, snob-free attitude to food at all levels. There is what appears to be a very happy adoption of international dishes and restaurants, and just about every cuisine you can think of from Polish to Korean. Artisan burgers have arrived in the city over the last couple of years and have been enthusiastically received. Some are just your basic meat in a bun, while others, such as the very cool Burger Joint, are a little more elaborate. All benefit massively from the quality of local ingredients; the beef is fantastic as are the fruit and vegetables. These ingredients are enjoyed by everyone from teens to pensioners. Food is something of an obsession in this city across all ages and class divides. On a Saturday afternoon, you’re more likely to see a group of young men drinking Malbec and eating sausages in a parrilla, rather than downing beers at a bar, and every conversation we have with locals quickly turns to, “Where have you eaten?” and advice on where to find the best this or the greatest that.
While the artisan burger is a relative newcomer, other dishes have been here much longer, evolving a distinctly Argentinean twist in the process. The most notable of these is pizza. As Saveur reported in 2016, Buenos Aires is, “the self-proclaimed pizza capital of South America” and that there are now “more pizzerias than steak-centric parrilla restaurants.” When you consider that around half of the country’s population is of Italian descent, it’s not such a surprise, although Argentine pizza with its crisp bottom, focaccia-style base, and cheese: dough ratio of approximately 70:30, is a very different beast from traditional Italian styles. Of course it’s delicious (it’s 70% cheese, how could it not be?) particularly the fugazza, which adds an enormous amount of softly cooked sweet onions to the crunchy, cheesy slice. It’s quantity and quality, so if you can manage more than two slices, good for you, but, like the steak, it’s also a celebration of simplicity.
“Argentina has an abundance of cheap and good ingredients,” explains chef Saul Gerson. “You don’t have to work too much to have a decent meal.”
Once a very successful banker, a health scare a few years ago made Saul reconsider his options, and he retrained as a chef. Converting one floor of his home into a professional-standard kitchen, Saul launched El Arte de Amasar, a cookery school, where he runs highly entertaining, patient and calm classes to tourists and locals alike.
“I’m always trying to make the best meal out of the fewest ingredients,” he explains, and he has a particular bias towards making dishes lighter and healthier without compromising on flavor.
We’re there to make empanadas, a small, handheld, savory pie similar to the Cornish pasty. It’s a dish that Saul points out is, “traditionally eaten with the legs apart because they drip so much fat.” His version still uses lard in the dough, “Lard is the best” explains Saul with a shrug, just less of it. The resulting pastry is superb, soft, light, but with texture and density, and the filling (a traditional mix of beef mince, egg and olives) is simply delicious. Whether they are actually healthier than the traditional version rapidly becomes a moot point after I inhale the first two, chomp cheerfully through two more and have to push the plate out of arm’s reach to stop myself having a fifth. Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped myself. At least these ones won’t ruin our clothes.
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