Warning: If you are Vegetarian go to number 5.
Yes, everybody knows the highly-rated and acclaimed Argentinean steak. But there is much more than that. It is part of their culture and a kind of ritual. “Asado” is basically a barbeque. What makes the difference is mainly the meat itself, but also the coal and the way to cook it.
They will never use any chemical to light the fire (it would be an insult, literally). Some people use vegetable charcoal, others use wood (not any type: “espinillo”, “algarrobo”-carob tree- and “quebracho”). But all of them cook the meat very slowly (while drinking Mate or Fernet/Coca or Malbec).
There are two main ways to do it, a la “Parrilla” (traditional iron-made grill), or “Al Asador/A la Cruz”. The former is easier to find, and consists of a horizontal grill like other countries use.
The latter is better, it requires more time and uses wood. They tight the meat in an iron stick, either on the floor or an iron rack. So I would go definitely for “Asado al asador”. A sign with the word “Parrilla” means that you can get “asado”.
You can even get meat from a full cow cooked with skin, which is called “Vaquillona con cuero”. It can be obtained only in a few special places on certain occasions, such as “Fiesta del Potrillo” in Vidal and “Fiesta del Ternero” in Ayacucho (both in Buenos Aires province). This might be too much, but if you find a place you should try it. I do not think you can get this in any other part of the world.
“Asado de tira o costillas” (ribs)And finally we need to discuss the cuts, which are quite different from other countries. Forget about rib eye, sirloin, brisket. The cuts you MUST try are:
- “Matambre” (both from cow and pork)
There is no need to explain each of them, you should go ahead and try them all. I strongly recommend “Matambre”, which is the outer part of the belly (pork or cow). If you see “Matambre tiernazado”, it means tenderised/softened.
Usually, this process consists of boiling the meat in water or milk first, to then finish it on the grill. You can also find “Matambre a la pizza” (with tomato sauce and cheese on top) and “Matambre a la provenzal” (which garlic and parsley).
There is an extra way to prepare the meat, but it does not count as “asado”. There is no grill or rack, but a disk harrow (“disco de arado”). A disk harrow is used to till the soil where crops are to be planted and chop up unwanted weeds. According to Argentinean cooks, its material (iron) and shape have special properties to maintain and distribute the heat.
The most common dish with this technique is “Pollo al disco”, which is basically chicken with vegetables. I recommend the following places in Buenos Aires: La Cabrera, Don Julio, Las Nazarenas. And if you are willing to go just outside the capital (no more than 20 minutes driving), you should visit El Tano. This would be my choice. Only locals and outstanding meat.
2. “Achuras” and “Provoleta”
You normally get this as part of Asado, but it deserves its own chapter. “Achuras” includes a few internal organs. But do not be scared, they know how to cook them and you will not regret to try them. And more importantly, they eat them every day and nobody has ever had a problem.
The “Achuras” you MUST try are:
“Molleja“. This is “the all-time” favourite. And there is a word in English for this: sweetbreads or ris, which are culinary names for the thymus (also called throat, gullet, or neck sweetbread) or the pancreas (also called heart, stomach, or belly sweetbread) [wikipedia]. The former (neck) is better, but it is not common to choose which one you can get.
“Chorizo“. This is a sort of sausage, but the Argentinean version is special, and normally they have it together with an amazing sauce called Chimichurri. Definitely, you should get a “Choripan con Chimichurri”, as the picture below. There is a famous area in Buenos Aires to get it this and also “Bondiola” (sandwiches) called Costanera, which is on the riverside.
“Chinchulin“. This is the intestine. But again, do not be scared. It is fatty, but well cooked is delicious.
“Riñon“. This is the kidney, which you can also get in other countries.
“Morcilla“. The Argentinean version of black pudding. It is a sort of black sausage made with blood and other parts of the cow (which you would not want to know).
Other less common “achuras” are the following (only for meat enthusiastic):
“Tripa gorda“. This is the large intestine. Some people have it stuffed.
“Seso“. This is the brain, you can get it grilled and also as a part of a sauce. You can even find pasta filled with this, such as “Ravioles de seso”.
“Lengua“. The cow tongue. A common dish is “Lengua a la vinagreta”, which is served cold as a starter with vinegar and spices.
Another MUST, which is not part of the “achuras” group and it is vegetarian is “Provoleta“. It is only provolone cheese. They cooked it in slices on the grill, and it is served melted with some herbs and olive oil. You can think of it as a cheesesteak. The secret is its consistency: it should be gratin on the outside and melted inside, as the image below.
Tip for 1 and 2: avoid salads, starters, snacks, and sodas. Go straight for the real stuff. (Only one empanada (5) could be good as a starter).
