Monday, January 23, 2012

About Beef, Wine and Parrillas (Steakhouses).

Argentina is world renowned for its high quality of beef and although much is exported, the best is kept at home. This is a carnivore’s paradise. Around 50 varietals of grape are grown in Mendoza and the drier areas of the north but the Malbec and Cabernets with a few blends are the best. The wines are extremely inexpensive and very good. This is a wine-drinkers paradise. Arguably, put together, a good cut of beef and a bottle of red wine is a gastronomic, culinary delight and the Argentineans have taken it to another level of ritual and tradition. Steak preparation is taken very seriously and it seems as though there is a parrilla on every street corner. So, how to find the best steakhouses in Buenos Aires, not just a restaurant that serves steaks but a true, honest to God temple to beef? We checked the internet, asked cab drivers and talked to locals. The same names pop up: La Cabrera, La Brigada, Cabana Las Lilas and for the locals, Siga la Vaca, La Caballeriza and La Dorita. By American standards Argentineans eat late, 10 or 11pm is not unusual, so many restaurants do not open until 9 or so.
For our first venture into serious steak consumption, we took a taxi to San Telmo and La Brigada. After dropping us off at the appropriate intersection, we then asked a policeman who pointed to a building just a few steps down a cobbled street. On the way we passed an upscale looking wine retailer and decided to check it out before dinner. VinoTango is owned and ran by Delia who speaks very good English and is extremely helpful. The wines are priced from about $5.00 a bottle on up. Like I said there are some very good, inexpensive wines in Argentina. We purchased 2 bottles in the $15.00 range and a bottle of port made from Malbec grapes. From there it was onto La Brigada. The first thing I noticed was that we were the only non Spanish speaking customers and the waiters didn’t speak English either. There appeared to be the easy camaraderie of regulars who probably eat here often. There was the tantalizing aroma and the sound of sizzling beef as it hit the grill. The tables had white tablecloths with runners of black leather, the menus were bound in cow hide and the walls had posters illustrating the various cuts. We were seated by our waiter, Sebastian, who commented that he spoke only a little English. That’s ok, there is only beef on the menu and we know enough Spanish to request our steaks “jugoso”, rare. The wine list was daunting. Sebastian made a few suggestions and left us to decide. There is a couple at the table next to us. They have a bottle of wine on the table. I tried to see what is was but the label was the wrong way. They caught me looking and offered the bottle for me to see. Then they offered me their glass to taste from. This would never happen in the States without requesting a clean glass but “when in Rome” so of course I accepted. It was a Malbec Reserve listed at $35.00 and it was very good. We ordered it and introduced ourselves to our neighbors. They spoke some English and were regulars at La Brigada. Tom ordered the T-Bone and me, a rib-eye. Steaks are usually served by themselves without any sauces or garnishments other than a salad although if you request it, chimichurra sauce is provided. We ordered the Waldorf salad to go with ours. The steaks arrived, covering the whole plate. One entrée would easily serve two people and we did take a considerable amount of meat home with us, including the bone for Winston. The steaks were cooked to perfection and excellent. The entire meal, salad, steaks, dessert (flan), wine and coffee came to about $120.00. Not cheap but certainly not expensive by US steakhouse prices.
Following our mammoth Sunday of sightseeing with Pablo and Cesar, we next tried Siga La Vaca (Follow the Cow) in Pilar. This is a “tenedor libre” or all-you-can-eat parrilla with restaurants in Capital Federal at Puerto Madero and 4 others in the surrounding suburbs including the one we went to. None of us had eaten since breakfast, so we decided to show up unfashionably early which means before 10pm. The L-shaped building is reminiscent of a ranch home and inside is decorated with ceiling lights and wall sconces covered in cowhide and wait staff wearing aprons with a cow hide pattern. The method is simple. You can get up whenever you want and get as much food as your body can physically handle. This includes the salad bar and parrilla, complete with various cuts of meat from cows, chickens, pigs, and miscellaneous animal parts. At the end, if you are still breathing and able, you get one dessert from a fairly extensive dessert menu. In addition to the food each person gets unlimited bottled water (with or without gas) and either an entire bottle of wine or pitcher of beer or soda, all for the low price of 97 pesos (about $22, 00) per person. There were two long buffet tables, loaded with a variety of salad items, cold cuts and cheeses. Then there was the huge parrilla with a chef tending to it and serving customers. This might seem confusing and daunting to some tourists, but if you know a couple of beef phrases, tira (short ribs), bife de chorizo (sirloin) or filet or, simply point at what you want, you’ll do okay. The chef then slices off pieces for you. The waitress supplied us with bottles of water both clear and sparkling, a bottle of wine, two pitchers of beer and one pitcher of soda and bowls full of French fries to accompany our meat. We later ordered desserts of flan with crème de dulce and crema, chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream topped with raspberry sauce, lemon sorbet and a bowl of mixed fruit. The four of us ate and drank for under $100.00 including a tip. When we got home all we could do was collapse on the bed because we had not only “followed the cow” but caught and ate it!
