Growing up in central Pennsylvania in a family that usually granted each child anywhere from 4 to 7 dollars at our few-and-far-between meals out, steak dinners were reserved for only the most singular of occasions. In fact, I clearly remember the first (um, and last) time I ordered steak off a menu in a restaurant in the US, at the age of 16, on a special date; just my dad and me.
Now that I call Buenos Aires home, I’ve been able to make up for lost time – and make my carnivorous dad consider leaving everything to set up shop here. In this town, a massive beef-centric meal is a standard weekly event. This beef, though, typically isn’t the prized filet mignon that makes Yanks drool. Argentines go bananas for an overwhelming variety of cuts that would never make it out of the butcher shop, let alone onto a plate and into my mouth in any other atmosphere. These folk are rumored to be the biggest beef consumers in the world – the average citizen wolfs down around 150 pounds of the stuff each year. So what, exactly, are they eating, and, more importantly, how do you get your hands on it?
Firstly, getting yourself invited to an asado (barbecue) is the ideal way to sample the many varieties of meat; I eventually accepted as educational the “Eat this; this is the best” proclamation from my porteño friends, who would then slide a couple of lemon-spritzed intestines (chinchulines) and a squishy brain or two (cerebros) onto the plate next to my papas fritas and ensalada. However, making friends and getting them to invite you over to their house on a Sunday afternoon might be more commitment than you bargained for. Fortunately, every other eating establishment in Buenos Aires is a parrilla (grill restaurant), and, whether you opt for the high-end places with safe, sometimes amusing English menu translations or if you prefer to dive in blindly at a neighborhood joint, you can literally feast on beef at a different place every night of the week.
Try Patagonia Sur in La Boca or follow the cow to Puerto Madero’s Siga La Vaca or Cabaña Las Lilas for luxury fare in a white-linen-tablecloths-and-champagne-toast kind of way. The bife de lomo is the standard tenderloin and probably the most expensive item on the menu; vacío (flank sirloin streak) is one of the most flavorful options and my personal favorite. Estilo Campo is known for its prize cuts of bife de costilla (T-bone), bife de chorizo (rump), and asado de tira (long and short ribs). Carnivores simply can’t go wrong at La Brigada, one of the city’s classic, old-style grills that is also an oenophile’s paradise, located in San Telmo. However, a visit to Argentina’s capital simply isn’t complete without a gluttonous barrio-style chow-down at San Telmo’s El Desnivel. First-timers will probably open up the menu and immediately feel overwhelmed – with 10 pages or so of foreign-language beef cuts, how are you supposed to translate what you see on the pages to that juicy pile of innards that those people over there are feasting on? Parrilla etiquette calls for ordering a bunch of platters to share amongst friends, and, as a tip, pointing to platters around the salon rather than testing out your shaky Spanish is not considered rude. Or, just ask for the parrillada, a steaming, practically pulsing mountain of meat served on a miniature charcoal grill to be shared by the whole table. Don’t forget to ask for extra lemon to garnish your mollejas (sweetbreads) and riñones (kidneys), and a second order of ubre – udder.
Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Gleeson