When I first visited Buenos Aires, I wasn’t sure if it was a city geared more to high-end fine dining, or food with a more common touch. After having been to a couple of the city’s best parrillas (Don Julio, and La Cabrera), snacking on empanadas, and having been to what was touted by Latin America’s Top 50 restaurants as the best restaurant in Argentina (Tegui), I came out satisfied out of my parrilla and empanada meals, and very disappointed with my meal in Tegui (report to come). I thus made a tentative conclusion in my second day in Buenos Aires that food with a common-touch would be my best shot at eating well in Buenos Aires, a conclusion that was strengthened with each passing great street food meal and parrilla meal.
My knowledge of Argentinian steak before this trip came from a book by Mark Schatzker I read last year, Steak, in which he describes the Argentine love affair with beef. In it, he makes the allegation that Argentinian steak has moved form deliciously grass-fed, to proudly corn-fed. I wasn’t expecting the most amazing porterhouse in the world, but rather the parrilla experience.
Before leaving for Argentina [the book was published in 2011], I had read a number of reports that contended that Argentina was abandoning its grazing beef industry for the American model: growing corn and erecting Texas-size feedlots. And this was all due to the fact that Argentines loved steak so much.
In 2001, the debt-laden Argentine economy crashed. When it began recovering, the price of beef started climbing. Farmers were making good money selling Argentine beef to Europe, Russia, and Israel, but Argentines were finding htier three-pound-per-week habit was getting hard on the wallet. The price of steak got so high that at one point Argentina’s president suggested that his people might consider eating less beef, which was the political equivalent of asking eagles to give up flight. Sensing the darkening national mood, he cut beef exports.
For a while, this flooded Argentinian butcher shops with cheap beef, the price of beef dropped by a third. But the flood of cheap beef was soon cut off by furious, not to mention poorer, ranchers and farmers, who were so angered that they banded together and blockaded roads so that food-laden trucks from the countryside couldn’t deliver to cities. The first thing to disappear from store shelves was steak, followed by pork, lamb, and chicken, and much later pasta. People leaned out of windows, hung off balconies and stood on street orners banging pos and pans together to voice their anger.
The ranchers backed down, butcher shops were filled again. Cheaper steak was grilled and eaten.
But the ranchers’ income was shrinking. Some decided to get out of the beef business altogehre. Farmers who held the best land in Arngetina, whose families had for centuries sneered at the very idea of crop farming, did what the law of supply and demand predicted: they cleared the cattle and planted crops. They laid down fertilizer by the ton and sowed corns and soybeans and wheat and anything else that was getting a good price on world markets.
The cattle went to marginal land, land that had never been considered up to the task of finishing cattle. To get them fat, Argentinees began herding them into pens and feeding them corn, which they now had in abundance. – Mark Schatzker, Steak, Argentina Chapter
Sidenote: By the way, speaking to locals, Argentina seems to be in another economic crisis, with 30% inflation. The USD officially trades for the Argentinian Peso (ARS) at 6.25, but the blue dollar rate (black-market rate) is about 9.0-9.4 currently. Tourists to Argentina can get a very favorable rate if they exchange currency in the cities themselves. I didn’t do this, and was kicking myself.
Steak. A steak in America, would be a lazy choice for me, one that I almost never make. Great steak, if one has the equipment, seems possible to consistently replicate at home with a sous-vide machine, a blowtorch, and maybe liquid smoke. But the parrilla promised an authentically Argentine experience, and the wood-burning asado tradition adds a touch of unpredictability to how the beef turns out. And if beef consumption is such a cornerstone of Argentine life, then in Buenos Aires do as the porteños do.
La Cabrera is probably the most famous parrilla in Buenos Aires. All the tourists know it, all the expats know it, all the locals know it. Located near the heart of hip Palermo Soho, it is located on its namesake street. It is so popular that it opened a overspill second restaurant, 50m away from the main one, called La Cabrera Norte. It’s exactly the same restaurant.
Morcilla Criolla (3.75/5)
“Creole blood sausage” – savory. This differs from Basque Blood sausage (Morcilla Vasca), which is sweet.
Kobe Beef Wagyu Cuadril 500gms, Rump Steak (4/5)
This dish was a bit dubious in name – I remembered very well last year’s viral column by Larry Olmsted in Forbes claiming that there isn’t real Kobe beef. Still, I was expecting something like Snake River Farms beef, where the beef have Kobe heritage. After all, the marbling is what counts. Of course, all was forgotten as we order the rump steak, a very non-fatty cut. A bit of a mind-fart.
Churrasquito con Panceta (4.25/5)
“good portions of roasted fat”
Bife de Chorizo (Sirloin Steak) (4.5/5)
Bife de Chorizo is the cut that Argentinian guidebooks said to get. Here, the steak was smothered in a garlicky sauce. I personally prefer a naked steak, but this floated by boat very well*
*we packed the steak, and ate it for dinner too.
What is special about the thing is that La Cabrera just stuffs you with all kinds of side dishes, that leave you staggering for the exit door.
The Lollipop Tree.
A final send-off.