By contrast our next venture into the world of parrillas was Cabanas Las Lilas in Puerto Madero. It is widely written about on the internet and screams “tourist”. We had been warned that it was the most expensive parrilla in town but was it worth it? The huge 400 seat restaurant is located in a converted warehouse along the canal with tables both inside and out. The menu which consists of what else, but beef that is raised on their own private estancia (ranch). It is also one of the few restaurants that stay open all day and so accommodates the early (by Argentinean standards) dinner habits of North American tourists. We arrived on a Tuesday night at around 9pm with no reservations and had to wait about 30 minutes for a table, which we spent having a gin & tonic at the bar and chatting with Guthrie, a gentleman from England who is headed to Tierra del Fuego for a fishing trip. There are no cow hides in sight. The waiters are dressed in black pants and white shirts, suits for the head waiters and the guests are mostly foreign. When we were seated, it was outside at one corner, sheltered by short shrubs and with pretty views of the canal. The night was clear and warm so it was perfect. The staff works a given area on a team basis with one head waiter who takes the order and then others that serve, refill and replenish your bread and drinks. Tom ordered the T-Bone and me, the asado de tira which is a traditional Argentine cut. Since everything is a al carte we also ordered a baked potato and mushrooms to share. After studying the wine book, which is split into sections of exceptional (more than $100), very good ($50.00 range) and good ($25 range) we eventually asked the waiter to select for us a bottle of very good or mid range wine. He pointed to a Cabernet Reserve that once opened was delicious. Those were the highlights. To put it mildly, our steaks were disappointing. Tom’s T-bone was not of the same juicy quality as at La Brigada, or size for that matter and my tira was dry and tough. I eventually gave up on my steak, ate the potato and mushrooms and had the rest packaged to take home for Winston. We had no dessert or coffee and our bill including 4 gin & tonics, dinner and wine was close to $200.00. So, for ambience and service we give it a 5 and for food a 2. Hmm. Maybe we were there on an “off night”, maybe we chose the wrong cut of steak but we would not return which is a shame because we really did love the location, service and atmosphere.
By contrast, we loved La Cabrera. A lot is written about the restaurant and some is true but it is a great parrilla. Yes, the wait is long if you don’t have reservations, we did not. But the hostess was cheerful and pointed us to a seat next door where we could sit and have a drink whilst we waited. We chatted with a student from Seattle who was studying in Buenos Aires and her Paraguayan friend who both said this was the best restaurant for the money. There are plenty of tourists but also some locals. Our outside table was fine for us. We were seated next to two Australians and there is definitely no room for private conversation but we were not here for romance. We were here for beef. Our waiter Gustavo was polite, friendly and well informed. He encouraged us not to order too much and suggested a wine from the list. It was a $32.00 bottle of Malbec that went well with our Ojo de Bife. He also let us know that if we really want rare we should ask for it “bien juguso” (well juicy). This is the only parrilla that offered at no extra charge, side dishes and lots of them consisting of small portions of potatoes, squash, salad and about 10 other bowls of various vegetables. The beef was sensational and cooked to perfection with plenty left over for take home. At the end of the meal a lollipop tree was put on the table. Try as many as you like. Our bill including tip was under $100.00 making it the best value from the list of top parrillas in Buenos Aires. To avoid the long wait, make reservations. This restaurant stays packed from 8 until after midnight but at no point did we feel rushed. It is worth the visit but don’t forget those reservations.
At the complete other end of the economic scale are the Carritos (food stand parrillas). If you come to Buenos Aires and don’t eat at one you are missing out. Not only are they cheap but incredibly delicious. There are many along the Costnera Sur in Puerto Madero. Just order a traditional choripan (sausage sandwich) or bife de chorizo (sirloin steak) and eat out at plastic tables with chairs overlooking the river.
To conclude. We think Argentine beef is the best in the world, with Uruguay second and Australia third. Like seeing a tango show, every visit to Buenos Aires should include eating at least once at a parrilla. If we had to choose one it would be La Cabrera and next time we will make reservations to avoid the wait. A close second is La Brigada as we liked the non-tourist feel about the place as well as the food. If you don’t mind buffets or are on a budget and are not timid about asking for help in selecting your meat, try Siga la Vaca. Unless it is a special occasion (anniversary) and you’re looking for ambience, give Cabana Las Lilas a miss. It was expensive and not worth our time or money. But there are hundreds of others in town so ask around and venture into your own realm of serious steak consumption.