This is the Argentinean version of Schnitzel: is meat, thinned with a meat tenderizer, coated with flour, beaten eggs, and breadcrumbs, and then fried (Wikipedia). The original recipe seems to come from Austria. It is well known in Germany and similar to the French escalope.
The Argie ones are much better. Given that the meat is superior as well, this should not be a surprise at all. You can find them made of different types of meat, and even different cuts from a cow (“peceto”,”nalga”). Normally they are huge and come with french fries and eggs. One famous dish is “Milanesa a Caballo”, which comes with fries and 2 fried eggs on top. Another famous dish is “Milanesa Napolitana”, served with a slice of ham, cheese, and tomato sauce.
Nowadays you can find places offering Milanesas with all sort of toppings, similar to a pizza shop. The ones made with chicken are called “Suprema de Pollo”, and they can be even bigger.
4. “Cordero Patagónico”
This may not be as famous as the steak or “asado”, but it deserves a place in the top 10. “Cordero” is the Spanish for lamb, and “Patagonico” means that comes from Patagonia, which is an area in the south of the country. Some of the reasons to explain why this lamb is better than others are food (they eat natural pastures such as grass, clover, forbs), environment (Patagonia is one of the least contaminated areas of the world) and activity (some of the sheep walk up and down hills every day).
There is also some “scientific” evidence about it in this paper (Spanish). The best way to cook it is -again- “Al Asador”, as the picture below.
These are delicious pastries filled with a variety of different flavours. They are made by folding dough or bread with stuffing. They can be baked or fried. The most famous flavours are ham and cheese, beef, chicken, Caprese (tomato, mozzarella, basil), “humita” (a mix of corn, onions and cream) and tuna (normally eaten during Easter). Different regions of the country will have different recipes for the same type of empanada.
Two provinces from the north are well known for its empanadas: Tucuman and Salta. The former hosts the National Empanada Festival, in the town of Famaillá. So “empanada Tucumana” means from Tucuman, and “empanada Salteña” from Salta.
You can get them everywhere and order a delivery to your door. You will find take-out shops that offer several types. A “repulgue”, or pattern, is added to the pastry fold to distinguish the varieties. Other places burn a letter – an abbreviated indication of the filling – into the dough.
I would recommend trying a few flavours. The beef ones are the best. You can get them spicy or light, and filled either with minced meat (“carne picada”) or knife-cut (“carne cortada a cuchillo”). The latter are my favourites.
If you are in London, there is an excellent restaurant called Chango where you can get empanadas and more traditional food like “locro” and “humita”. They have two shops (Richmond and Wimbledon), and you can also find them in Brick Lane and other street markets.
6. “Dulce de Leche”
This is a delicious and very sweet spread. It translates to milk caramel and it is prepared by slowly cooking and mixing milk with sugar. They make all kind of things with it, including pastries, cakes, biscuits, ice cream, pudding, flan and more. Some people say it is the national obsession (and they are probably right).
Flan is the most famous dessert in Argentina and it is normally served with “dulce de leche” and cream. So make sure to try this and also crepes (“panqueque”) or waffles. The taste is similar to caramel, with this is much better.
This is the undisputed favourite among Argentinean sweets. It consists of two round biscuits joined together with “dulce de leche” and covered with milk chocolate. The biscuits are prepared using a mix of corn and wheat flour, butter, sugar and several spices. They also come covered with powder sugar (the traditional ones), glazed sugar (Santafesinos or “de nieve”), coconut or chocolate.
Argentina is today the world largest consumer of “alfajores”, both in total numbers and in per capital calculations, being the most common snack/confectionery for schoolchildren and adults (Wikipedia). You will find them in every street shop (“kiosko”), and there are plenty of brands (Milka, Jorgito, Suchard, Capitan del Espacio) and types.
But the favourite brand for the Argentineans is Havanna. It is originally from Mar del Plata, but nowadays you can get them everywhere. They also make “dulce de leche“, lemon cookies, easter eggs and Havannets. You should also try the latter, they are delicious little cones. There are several Havanna coffee shops around the country and at the airports. You can also get them online on Amazon.
As you can see in the picture below, they come in black (covered with dark chocolate) and white (covered with meringue). Another great flavour is walnut. If for any reason (which would be impossible to understand) you do not like “dulce de leche”, they also have them filled with fruit.
Alfajores Havanna (source: http://celebrate-alfajores.tumblr.com/)
Facturas is the Spanish for pastries. You can get them in any bakery (“panadería”) and they are normally sold by quantity (a dozen is the most common amount) and not weight.
