Saturday, August 4, 2012

Eating, Drinking, and Cooking Our Way Around Buenos Aires

Mike at Don Julio Parrilla
in Palermo Viejo
As our 3-weeks in Buenos Aires (BA) apartment living comes to a close, it's time to summarize our foodie adventures in this lovely city.  There were moments of excitement with having a kitchen, only to be let down with the disappointing grocery store selections. But, heavenly to find such great tasting beef steaks at any of the myriad parrillas for such a reasonable price, washed down all too easily with Malbec wine.  Not to mention the amazing coffeehouses to support the Argentine late-night culture, accompanied by their sweet-tooth for anything-dulche-de-leche.  We relished in Palermo district's obsession with ethnic restaurants - some winners, some losers; while repeatedly enjoying our newly-discovered favorite restaurant, Las Cabras, only half a block down from our apartment.

First meal and wine in our apartment
However, for those of you who know us well, might we remind you that we are on a strict BUDGET?  That means, we didn't indulge in our usual foodie adventures of trying out the latest and greatest celebrity-chef restaurants; the nouveau prix fixe 20-course menus; nor the trendiest, fanciest, oldest, whatever-est restaurants in BA.  Instead, we took this opportunity to savor in the adventures of grocery shopping, cooking homemade meals in a foreign country, and fed our souls with great budget restaurant finds.   

 A few general food observations that we found interesting:
  1. These BA ladies can eat!  While WE typically shared a meal, put a big fat juicy steak and a pile of fries in front of an Argentine and the plate will be licked clean.  These girls aren't messing around with a salad, yet they are all slim and trim.  We had to work at finding anyone overweight.  
  2. For being by the ocean, seafood was almost non-existent.  No one thinks of fish synonymously with Argentina where the beef rules.  
  3. Continuing with the "beef rules" theme, chicken also seemed to be second-class in BA.  While every other restaurant in Peru and Ecuador served chicken a la brasa, one would have to go to a Peruvian restaurant in BA to find rotisserie chicken.  In fact, we read a news article where KFC tried to infiltrate the BA fast-food market and failed because they were not interested in fried chicken...that's crazy.  Who  doesn't like fried chicken?
  4. Argentines love pizza!  “Pizzerias are like mothers: there’s no joking around when talking about which one is the best,” so an Argentine saying goes.  With all this love for pizza, Pizza Hut failed to expand into the BA market because the pizza here is distinctly Argentine - very different in flavor and style from what we were used to in the States.  For starters, the crust was thick, doughy, and chewy.  We didn't see tomato sauce.  The only tomato flavor came from some sliced tomatoes placed on top of the crust with LOTS of gooey mozzarella cheese and perhaps some cold cut meats. 
  5. Like the rest of South America, Argentines love papas fritas (French fries).  We witnessed mounds of fries ordered with steak or any other entree, usually in addition to a basket full of bread.  So, if you assumed everyone is on some kind of low-carb Atkins diet here....not true.
  6. An Argentine's blood is made of coffee.  How else can they drink coffee day and night?  It helps explain how they stay up past midnight to eat dinner.
  7. Regular grocery stores were scarce on fresh produce, meats, and convenience food items.  On the positive side, most everything perishable appeared seasonal and local (which is not saying much if there's not a lot of seasonal products); while the lack of many prepared or convenience food items indicated very few processed foods.  We can only assume that people actually cook meals from scratch.  
  8. There was very little ethnic foods in BA outside of a few restaurants and Chinatown.  If you were looking to eat anything besides grilled meats, empanadas, pizza, pasta, coffee, or desserts, good luck.  Palermo had the biggest concentration of ethnic restaurants, but forget trying to find ingredients to cook ethnic foods for yourself.
  •  It's all about the parrillas (steakhouse; grill) and steaks in BA!  Argentine beef is truly superior in flavor and much leaner than American beef.  Perhaps it has something to do with the pampas grass-fed cattle, but it could turn a vegetarian into a canivore, no exaggeration.  There are so many parrillas, everyone can have a different favorite place.  We were in love with the bife de ojo (rib-eye) at Don Julio's in Palermo Viejo.  We also went to BA's old-school institution, Desnivel, in San Telmo for the experience of having steak like many Argentine families do on a Sunday afternoon.  The place was packed!  The best deal for excellent steak was just half a block away from our apartment at Las Cabras.  A huge steak with accompaniments (mashed sweet potato, rice, grilled vegetables, grilled provolone cheese, fried egg, fries, bread) served literally on a wooden cutting board cost USD$15 for both of us to share!  Another great deal was at El 22 in Palermo Hollywood on Carranza Street.  Two 8 oz. rib-eyes, fries, and half-bottle of wine for USD$20!  That's quite unbelievable for one of the most tender steaks we've ever had.  

