In a country of good food, Argentina has a couple things that stand out above all others. This is the land of beef and red wine. And while neither are produced here in Buenos Aires, both can certainly be appreciated on a visit to the Argentine capital. More than that, both really must be experienced to truly have an authentic Argentine culinary adventure.
Let’s start with beef. Did you know that Argentines eat a whopping 55 kg (121 pounds) of beef per person each year? Well, they do. A huge beef industry provides all of that red meat, though nearly all of it stays here within the country. Beef makes up only about 3% of Argentina’s exports, and most of that is to China, hence the rarity of seeing Argentine beef at grocery stores or in restaurants.
Much like the American west, Argentina’s beef-laden culture comes from historic stories of cowboys, called gauchos. With a small population (Argentina only has about 45 million people despite a huge land area), open land was plentiful, and cattle introduced by the Spanish were bred on vast ranches. Those gauchos then cooked their beef over an open fire, and the asador, or grill master, was born.
With the centralization of cities, the asadors opened restaurants featuring their grilled meat. Called parrillas, they can be found in every neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and visiting one (or five) is an essential part of the culture here. While other meats are also offered (like pork or chicken), beef is the essence of the parrilla experience. Prices can vary, from incredibly inexpensive (it’s hard to give exact amounts with the way Argentina’s inflation is currently) to three-star-Michelin-quality (Michelin doesn’t rate here but one can assume if it did, some of these places would win stars) with prices to match.
My personal recommendation is to try the parrilla from both sides. In my neighborhood of Palermo (click here to read about Palermo), you can experience grilled beef in both forms. Try Dona Tota for a casual lunch or dinner. As of this writing, a dinner for two featuring four cuts of meat (both beef and pork) with both red and green chimichurri, bread, and fries ran about $15.
At the other end of the spectrum is Fogon Asado, which bills itself – rightly so – as a dining experience. For $90 per person with a wine pairing, diners are treated to an intimate single-seating experience of grilled meat, with a small group of about twenty sitting at a bar around a huge grill, off of which the most perfect dishes arrive.
My dinner featured ten courses, ranging from grilled eggplant to sausages to (of course) perfectly grilled beef. It was easily one of the best meat meals I’ve ever had; the only one that can compare is eating Kobe beef in Kobe. My personal favorite course was the “eyebrow” (the cut directly above the ribeye, which we ate during the next course), smoked over pine cones, and served with cauliflower purée and grilled corn, but every dish was impeccable.
In addition, you’ll find all sorts of other beef-based meals, from basic burgers to empanadas (carne picante and carne suave are available at all places serving them) to steak sandwiches. Go nuts!
So what does one drink with all this beef? Well, Argentina is one of the world’s largest wine producers, and is specifically known for red wine. When here, red wine is plentiful and inexpensive, even though the quality of the wines is up there with any from California or Europe.
Most wine (about 60%) in Argentina comes from the Mendoza region in the west of the country along the Chilean border in the foothills of the Andes. As with beef, wine grapes were brought to Argentina by European colonists, and in this region they really took hold. Malbec is the varietal of choice.
Argentines love their wine, and as with beef, most of what is produced here is consumed here, with the per capita consumption being around twelve gallons, or roughly 60 bottles per year. Prices can vary, but the average bottle I purchased from the grocery store ran between $4 and $8, and the average restaurant glass from $1 to $3.
Having a glass of wine with lunch is a totally acceptable thing here, even during the work week, so don’t worry about appearing like a tourist if you order a glass with your parrilla experience, or even just at a wine bar.
One of the best ways to experience a new culture is via the food and drinks that are quintessential parts of life there. Here in Argentina, beef and red wine are nearly every day occurrences for most locals, and those delicious things can be easily had by tourists as well. So if you like beef and red wine, this is probably your perfect destination. After all, there is a ton of it around!
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