To say that Argentinians love meat would be the understatement of the year. This nation of 31 million consumes beef on a scale our own country hasn’t seen since the 1950s. Buenos Aires fairly bulges with parrillas (grills), asado restaurants, and chop houses. Statistics are hard to come by (misplaced, I was told, during the last change of government), but a casual poll of the people I met suggests that the average Argentinian eats meat 10 to 12 times a week.
Actually, Argentina offers two very different grilled meat experiences: asado and parrilla (pronounced "par-ee-yha"). The former is traditional ranch-style barbecue: whole baby goats, suckling pigs, sides of beef ribs, and briskets roasted upright on stakes in front of a fire.
The parrilla corresponds to what we would call a steakhouse in North America. Sausages, innards, and belly-bludgeoning steaks are the specialty of parrilla cooking, and in contrast to asado, the meats are cooked to order. If you like kid, pork, or beef ribs roasted to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, your best bet is an asado. If succulent steaks served sizzling and rare are your fancy, head for a parrilla. If you can’t make up your mind, don’t worry-many restaurants serve both.
Gauchos and Grilled Meat
Argentina’s love affair with grilled meats began with the gauchos, rugged cowboys who herded cattle on the grassy plains of the Pampas. The arrival in Buenos Aires of the first refrigerated ship from Europe in 1876 ushered in a golden age for cattlemen. The estancieros (ranchers) became millionaires selling Argentinian beef to Europe. By 1910, Buenos Aires was the largest city in South America, and in the Western hemisphere second in size and affluence only to New York. Beef money built the wide avenues, graceful plazas, and extravagant buildings that make Buenos Aires the Paris of South America.
There’s a tendency to romanticize the gauchos. The real gauchos, often mestizos (of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage), lived a considerably less glamorous life. Yes, they wore boinas (berets) and rastras (coin-studded leather belts the coins were a way of showing off their wages) festooned with faccas (South American bowie knives). Yes, they congregated at pulperias, a combination of a country store, warehouse, and saloon. Yes, they danced the malambo, a solitary male dance that imitates the motions of a horse. Still, they lived a lonely existence, on the margins of society, with little or no female contact.
But it was the gauchos who developed asado. To experience the phenomenon first hand, I signed up for a bus tour of a ranch called Estancia La Cinacina. An hour outside of Buenos Aires, the land becomes flat and spacious, with clumps of trees punctuating the grasslands. There, we turned in at a cluster of white-washed stone buildings near the town of San Antonio de Rico.
Cinacina is owned by the Ramirez family, three generations of ruggedly handsome gauchos decked out in berets, bandanas, and riding boots. For the next three hours, they entertained us with carriage rides, gaucho music, handkerchief dancing, and demonstrations of equestrian prowess. Eventually, we piled into a mess hall for a communal cowboy lunch.
In an adjacent courtyard was a circular fire pit, where one of the Ramirezes worked as an asador (pit master) tending a bonfire that was started early that morning. By the time we arrived, whole rib sections of beef and vacios (a cut that corresponds to the breast and brisket) had been tied to cruciform metal stakes and stood before the fire. The stakes were angled slightly away from the flames, so that the juices dripped on the ground, not the coals. The roasting lasted 2 to 3 hours, and when the meat was removed from the stakes, it was tender enough to eat with a spoon. The only seasoning was salt and fresh air. It was the only seasoning needed.
Cinacina’s asado came with the traditional accompaniments: salad, salsa criollo (onion and tomato relish), and a vinaigrette-like condiment called chimichurri. The latter is Argentina’s national steak sauce, and there are probably as many different versions as there are individual pit masters. At its simplest, chimichurri consists of olive oil flavored with a little dried oregano, hot pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. This is the sort of chimichurri served at Cinacina.
In the cities, one finds a more elaborate chimichurri: fresh parsley, garlic, olive oil, and wine vinegar puréed to a pesto-like paste, sometimes with hot peppers. There’s even a red chimichurri made from tomatoes and bell peppers.