  • Wherever we turned, there was a cafe with locals enjoying coffee and something sweet at all hours of the day, but usually for a light breakfast and a late afternoon or evening snack, per our apartment rental owner.  She said that most everyone finishes off a meal with a cafe cortado (espresso shot with milk), and also has coffee and dessert in the evenings before heading off to dinner around 10 pm.  Basically, the opposite of what we would do in the States.  We eat dinner, then have coffee and drinks afterwards.  Argentines love dulche de leche, a sort of milk caramel-y spread that can be found in many pastries, as well as jars purchased in stores.  The alfajores shortbread cookies with dulche de leche were wonderful!

  • Due to a heavy Italian immigrant influence, Argentines love their pastas!  It is a staple on most menus and there are plenty of Italian restaurants.  We were pleasantly surprised to see that most places make their own pastas, and I've never seen so many fresh pastas sold at the grocery store!  The most popular types of pasta tend to be the raviolis, gnocchi, and sorrentinos (similar to raviolis but more varied stuffing that includes nuts).  
  • Empanadas are very popular as a snack or to-go food.  We really enjoyed trying out the various flavors.  Almost every restaurant serves some form of empanadas and they are quite cheap.  A nearby place had a daily special of 3 empanadas plus a chopp (draft) of beer for less than USD$6!  One night, we ordered some to take back to our apartment to eat with our homemade soup, and the "legend" on the empanada box was quite entertaining.  The big supermarket, Jumbo, has a whole freezer case row full of frozen empanadas.

  • We have enjoyed Malbec wines in the States for several years, and is becoming more prevalent in many of the wine lists, but Argentina is the land of Malbec and we have taken full advantage of it!  One huge benefit of having an apartment is the ability to go to the grocery store or wine store, buy the wine, and enjoy it without paying the restaurant markup prices.   As a result, we have tried many of the bargain Malbecs and Torrontes (Argentina's native white wine, which is also very delicious)  for around USD$3-5/bottle.  The house wines in the restaurants are reasonably priced also - some better than others.  Should we be embarrassed about the sheer volume of wine we've been consuming?  We think not...just trying to keep up with the locals.  :)

  • With all the focus on wine, beer doesn't get as much attention in BA, but the Argentine "king of beers", Quilmes, is quite good.  If we ever run across this brand outside of Argentina, we would definitely order it.   Microbrews are also not very common; however, we came across the Patagonia line of microbrews, sold at the Jumbo grocery store and other nicer establishments.  

  • And last but not least, Yerba maté is as much a social past time as it is a tea-like beverage that Argentines drink.  Before coming to Buenos Aires, we read that we would see locals sipping mate all day long from their gourd cups and metal bombilla (straw), re-filling it with the hot water they carry around in a large thermos.  We didn't see as many people drinking maté in public as expected, but have definitely seen families in the park kicking back drinking mate, as well as the outdoor market vendors, and even the pharmacist when we went to the pharmacy.  Apparently, maté is even more popular in the neighboring country, Uruguay.  Here is a link to an excellent video explaining the proper technique of preparing and drinking mate. We ordered maté at a restaurant, and it came with the signature metal pot of hot water, gourd maté cup and bombilla.  Good thing we watched the video on how to prepare the maté in advance!  The taste was...well, very bitter and acquired, like a bunch of green herbs steeped in water - somewhat similar to really bitter green tea.  We assume that the flavor grows on you after awhile, or else we can't figure out why someone would want to drink this stuff daily, except that it's a cultural and social experience from way back when.


  • Tacos: La Fabrica de Taco on Gorriti 5062, Palermo.  We haven't come across Mexican food in South America thus far.   Tortillas, black beans, cilantro, salsa are foreign ingredients.  Being in Palermo, the center of ethnic cuisines in BA, we thought this place was promising, especially when there was a humongous line out the door around 1 am on our first Friday night in Argentina.  The various reviews were quite accurate: the meat was on the dry side with little flavor.  The hot sauces actually packed some heat - unusual in BA that doesn't care for spicy and hot foods.  Overall: a miss.