The most popular is “Medialuna”, which is the Spanish for croissants. But the Argentinean version is quite different from the French or English. They are smaller, sweeter and contain a lot of butter. There are two types of “medialunas”: with butter (“de manteca”) and with fat (“de grasa”).
Other types of “facturas” you should try are:
- “Bola de fraile”
- “Cañon de dulce de leche”
- “Torta negra”
And if you want to try a good cake, I would go for “Rogel”, which consists of layers of puff pastry (“hojaldre”) covered with meringue, and -of course- filled with dulce de leche.
The following map contains the best 10 shops to buy “medialunas” in Buenos Aires:
9. Sandwiches “de miga”
These are a curious and tasty type of sandwich. They are made only with the crumb of the bread. So it is only the inner part of the bread that is used to make them (is not to be confused with small bits of bread that often fall off, called crumbs). So this bread is very white and extremely soft.
You can get them in bakeries (“panaderías”), coffee shops, supermarkets and some petrol stations. I would recommend going to a coffee shop and order one of these but toasted (“tostado”) and one “cafe cortado” (coffee with a little bit of milk).
Some of the most common flavours are ham and cheese, “primavera” (ham, tomato, lettuce) and tuna.
Argentineans also eat a lot of pasta, which makes complete sense given its Italian roots. And they love melted cheese. And that is how they created a new type of pasta called “sorrentinos”. There is no translation for this, and there is no Italian version neither.
Some people may think that has something to do with Sorrento (a beautiful coastal town in southwestern Italy), but it is not true. You can get them is most of the restaurants in the country, and you can also buy them in a “fábrica de pastas” (a shop where they make and sell pasta) and cook them at home.
Extras: Pizza and Ice-cream
Of course, these are both Italian, but they also have their own version. Most people in Argentina have either Italian or Spanish roots, so in general, its culture -including food- has a great influence on them. Their pizza has tons of cheese, that is the main difference. The second one is the dough, which is normally a high spongy bread, which they called “al molde“.
If you like cheese pizza, you are going to love it. You can get all kind of toppings as well. Curiously, it is weird to find a pizza with meat as in other countries. “Napolitana” (ham, tomatoes, garlic), “Palmitos y Atun” (tuna and palm hearts), “4 Quesos” (4 cheese), “Rucula y Jamon Crudo” (rocket and parma ham) and “Cebolla y queso” (onion and cheese) are probably the preferred ones. You can also find stuffed pizza (and not only the crust).
Another traditional product normally eaten with pizza is “faina“, which is a flatbread made with chickpeas.
My favourite pizza in Buenos Aires is Guerrin. Below you can find a picture of their Super-Guerrin (mozzarella, artichokes, mushrooms and palm hearts). Other good places are El Cuartito, Los Inmortales and Las Cuartetas.
Ice-cream (“helado”) is also very tasty. It is creamy and you can find plenty of flavours. The best one is -of course- “Dulce de Leche”. And this single flavour can come with nuts, almonds, chocolate chips (“Dulce de Leche granizado”). I would go for the latter with no doubt. It is common for ice-creams shops to have a flavour with the shop name, like “Dulce de Leche X” (shop X).
My favourite places in Buenos Aires are Volta, Freddo, Munchis.
“Locro“. This is a very traditional thick stew. It contains corn, beans, potatoes, beef, and vegetables.
“Picada“. It is an ensemble of small plates containing a variety of cheese (normally cut in cubes), ham, olives, salami, pate and more. It is always served with bread, and some of them have a cold part and a hot one. The latter can include sausages, mini-pizzas, and meatballs.
“Mate“. This is a traditional green infusion. A small cup called mate (gourd) is filled about three-quarters full with yerba mate, the dried leaves, and twigs of a plant. Hot but not boiling water is poured into the “mate”. The drink, which is rather bitter, is sipped through a metal straw called a “bombilla”. You will probably find a lot of people drinking this, especially in parks.
“Fernet con coca“. This is a bitter and aromatic spirit made with some herbs and spices [wikpedia]. It has 45% of alcohol and it is served with cola. Make sure you get a brand called Branca and you use Coca-Cola to mix it.
Malbec wine (“vino Malbec”). This type of wine is surging in Argentina and has become a “national variety”. Its most highly rated Malbec wines originate from Mendoza’s high altitude wine regions of Luján de Cuyo and the Uco Valley [wikipedia]. Some good wineries are Finca Las Moras, Alamos, Zuccardi, Ruttini.
Travel tips and recommendations
- If you are in Buenos Aires, check our post “Best cool and quirky restaurants in Buenos Aires“
- If you want to visit a coastal city, have a look at “Best of Mar del Plata“.
- And if you like good wine, visit “Best value Malbec wines from Argentina“.