Eating and drinking in Argentina
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Argentine food can be summed up by one word: beef. And not just any beef, but the best in the world – succulent, cherry-red and healthy, meat raised on some of the greenest, most extensive pastures known to cattle. The asado, or barbecue, is an institution, every bit a part of the Argentine way of life as football, fast driving and tango.
Apart from generic restaurantes (or restoranes), you will come across parrillas (for steak and beef), marisquerías (for seafood), confiterías (cafés for coffee, cakes, snacks or simple meals), comedores (simple local canteens), pizzerías, bodegones (unpretentious restaurants that theoretically serve a house wine) and cantinas (neighbourhood places often dishing up Italian food, such as home-made pasta). By South American standards the quality of restaurants is high, and though by international standards they are not always cheap, they often represent good value. If you’re on a tight budget make lunch your main meal, and take advantage of the menúdel día or menúejecutivo – usually set meals for about $60 – and in the evening try tenedor libre restaurants where you can eat as much as you like for a set price at self-service buffets. Up your budget to $120 or so a head and you can dine à la carte at most mid-range restaurants, wine included. Argentina also has a fair sprinkling of gourmet locales (restaurantes de autor), concentrated in, but by no means limited to, Buenos Aires. In these your per-head bill will be more like $200 or even more, though this still compares well with cities in other industrialized countries and you get fabulous food, wine, ambience and service. You should try and splash out at least once during your visit.
Breakfast is usually served up until around 10am, and lunch from around noon until 3pm. Hardly any restaurant opens for dinner before 8pm, and in the hotter months – and all year round in Buenos Aires – few people turn up before 10 or even 11pm. Don’t be surprised to see people pouring into restaurants well after midnight: Argentines, and Porteños in particular, are night owls. If you think you’re going to be starving by 7pm, do like the locals and either have a hearty lunch or take merienda – tea and snacks – at a café or confitería in the late afternoon.
While beef is the most prominent feature on many menus, it’s by no means the whole story. In general, you seldom have a bad meal in Argentina. That said, imagination, innovation and a sense of subtle flavour are sometimes lacking, with Argentines preferring to eat the wholesome but often bland dishes their immigrant forebears cooked. At the other end of the spectrum, there is some very (some might say overly) inventive cordon bleu cooking being concocted by daring young chefs across the country. Fast food is extremely popular, but you can also snack on delicious local specialities such as empanadas or home-made pizza if you want to avoid the ubiquitous multinational chains.
If you’re feeling peckish during the day there are plenty of minutas (snacks) to choose from. The lomito (as opposed to lomo – the name of the steak cut itself) is a nourishing sandwich filled with a juicy slice of steak, often made with delicious pan árabe (pitta bread); the chivito (originally Uruguayan) refers to a similar kind of sandwich made with a less tender cut, though it literally means “kid”, or baby goat. Other street food includes the choripán, a local version of the hot dog made with natural meaty sausages (chorizos), while at cafés a popular snack is the tostado (or tostado mixto), a toasted cheese and ham sandwich, often daintily thin and sometimes (in the provinces) called a carlitos. Barrolucas are beef and cheese sandwiches, a local variant on the cheeseburger, and very popular around Mendoza. Milanesas refer to breaded veal escalopes served in a sandwich, hamburger-style. Empanadas are small pastries with savoury fillings, usually stuffed with beef, cheese and/or vegetables, although the fillings are as varied as the cook’s imagination.
Parrillas, pizza and pasta are the mainstays of Argentine cuisine, both at home and in restaurants. Parrillas are simply barbecues (or the restaurants that employ them) where you can try the traditional asado. Usually there’s a set menu (the parrillada), though the establishments themselves vary enormously. At many, especially in big cities, the decor is stylish, the staff laidback, the crockery delicate and the meat served tidily. Elsewhere, especially in smaller towns, parrillas are more basic, and you’re likely to be served by burly, sweaty grill-men who spend all their time carving hunks of flesh and hurling them onto wooden platters. Portions in parrillas are generally very large, intended for sharing, and accompaniments like fries or salad are ordered separately, again served on large platters to share.
