‘Don’t come to my country if you’re vegetarian.’
Wise words from Argentina’s ex-president Carlos Menem, who offered this advice to readers of an American magazine in the 1990s. However, as a cosmopolitan capital, Buenos Aires does actually offer up a wide range of cuisines, meaning veggies will hardly go hungry. But if the truth be told, here in the Argentine capital, the cow really does reign king.
The city is filled with parrillas (steakhouses), from the fanciest of restaurants to shacks in the street. Food hygiene to be bared in mind, don’t be fooled into thinking the best steaks are necessarily at the high-end hot spots. There’s hundreds of local neighborhood parrilla spots which serve up mean cuts of beef, pork, offal and general meaty goodness at a fraction of the price of the famous, tourist-filled guidebook recommendations.
Always up for trying a new local parrilla, on my most recent visit to Buenos Aires I struck lucky. Just around the corner from my friends house, we noticed the restaurant Ale Alé, which was heaving with people on a Saturday night. Our rumbling bellies were seduced by the grilled meat smell and general buzzing vibe of the place. Interestingly, it is also a co-operative restaurant. Many businesses in Buenos Aires that folded due to the 2001 economic crisis saw their employees group together to salvage their place of work. Self-management among staff and community spirit kept these businesses from closure and continue to be a running theme in these places today.
The restaurant is huge and probably seats about 150 people. The menu reads like any other parrilla, with the exception of a few ‘specials’ – huge platters made for sharing with chips, veggies and meat.
Normally only found in the very popular tenedor libre (all you can eat) style restaurants, Ale Alé had it’s very own unlimited salad bar. No sad iceberg lettuce and unripe tomato affair round here – guacamole, couscous, potatoes, roasted veggies, aubergine and squash purees…this is what all salad buffets should aspire to.
For mains I opted for a classic bife de chorizo, stressing I wanted it ‘bien jugoso‘ – bloody and rare, please. Despite having some of the best beef in the world, Argentines seem to insist on cooking it to death, which to me is nothing short of a crime. After a year battling with my Argentine friends when I lived in the city, I released it was going to be an ‘agree to disagree situation’. My meat red, your meat brown. But my meat better, obviously.
When my steak arrived, I think my grin would have challenged the Cheshire cat at his own game. My ‘bien jugoso‘ requests had been answered. In front of me sat what was one of the best steaks I had ever eaten. Rare, rich in flavor, with a wonderful, almost creamy texture, this steak was everything I could have wanted in a bife de chorizo and more. All this washed down with a bottle of Malbec and it cost me exactly half the price it would have at a fancier, more well known parrilla.
As well as trying out new neighborhood parrilla places, my revisit to BA was also a time to return to some old classics. I first discovered Parilla Peña on my year abroad when following the recommendation of the wonderful Buenos Aires food blog Pick Up the Fork. Written by American ex-pat Allie Lazar, this website is really the gospel on all that is foodie and fantastic in Buenos Aires.
While there had been a few changes since my last visit (a menu with translations in English and some definite price increases), Parilla Peña remains a great option for trying out a real parrilla favored by locals, which serves good wine and excellent steak at reasonable prices. The service is cheerful and you even get free empanadas while you wait for your meaty mains. Clearly saving their customers for the meat feast that inevitably lies ahead, these empanandas were humita filled, which is a delicious creamy concoction of corn and spices.
My Argentine friend attempted to order a milanesa – sort of like a schnitzel covered in tomato sauce, ham and cheese. My feelings on milanesas are similar to those I have about Argentina pizza – overwhelmingly hostile. After I explained my confusion at his choice of ordering a breaded, bashed fillet of beef smothered in sauce, cheese and bad ham at a place that served incredible steak, we ended up sharing a bife de lomo instead. Bossy, me? Certainly not.
After ordering our steak bien jugoso, it came a devastatingly overcooked shade of brown. I’m no fussy eater, but for my last night in Buenos Aires I’d be dammed if I ate a well done piece of meat. In my most charming manner, I asked the waiter if it’d be a terrible bother to change the steak as this was, in all fairness, not how we had ordered it (translation: bring me my beef bloody like what I asked, and pronto, señor). He clearly took my point as the next piece that came out was practically still breathing. Too rare for some, but in my beefy books, absolutely bloody perfect.
Despite the failed first attempt, Parilla Peña’s bife de lomo was something very special. I love lomo as it is more tender than other cuts (it is tenderloin after all) and I think that despite it’s richness it is easier to digest than other fattier cuts. I didn’t even mind having to send the first steak back, as the wait was more than worth it. With some wonderful company, wine and a big bloody steak infront of me, I couldn’t think of a better way to bid farewell to my beloved Buenos Aires.
Now back in London, I am just overwhelmed by the vast amount of new places there are to eat and drink in the city. Is there enough time in the day? I’ll have to get eating ASAP!