When you think of Argentina, a few things instantly come to mind: tango, wine, sexy polo players (is that just me?) and beef. I recently spent a week in Buenos Aires and finally got to sample the world-famous steaks.
The first parilla (or grill) I visited in Buenos Aires was Juana M. It was recommended to me by my dear friend Ezequiel, an Argentine with impeccable taste. His opinion is to be trusted in all matters related to books, wine, women and meat. If he says it’s good, then it’s good.
The best thing about Juana M and what separates it from other parillas in Buenos Aires is, shockingly, the salad bar. In Argentina, it’s easy to feel as though you’re consuming nothing but beef and you start to long for leafy greens in a sea of steaks.
The salad bar comes with your meal and you’re invited to visit as many times as you wish. While the idea of an all-you-can-eat salad bar reeks a bit of T.G.I.Friday’s or a dorm cafeteria, the term “casual elegance” could aptly describe Juana M with its restrained decor and hip, austere atmosphere.
But of course, you don’t go to a parilla for the salad. When it comes to steaks, the best cuts to go with are the bife de chorizo (sirloin, nothing to do with the spicy sausage) or bife de lomo (tenderloin).
Unfortunately, even though I asked for medium rare, my bife de chorizo arrived well done. Perhaps they saw that I was a foreigner and did what they do at Indian or Thai restaurants when you tell them you want spicy, which is to give you what they think you really want because they don’t believe you can handle what you asked for.
I like my steaks pretty bloody. In fact, I judge people who ask for their meat well-done with the same derision I reserve for vegetarians, those who don’t eat “ethnic” cuisine and people who hate cilantro. And I’m sorry, but with such amazing grass-fed cattle, it’s a crime and a bloody shame to turn a beautiful piece of meat into jerky by cooking it all the way through.
So I did what I hate to do, which is to send my food back. I’m not a picky eater, but there are certain things that will compel me to ask (very politely) if I might have something else and cutting into a steak with not even a hint of pink is one of them.
The waitress was very understanding and immediately took my plate back into the kitchen and returned a short while later with a steak that was almost blue on the inside. (I guess they overcompensated, but I was much happier.) The amazing thing about steak in Argentina is that you wait for them to bring you a steak knife and then you realize that they never will because you can cut into the meat (even when it’s overcooked) with a butter knife.
Ezequiel assured me that Juana M would not disappoint and I fairly agree. It wasn’t perfect, but it was very solid and a perfect date spot. But I wasn’t on a date, thankfully, so I felt free to slather my meat with the excellent, very garlicky chimichurri sauce.
Carlos Pellegrini 1535 (basement)
At Libertador, across from the La Recova area, Recoleta
La Cabrera, the second parilla I visited, was highly praised by both my friend Steven, who returned from Buenos Aires a couple days before I left, and a myriad of guidebooks and websites.
To start, we ordered a lovely salad with tomato, avocado and the biggest hearts of palm I’ve ever seen with Russian dressing.
Of course, we were there for the steak and heard so much about it, so we got the bife de chorizo for two, which comes on a single platter and is served with a delightful assortment of condiments and little side dishes.
The steak was good. I had the slight misfortune of starting at an end that was a bit tough and fatty. The closer I got to the center, the better it was, but I couldn’t shake the initial disappointment.
Cabrera 5099, Palermo Soho
The thing about the steaks I had at Juana M and La Cabrera, while very reasonably priced and quite good by most standards (I could pay three times as much for a worse steak in New York), I wasn’t blown away. I expected my world to be rocked, my socks to be knocked off and well, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I was missing something.
Was Argentine steak just another overhyped phenomenon like Brazilian butts or Italian shoes? Or was all the hoopla rightfully deserved as in the cases of Brazilian butts and Italian shoes?
I just wasn’t convinced about Argentine steaks, but we left the city and took a day trip to an estancia (ranch) in San Antonio de Areco, about two hours outside of Buenos Aires and I was amazed.
We were greeted with empanadas, cold cuts, cheeses and wine. The empanadas were the best empanadas I’ve ever had or will probably ever have. Instead of a thick, dry, doughy crust, the crust on the empanadas at Estancia La Porteña were flaky, buttery and thin enough to give way to the savory ground meat in perfect blissful bites.
I could’ve eaten a dozen on the spot. I was held back (just barely) by normal social etiquette, which dictates that stuffing your face with all the empanadas while other guests are politely chatting is not the thing to do.
After the snacks, we were invited on a tour of the estate, where everyone from the writer Jorge Luis Borges to the tango singer Carlos Gardel and randomly, the chess player Garry Kasparov, have stayed over the years.
After the tour, we sat down for lunch. While I could go on for ages about the empanadas that still haunt my thoughts and dreams, the best part of a día de campo (day in the country) is the asado (barbecue).
All the Argentine steaks I’d had up until that point were like going on dates with people who are for all intents and purposes attractive and intelligent but there’s just no spark. Your friend sets you up with them and you really want to like them, but something isn’t quite right and you’re not sure if it’s just you.
But biting into that meat was like falling deeply and madly in love for the fist time. So, this is what it is. This is what everyone has been talking about. It really is incredible.
I sometimes have this wonderful moment, when, just for a second, my whole mouth goes numb with pleasure and then a surge of intense happiness rushes through me and I start giggling with glee.
I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt like an infatuated teenager in the first euphoric flushes of puppy love. I wanted to declare my love for the meat to everyone I saw. I wanted to shout my love from the rooftops. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not. It really was that good.
The meal began with the thick parts by the ribs. The server went around the table serving generous pieces from a sizzling platter. The meat was incredibly tender and infused with the rich, savory marrow taste of the bones. Even the fat was soft and flavorful enough to make you want to spread it on a piece of bread and eat it.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the server came around with the choicest cuts of meat. Tender isn’t enough to describe how buttery the texture was, the disbelief that a piece of red meat could be so supple.
The side dishes were simple and done well (a potato salad, shredded carrots, sliced tomatoes lightly coated in oil and vinegar) and let the meat, the real star of the show, shine.
After lunch, we went on a long horseback ride with one of the gauchos.
When we returned from our ride, we had afternoon tea and lovely desserts. My favorite was a bread filled with membrillo (quince paste).
While we enjoyed our tea and sweets, a man performed traditional songs for us.
The total cost for this amazing day in the country? $85 USD per person. I would’ve paid that much just for the lunch alone, for one taste of that incredible steak.