Mass immigration from Italy since the middle of the nineteenth century has had a profound influence on Argentine food and drink – the abundance of fresh pasta (pasta casera) is just one example. The fillings tend to be a little unexciting (lots of cheese, including ricotta, but seldom meat), the sauces are not exactly memorable (mostly tomato and onion) and the pasta itself cooked beyond al dente, yet it’s a reliable staple and rarely downright bad. Pizzas are very good on the whole, though the toppings tend to lack originality, especially away from the capital. One popular ingredient regularly used as a garnish may be unfamiliar to visitors: the palmito (palm heart), a sweet, crunchy vegetable resembling something between asparagus and celery. Argentine pizzas are nearly always of the thick-crust variety, wood-oven baked and very big, meant to be divided between a number of diners.
Although you will find parrillas throughout Argentina, different regions have their own specialities, too. Probably the most noteworthy regional cuisine is found in the Argentine Northwest, where as well as the juiciest empanadas, you can find humitas – steamed creamed sweetcorn, served in parcels made from corncob husks, and locro, a substantial stew based on maize, with onions, beans and meat thrown in. Andean
quinoa is a frequent ingredient in everything from soups to empanadas. Patagonia, meanwhile, is famed for its barbecued lamb, staked around the fire, and jams made from local fruit such as calafate.
In addition to the Italian cooking available all over the country, Spanish restaurants serve tapas and familiar dishes such as paella, while specifically Basque restaurants are also fairly commonplace; these are often the places to head for fish or seafood. Chinese and, increasingly, Korean restaurants are found in many Argentine cities, but they rarely serve anything remotely like authentic Asian food and specialize in tenedorlibre buffet diners. You can find excellent sushi and Peruvian food in Buenos Aires, where nearly every national cuisine from Armenian to Vietnamese via Mexican, Polish and Thai is also available, but such variety is rare in the provinces.
Arab and Middle Eastern food, including specialities such as kebabs and kepe, seasoned ground raw meat, is far more widespread, as is German fare, such as sauerkraut (chucrút) and frankfurters, along with Central and Eastern European food, often served in choperías, or beer gardens. Welsh tearooms are a speciality of Patagonia.
The term asado (from asar, to roast) originally referred specifically to a particular cut of beef, the brisket, meant to be slowly grilled or roasted, but now is applied to any barbecued meat. Since barbecues are an integral part of life in Argentina, it’s good to know your way around the vocabulary of beef-eating, especially as beef in Argentina isn’t cut in the same way as in the rest of the world – cuts are sliced through bone and muscle rather than across them.
Argentines like their meat well done (cocido), and indeed, some cuts are better cooked through. If you prefer your meat medium, ask for a punto, and for rare – which really requires some insistence – jugoso. Before you get to the steaks, you’ll be offered achuras, or offal, and different types of sausage. Chorizos are excellent beef sausages, while morcilla, blood sausage, is an acquired taste. Sometimes provoletta, sliced provolone cheese, grilled on the barbecue till crispy on the edges, will be on the menu. Otherwise, it’s beef all the way.
After these “appetizers” – which you can always skip, since Argentine parrillas are much more meat-generous than their Brazilian counterparts – you move on to the asado cut, followed by the tira de asado (ribs; also called costillar or asado a secas). There’s not much meat on them, but they explode with a meaty taste. Next is the muscly but delicious vacío (flank). But save some room for the prime cuts: bife ancho is entrecôte; bifeangosto or lomito is the sirloin (referred to as medallones when cut into slices); cuadril is a lump of rumpsteak, often preferred by home barbecue masters; lomo, one of the luxury cuts and often kept in reserve, is fillet steak; bife de chorizo (not to be confused with chorizo sausage) is what the French call a pavé, a slab of meat, cut from either the sirloin or entrecôte. The entraña, a sinewy cut from inside the beast, is a love-it-or-hate-it cut; aficionados claim it’s the main delicacy. Rarely barbecued, the peceto (eye round steak) is a tender lump of flesh, often braised (estufado) and served on top of pasta, roasted with potatoes (pecetoalhornocon papas) or sliced cold for vittel tonne – a classic Argentine starter made with tuna and mayonnaise.
