If you know a few basic things about Argentina, chances are you’ve heard about its abundance of red meat and red wine. During our first twelve days in the country, all spent in the beautiful city of Buenos AIres, we ate and drank our share of beef and malbec at various parillas, aka Argentine steakhouses. Most of it was pretty darn good.
- Generally speaking, unless you’re famished or a raging carnivore, one steak between two people will be more than enough to fill you up. The steaks are often close to a pound and sometimes even heftier, and although Zevi claimed he could eat a whole one himself, I seriously doubt that I could have. You’ll also be given lots of free bread, which is perfect for sopping up that extra steak juice.
- Order the provoleta, which I think might actually be the best part of the parilla experience. That’s sacreligious, I know, but a hunk of melty grilled cheese with a caramelized crunchy crust will make you say some crazy things. I know that having more protein with your protein might seem a little over the top, but you don’t want to miss out on this. Topped with some olive oil and a bit of dried oregano, provoleta gives halloumi a serious run for its money in the grilled cheese department.
- When you order a steak, the assumption will be made that you want it cooked medium, or a punto. Your server won’t ask you how you want it done, so if you don’t say anything that’s how it’ll come. If you like your meat a little more red on the inside, ask for your steak to be cooked jugoso, and you’ll get something that’s more in the neighbourhood of rare to medium rare. I like my meat to be almost mooing, so we ordered it this way almost every time. It’s worth noting, though, that the one time we forgot to say the magic word, the steak was still extremely tender even though it was cooked through a little bit more. As someone who would never dream of ordering a medium steak, I was very pleasantly surprised.
While all of the steaks we ate were pretty top notch specimens, El Desnivel in the neighbourhood of San Telmo was head and shoulders above the rest. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that we never went to parillas expecting great service or trendy atmosphere. We were there for the steak, and the steak at El Desnivel was, without question, the best slab of beef I’ve ever eaten. It was so unbelievably tender that you could almost cut it with a spoon. The texture was close to what you’d get from something that was slow cooked or marinated for hours, even though our steak had gone through neither of those processes. I don’t know how they do it!
Las Cabras in Palermo Hollywood was the first parilla that we tried. The outdoor seating there was great, although we were lucky to snag a table as it filled up pretty soon after we got there around 9:00. And, yes, that is a very normal time to eat dinner in Buenos Aires, if not a little on the early side. We had a great bottle of Malbec and enjoyed sitting outside watching the hustle and bustle around us. Unfortunately the food didn’t live up to the atmosphere, and the steak, although still good, wasn’t among the best we had. I did like that you could order a sharing board, where the steak came with cheese, fries, and some other vegetables. It was our first time trying provoleta, and although I liked it at the time, I realized later that it wasn’t a very good iteration as it was cold rather than warm and melty.
Don Julio came highly recommended and was the fanciest of the parillas we tried. While most of those that we visited might be described as a close cousin to the Canadian”family restaurant”, with fluorescent lighting and little-to-no ambience, this place was more upscale, with dark wood accents and a large and very elegant bar. The prices reflected this, and although our meal was good, I didn’t think it was good enough to warrant paying almost double what we’d spent elsewhere. Sitting outside at 11:00PM eating delicious meat and cheese as we watched the world go by was certainly novel, but it’s also something we could have done at countless other places and had more pesos left in our wallet to show for it.
In the Recoleta neighbourhood we checked out Rodi Bar. The grilled peppers were garlicky and perfectly roasted, the wine was affordable and delicious, and the provoleta was delectably crispy. The star of the show is the steak, though, and it was good, but nothing I’ll remember.
Near the end of our stay we finally tried El Trapiche. I say finally, because it was half a block from our door, and we’d been walking past the sign proclaiming the 10% discount if you pay with cash for days. We gratefully scarfed down the mixed salad that came alongside our striploin, as all the steak and cheese had us craving a little bit of greenery. The meat was middle of the road – certainly nothing to complain about, but not coming up to El Desnivel’s high levels of deliciousness.
We’ve only scratched the surface of the parilla experience. I’d still like to try some of the tougher cuts of meat, like skirt and flank steak, and I might just be brave enough to sample some of the entrails that are commonly grilled up, although I know that Zevi won’t be up for that. Luckily we still have a couple more weeks in Argentina, so there’s plenty more time to appease our inner carnivores.