A holiday in South America! With a full month to divvy up and allocate, the Co-pilot and I did very thorough research on where we wanted to go, see and do. In fact there was months of research in preparation – we’d consulted countless guide books, blogs, websites, food shows, travel articles, friends’ personal recommendations and I kid you not, even moon phases. There was an enormous spreadsheet with no less than 10 different itinerary combinations, detailing the exact amount of time we’d be spending in each place. You may think we were being over the top but I assure you we weren’t. We’d narrowed down the countries to just three: Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. But to do and see all the things we wanted to in those countries at a relaxed pace we’d need at least 2 months. But by the time we left, we had an itinerary we were comfortable with and importantly we’d even accounted for “South American time” (the typical delays), a list of must-east-at restaurants and despite the many stressful late nights poring over guide books and spread sheets and negotiating itineraries, we left for the airport still as a couple.
Our trip starts in Argentina and the fair city of Buenos Aires, the so-called “Paris of South America”. We both started and ended our trip in Buenos Aires – a deliberate design in our trip as I wanted to ensure we’d return to Buenos Aires after a month of travelling through small towns and basic conditions through remote areas of Bolivia and Peru to treat ourselves with a few days of shopping, eating well and relaxing.
Buenos Aires is a beautiful city that rewards food lovers and the stylish design set equally well – well heeled Argentines chat animatedly on their mobile phones whilst walking their dogs along large tree lined streets and lazily perusing the countless fashion boutiques, design stores, cafes, restaurants and parillas (grills). Nowhere was this more evident than in the trendy suburb of Palermo Viejo that we stayed on both visits to Buenos Aires. For Sydney-siders, imagine a cross between Surry Hills and Paddington. Apart from being gorgeous, staying there was a simple no-brainer as every restaurant that popped up in our food research happened to be in Palermo. And there were so many restaurants to get through on our list!
We arrived at lunchtime on a hot sunny day in Buenos Aires, tired and weary from the 13 hour flight and near one hour taxi ride from the airport into town. The time difference between Sydney and Buenos Aires is almost the worst possible, with Buenos Aires being 10 hours behind Sydney. As we checked into Craft, our boutique hotel , we were told by reception that later on that day there would be a soccer (football) match featuring two good local teams: Boca Juniors and Estudiantes. What luck! We booked ourselves in and were whisked away to the Estudiantes home ground stadium.
Our seats provide a great view of the game and as we waited for the crowd to slowly file in, we decided to get some of the smoky hot dogs we’d spied on the way in. The hot dogs were very smoky, chewy and gristly, but the addition of fresh hot chilli and crunchy tomato and onion salsa did it’s job in hiding some of the underlying meaty flavours. I can’t say it was a particularly tasty hot dog, but the sun was shining brightly overhead and it was the first day of our South American holiday, so it wasn’t going to dampen our spirits.
Slowly the fans trickled in and the noisy chatter slowly built until it morphed into an unmistakably South American drum beat so infectious we found ourselves clapping and chanting with the crowd. We experienced first hand the fabled carnival atmosphere of South America as the stadium pulsated for the entire 90 minutes, the music never missed a beat even when goals were scored and the singing and chanting so very impressive. The passion of both sides was palpable with even small children behind us swearing abuse at the top of their lungs at the players of the opposition team using colourful names like “whore”, “dog” and amusingly, “chorizo” (sausage). As the game was held at the Estudiantes’ home stadium, we had tickets supporting the Estudiantes team and were warned countless times before the game to not cheer or clap if Boca scored, unless we wanted to invite trouble. The passion probably might have boiled over had it not been for the strict no alcohol rule and no less than a dozen serious, fully armed and uniformed riot police guarding every single section. The final score was Estudiantes 2: Boca Juniors 1.
Only after the game did we realise that when we bought those hot dogs we were given counterfeit money in change! Lucky it was only 30 pesos (about $10 AUD). The differences between a real and counterfeit note were not striking but after some comparison we isolated the tell-tale signs. Can you spot the fake?