Mustard (mostaza) may be available, but the lightly salted meat is usually best served with nothing on it but the traditional condiments of chimichurri – olive oil shaken in a bottle with salt, garlic, chilli pepper, vinegar and bay leaf – and salsa criolla, similar but with onion and tomato as well; everyone jealously guards their secret formulas for both these “magic” dressings.
Dulce de leche, a sticky, sweet goo made by laboriously boiling large quantities of vanilla-flavoured milk and sugar until they almost disappear, is claimed by Argentines as a national invention, although similar concoctions are made in Brazil, France and Italy. Something called manjar is produced in Chile, but Argentines rightly regard it as far inferior. The thick caramel is eaten with a spoon, spread on bread or biscuits, used to fill cakes, biscuits and fritters or dolloped onto other desserts. Some of the best flavours of ice cream are variations on the dulce de leche theme. Although some people still make their own, most people buy it ready-made, in jars. While all Argentines agree that dulce de leche is fabulous, there is no consensus on a particular brand: the divisions between those who favour Havanna and those who would only buy Chimbote run almost as deep as those between supporters of Boca Juniors and River Plate. Foreigners are advised to maintain a diplomatic neutrality on the issue.
As a vegetarian in Argentina you shouldn’t have too many problems in the capital, the larger cities or the Patagonian resorts, all of which are relatively cosmopolitan. A number of restaurants completely dedicated to non-meat-eaters do exist and many places have a few good non-meat alternatives. The exceptions are the parrillas, though the sight and smell of entire animals roasting on the grill is unlikely to appeal to vegetarians anyway.
In the smaller provincial towns, however, vegetarian fare tends to be a lot simpler and you will likely have to adjust to a diet of pizza, pasta, empanadas and salads, with very little variety in the toppings and fillings. The good news is that these fillings are often options such as spinach, acelga (Swiss chard – similar to spinach, but slightly more bitter) and ricotta. Other foods to keep an eye out for are fainá, a fairly bland but agreeable Genovese speciality made with chickpea dough, and milanesasde soja (breaded soya “cutlets”) while milanesas of vegetables like berenjena (aubergine) and calabaza (pumpkin) are also quite popular.
When all the cheese gets a bit much, look out for the popular Chinese-ish tenedor libres, which usually feature a good smattering of veggies, as do Middle Eastern restaurants. Another possibility would be to self-cater – supermarkets are usually fairly well stocked with vegetables, seasonings and soy products.
You should always check the ingredients of a dish before ordering, as the addition of small amounts of meat is not always referred to on menus. Don’t be surprised if your “no como carne” (I don’t eat meat) is dismissed with a glib “no tiene mucha” (It doesn’t contain much) and be particularly on your guard for the seemingly ever-present jamón (ham).
Vegans will have a hard time outside of Buenos Aires, as pretty much everything that doesn’t contain meat contains cheese or pastry. Waiters will rarely be familiar with veganism, but will usually try to accommodate your requests.
Argentines have a fairly sweet tooth and love anything with sugar, especially dulce de leche. Even breakfast tends to be dominated by sweet things such as sticky croissants (medialunas) or chocolate con churros, Andalucían-style hot chocolate with fritters, sometimes filled with dulce de leche. All kinds of cakes and biscuits, including alfajores (maize-flour cookie sandwiches, filled with jam or dulce de leche, sometimes coated with chocolate), pastries called facturas and other candies and sweets are popular with Argentines of all ages.