  • Vietnamese: Green Bamboo on Costa Rica 5802, Palermo.  Again, another ethnic restaurant in Palermo.  Asian food has been non-existent in our repertoire since we left Japan almost 3 months prior, and we can only eat so much steak frites in BA!  This place has literally been written up in every guide book, including Lonely Planet.  That should've been our first clue, but decided to give them a chance.  How can so many write-ups be so wrong?   The ambience and service was impeccable; however, they did not deliver on the food.  Especially for the cost.  It was one of the most expensive meals we had in BA.  We may not be the biggest connoisseurs of Vietnamese food, but we've had our share to know the key ingredients.  One of the TripAdvisor reviews summed it up..."If the restaurant owner(s) are Vietnamese, shame on you!  If not, please stop claiming this as a Vietnamese restaurant.  'Nuff said.  Overall: Miss.

  •  Neopolitan Pizza: Siamo nel Forno on Costa Rica 5886, Palermo.  Okay, this place was also written all over the guide books but we were not deterred.  Being generally disappointed by the Argentine style pizzas (even the Lay's Pizza flavored potato chips didn't taste right), we were hopeful in this place that claimed to make Neopolitan style thin-crust pizzas by a guy trained in Italy.   If a little pizza outfit in the middle-of-nowhere-Los-Organos-Peru can make Neopolitan pizzas in a real wood-fired oven, surely BA can step it up.  We thought we'd died and gone to heaven.  Our waitress was a New Zealander who moved to BA in order to learn Spanish.  We apologized that she couldn't practice her Spanish on us, but she was very excited to have English-speaking customers.  We ordered the special of the night - a margherita pizza with arugula and kalamata olives.  ¡Muy delicioso!  Overall: Hit.

  • American: Kansas Grill on Avenida Libertador 4625, Palermo (2 other locations also).  This place is quite the success story.  Our apartment owner was telling us that during the Argentine debt crisis in 2002, Kansas Grill was a silver lining in an otherwise broken economy where they had no imported goods coming into the country.  Kansas Grill decided to open during this troubled time, creating a restaurant that reflected true American cuisine by importing ingredients as needed.  Today, they have 3 locations.  We went to the Palermo location and the place was packed as soon as the doors opened.  The layout of the restaurant and bar reminded us of an upscale bar and grill in the States.  The menu was a nice representation of classic American food prepared very well.  Overall: Hit.

  • American: Hard Rock Cafe.  Yup, there is one in BA in Recoleta.  Yup, we visited the institution and had our standard order - Cobb Salad.  Ingredients that make up a Cobb Salad is very American.  To try and make it yourself is difficult because ingredients such as bacon, turkey, ranch dressing, blue cheese, cheddar cheese, etc. in foreign countries are hard to find.  We have had this all-American salad at Hard Rock Cafes across the world!  Overall: Hit and Miss (the burger - wasn't that great.).  

  • Brewery: Buller Brewing Company on Roberto M. Ortiz 1827, Recoleta.  If you're looking for something other than Quilmes, this is your place.  Microbrews haven't really caught on in South America.  One place we went to in Baños de Agua Santa in Ecuador was not good, so we've treaded with caution ever since.  We first ordered the sampler with Pilsen, Hefe, Honey Beer, Oktoberfest, IPA, Stout, and Brown Ale.  All of them were really good except we didn't care for the Hefe and the Oktoberfest lacked a little depth.  Otherwise, a great place to enjoy microbrews.  After our sampling, we ended up with a pint of stout and IPA.  Overall: Hit.

  • Chinese Market in Chinatown, Belgrano.  BA has a small but thriving Chinatown in the Belgrano neighborhood.  Our apartment owner said that most of the smaller restaurants buy their groceries from the Chinatown markets.  I can see why.  They had a wide selection of produce, dried goods, meats, and seafood, and of course Chinese food products; although not much by way of Japanese products.  We did find some udon noodles and Japanese curry mix!  We enjoyed walking around and comparing the foods with items found or not found in the States.  The place was a trek for us to visit on a routine basis so we didn't do our main shopping there, but overall: Hit.  

  • Indian: Apparently, there's several Indian restaurants in BA, but Mumbai seems to receive the most compliments.  It was only a block away from our apartment so we headed there on one of our last nights in BA for 'something different'.  We couldn't think of a better way to cleanse our palates from all the South American flavors.  Mumbai tasted very authentic and we we very happy to have found this place.  Overall: Hit.

What would you do if you went to the grocery store and they didn't carry any of the familiar ingredients you are used to for meal planning?  Combine that with Akiko's Asian food craving, for which we barely found a bottle of soy sauce, and most people we know would be hard-pressed to come up with anything home prepared.