Once back in Buenos Aires, I set out to investigate the other branch of the barbecue family tree: parrilla. My destination was the grandaddy of Argentinian steakhouses: the venerable La Cabaña. Founded in 1935, La Cabaña is to the kingdom of barbecue what Windsor Castle is to the royal family of England. As you enter the restaurant, you pass by an ancient wooden meat locker and a wood-burning grill with a gleaming copper hood. The dining room has the grandeur of a Tudorian hunting lodge. Wrought-iron chandeliers the size of Volkswagen Beetles hang from ceilings 30 feet high. The dignified waiters in their black jackets and ties seem to have worked here forever.
You can warm up with crusty mollejas (grilled sweetbreads). Meltingly tender riñones (kidneys). Creamy chinchulin (intestines). Handsome coils of longaniza (spicy Calabrian-style sausage). Crisp-skinned morcillas (raisin-studded sweet blood sausages that taste a lot better than they sound). And that’s just for starters. These and other items-all, I can assure you, are absolutely delicious-are commonly served together as a parrillada (mixed grill) on a tabletop hibachi stoked with blazing coals to keep them hot. But the specialty here is clearly the beef. A ranch in the Junin district west of Buenos Aires supplies La Cabaña with specially raised steers, each weighing half a ton. A bife de lomo (filet mignon) at La Cabaña would probably dwarf a grapefruit. A single costilla (bone-in rib steak) tips the scale at more than 3 1/2 pounds.
Accompanying the beef is one of the most unusual chimichurris I sampled in South America: a tangy red paste brewed from garlic, peppers, anchovies, canned tuna, and tomato sauce. The addition of anchovies suggests parentage with two other of the world’s great steak sauces: A-1 and Worcestershire. The presence of tuna recalls Italy’s great tonnato sauce, which is traditionally served with cold roast veal.
Here, as at most Argentinian steak houses, dessert is a simple affair. A wood-fired oven-baked apple. Or perhaps a flan with dulce de leche-dark, thick milk caramel-whose burnt-sugar flavor echos the smokiness of charcoal seared meat. Dinner is an event-you eat late, long, and a lot.
A Visit to Costanera Norte
Today the epicenter of this style of grilling is an area called the Costanera Norte, about 15 minutes from downtown Buenos Aires. Thirty years ago, there was nothing there, save a seawall along the Plata River. The Costanera lies on the road city dwellers would take driving back to Buenos Aires from weekend trips to the country and seaside. About 30 years ago, a few enterprising cooks began setting up makeshift grills and serving steak dinners out of the backs of their cars.
Today, the Costanera is lined with dozens of stylish restaurants, with names like Happening and Los Años Locos. The decors vary from retro to modern, but the bill of fare is pretty much the same. Which is to say every imaginable type of steak and organ meat expertly grilled and served without artifice. Well-dressed customers flock here from Buenos Aires for lunch on the weekends.
I was able to find one establishment that still maintains a sense of what the Costanera must have been like in the old days. It’s located in a nearby port area, where a couple of young men have set up a grill shack called El Potro. Here, under the shadow of a huge derrick, amid thick clouds of smoke, men in sweaty red jackets grill an astonishing assortment of meats.
The grill consists of a metal table piled with glowing coals surmounted by a chain-link grate. It is a set up popular throughout South America. The grate slopes gently upward from front to back, offering a range of cooking temperatures. Meats are seared on the hotter front part of the grill, then moved back to finish cooking at a lower temperature. I could make a meal on the aroma alone. At El Potro, salads are dished up without ceremony from plastic tubs. Guests get to eat on a rickety terrace overlooking a power plant. The entertainment takes the form of a soccer game on a small black-and-white TV.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, Argentina can be a forbidding place for a vegetarian. In recent years many generally health-conscious North Americans have come to regard meat with suspicion if not downright contempt, but while I consider myself as nutritionally correct as the next guy, nonetheless I feel obliged to note that after a week of restaurant hopping in Buenos Aires, I was one happy fella.
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