However, for dessert you’ll seldom be offered anything other than the tired trio of flan (a kind of crème caramel, religiously served with a thick custard or dulce de leche), budín de pan (a syrupy version of bread pudding) and fresh fruit salad (ensalada de fruta). In Andean regions, or in criollo eateries, you’ll most likely be served dulce vigilante, a slab of neutral, pallid cheese called quesillo eaten with candied fruit such as sweet potato (batata), quince (membrillo), (al) cayote (a kind of spaghetti squash), pumpkin (zapallo) or lime (lima). Panqueques, or crêpes, are also popular.
With such a large Italian community it is not surprising that superb helado (ice cream) is easy to come by in Argentina. Even the tiniest village has at least one heladería artesanal. If you’re feeling really self-indulgent you might like to have your cone dipped in chocolate (bañado). Some of the leading ice-cream makers offer an overwhelming range of flavours (sabores). Chocolate chip (granizado) is a favourite, and raspberry mousse (mousse de frambuesa) is also delicious.
Fizzy drinks (gaseosas) are popular with people of all ages and often accompany meals. All the big brand names are available, along with local brands such as Paso de los Toros, which makes tonic water and fizzy grapefruit (pomelo) drinks. You will often be asked if you want mineral water – either still (agua sin gas) or carbonated – (agua con gas or soda) – with your meal, but you can ask for tap water (agua de la llave), which is safe to drink in most places, though this may raise eyebrows. Although little is grown in the country, good coffee is easy to come by. You will find very decent espressos, or delicious café con leche, in most cafés. Tea is usually made from teabags; Argentine tea is strong rather than subtle, and is served with either milk or lemon. Herbal teas (infusiones) are all the rage, camomile (manzanilla) being the most common. Mate is a whole world unto itself and is explained, along with the etiquette and ritual involved, in the section Mate: more than just a drink. Fruit juices (jugos) and shakes (licuados) can be excellent, though freshly squeezed orange juice is often sold at ridiculously high prices.
Argentina’s beer is more thirst-quenching than alcoholic and mostly comes as fairly bland lager, with Quilmes dominating the market and Heineken producing a big-selling beer in the country; imported brands are fairly common in the cities, though more expensive. Regional brews are sometimes worth trying: in Mendoza, the Andes brand crops up all over, while Salta’s own brand is also good, and a kind of stout (cerveza negra) can sometimes be obtained in the Northwest. Home-brewed beer (cerveza artesanal) is increasingly available, particularly around Bariloche and El Bolsón, often coming in a surprising array of flavours and served at dedicated bars (cervecerías). Usually when you ask for a beer, it comes in large litre bottles, meant for sharing; a small bottle is known as a porrón. If you want draught beer ask for a chopp (or a liso in Santa Fe province).
The produce of Argentina’s vineyards, ranging from gutsy plonk to some of the world’s prize-winning wines, is widely available both in the country and abroad. Most vintages are excellent and not too expensive. Unfortunately, many restaurants still have limited, unimaginative wine lists, which don’t reflect Argentina’s drift away from mass-produced table wines to far superior single or multi-varietals (for more on wine, see the section Argentine wine). It is also quite difficult to get wine by the glass, and half-bottles too are rare but on the increase. Cheaper wine is commonly made into sangría or its fruitier, white wine equivalent, clericó.
Don’t be surprised to see home-grown variants (nacionales) of whisky, gin, brandy, port, sherry and rum, none of which is that good; familiar imported brands (importados) can be very dear, however. It’s far better to stick to the locally distilled aguardientes, or firewaters, some of which (from Catamarca, for example) are deliciously grapey. Fernet Branca is the most popular, a demonic-looking brew the colour of molasses with a medicinal taste, invariably combined with Coke and consumed in huge quantities – it’s generally regarded as the gaucho’s favourite tipple.