In general, fresh produce was very limited or hard to come by.  Fortunately, with the abundance of potatoes, onions, bell peppers, they can be used for just about anything.  Although the tomatoes looked really sad, the grocery stores carried awesome puréed and whole canned tomatoes that tasted really good.  All the lettuce looked quite disheveled, but towards the end of our stay, the closest store started carrying baby romaine hearts!  Of course nothing comes already bagged, triple-washed, etc. etc.  There were plenty of charcuterie and cheese for sale.  Half the dairy case was stocked full of different yogurts and yogurt-drinks.  Seems to be a popular thing in South America.  As for the rest of the grocery store, there was usually an aisle for bottled water, aisle for dried pastas, aisle for mate tea, aisle for cookies and crackers, and at least an aisle or 2 for wine.  We didn't see a lot of canned foods, hardly any frozen foods, and the soup section was just a series of powdered instant soup mixes.  For some reason, any kind of seasoning (for which there was very little) was usually stored behind the check-out counter.  By far, the most common seasonings were buillon cubes, oregano, chimichurri blend, and that's about it.  I've never used so much oregano in my entire life!

Well, Akiko just considered herself a contestant in Chopped, stepping up to the challenge of stringing together random ingredients and coming up with a variety of home cooked meals.  Here are a few of our successful meals.  

[Above: one of our first breakfasts in the apartment.  There's always an abundance of potatoes in Argentina] 

[Above: charcuterie and cheese platter we assembled from grocery store finds.   Lots of charcuterie available, every which way you look.]

[Above: A small bag of dried lentils goes a long way!  In an effort to use the lentils, made lentil "burger" patties on a bed of sautéed spinach and corn. ]

[Above: after our trip to Chinatown, made Japanese curry udon noodles!]

[Above:  no such thing as spaghetti sauce in a jar here, so made homemade meat sauce.  Not to brag  but probably one of the best  meat sauces...most likely due to the fresh ground Argentine grass-fed beef.] 

[Above: gathered some vegetables for a stirfry.  The rice was a challenge, but also how do you season with only soy sauce?  There is no other Asian ingredients sold in the stores.  We made do, and it tasted okay.] 

[Above: got takeout empanadas and made a tomato-vegetable soup to go with it.] 

[Above: butcher stores sell 'milanesa' or thinly pounded out meat, breaded and ready to be cooked.  They come in pollo or carne.  We bought some milanese de pollo with a nice romaine lettuce salad.]

What got us interested in Las Cabras in the first place was the huge crowds of people waiting to get into this restaurant at all hours of the day!  This restaurant was located just a half-block from our apartment and it was nowhere to be found in any of the guidebooks, BA foodie blogs, or anything (yay!).  We were hooked after seeing what all the hype was about.  This was  a parrilla, with all the variety of grilled meats, but with a twist.  They also had quesadillas, some grilled fish dishes, baked potatoes, traditional Argentine stews, sandwiches, and great wine deals.  The best part?  Everything we tried tasted good AND the cheapest meals in town.  We loved this place so much, we went back at least 5 more times.  Lesson in all this?  Go where the locals flock to.

[Above: huge wait outside for Las Cabras.  There's so many people, you can't get through the sidewalk.  Best to walk across the street!] 

[Above: open grill, wood-fired oven, and kitchen where all the yumminess is made.] 

[Above: our favorite wine deal.  22 pesos (~USD$4) for a "pinguino" of house wine with all most a full bottle of wine.]

[Above: of course we already mentioned this steak with accompaniments, served on a huge cutting board for something like USD$15!  It's at Las Cabras.] 

 [Above: enjoyed the simple condiments.  A pico de gallo type mixture of onions and bell peppers.  Also, a red chili pepper chimichurri.] 

 [Above: Choripan.  Typical fast food or street food.  Chorizo = sausage.  Pan = bread.] 

[Above: pleasantly surprised to see quesadillas on the menu.  We had the beef quesadillas which were beautifully grilled.] 

[Above: never seen a baked potato on any other parrilla menu, so this is what makes Las Cabras a little different, almost with an American influence.] 

[Above: panqueques con dulche de leche (crepes with dulche de leche.  A bit too sweet but a nice complement with the very bitter Yerba maté we drank with it.]

Well, there you have it.  BA is a big cultural city, known to be the most cosmopolitan city in South America, so there's something for everyone, even if you don't agree with our foodie style or assessment!