The note on the bottom is real, the one on the top is the counterfeit one. In case you’re wondering, the following are signs you’re holding counterfeit pesos:
* The paper quality is thin and inferior * The fine detail definition is lost and pictures/words appear blurry * The silver metallic strip is missing * The glittery green effect on the “10″ and “diez pesos” is missing * The colours are generally duller and darker
After the game we headed back to our hotel to refresh momentarily then plunged onwards with our fight with our debilitating jetlag, heading out to dinner at the appropriately Argentinian time of 11pm. Dinner service in most Argentinian restaurants starts at about 8 or 9pm and stretches long into the night. La Cabrera, a famous classic Argentine steakhouse and grill (called a “parilla“) was one of the top restaurants we wanted to eat at, and conveniently it was a short walk from our hotel. Unfortunately we didn’t take our SLR as we weren’t sure how safe we’d be walking through the streets of Buenos Aires at night (friends of ours just returned from 5 weeks in South America and got mugged twice – once at the beginning of their trip in Buenos Aires and another at the end in Rio!). So apologies, but the photos on my little compact aren’t particularly impressive…
Although it was 11pm, the restaurant was packed and there was a healthy queue outside. Since we were already outside we decided to wait. After an hour, we finally had a table but by then, we’d waited an hour in the cold (it was about 10 degrees outside), we were eating at midnight and we’d been awake for 26 hours. By this stage, I was tired, my body clock confused – I was not particularly hungry,and I was not particularly happy.
The Co-pilot patiently endured my quiet seething and the dark scowl on my face, telling me all would be fine once I’d eaten. We ordered a bottle of a classic Argentinian wine to start – a Malbec. We chose one of the more expensive bottles on the wine list – a 2006 Reserva Malbec from Trapiche, Fond De Cave and were pleasantly surprised that it was still a very affordable $25AUD.
2006 Malbec Trapiche Fond De Cave, $85 ARS
The malbec is deep cherry in colour, has strong berry flavours with a tart finish. We tasted Maraschino cherries and the Co-pilot even suggested he could taste pencil shavings. My palate is not so refined – I only tasted nondescript berries. To start the feast we ordered an entree of avocado, tomato and palm heart salad.
Avocado, palm heart and tomato salad
Ensalada de palta, palmitos y tomate $35.50 ARS
The palm hearts were presented like proud pillars and it immediately struck us how thick they were – much larger than the palm hearts we’d had previously in Central America or the canned variety you can get in Australia. The salad is served with thousand island dressing which we thought was odd at first, but through experience later learned that it appears to be a common and favoured dressing in South America.
Grilled cow’s milk provolone
Provoleta $28.50 ARS
Having had ample time to spy on other people’s meals whilst we waited outside for an hour, the Co-pilot liked the look of the grilled provolone and decided it had to be ordered. As expected, the provolone tastes mild with a slight saltiness. The crust is crunchy as though peppered with croutons flavoured with a generous sprinkling of oregano and there is a subtle hint of burnt caramel. But it is enormous! How many people is this tub of grilled cheese supposed to feed? The dish is best eaten when molten lava hot and gooey as once cooled it develops an unpleasant plastic chewy quality. Perhaps it would have been nicer with a tastier cheese like goats cheese or haloumi.
But luckily we don’t have to eat the rest of the plastic cheese as at that point, the main event arrives. And upon laying my eyes on the life size steaks placed in front of me, there was suddenly a realisation in both of us that we might have seriously underestimated the generosity of Argentine portions.
Beef sirloin steak (foreground) and beef ribeye steak (background), 400g each
Bife de chorizo ($46.50 ARS) and ojo de bife ($44 ARS), 400gramo
From our research we knew to order the bife de chorizo, the sirloin, and the most favoured cut by many. The La Cabrera menu actually translated bife de chorizo to “rump steak” not “sirloin”, but we think that’s a mis-print. Because there is no way a rump steak can be that tender. Oh yes, for us, the famed Argentine steak lived up to it’s reputation. They were good. Really good. The sirloin was very tender and full of flavour despite having nothing but a simple salt and pepper seasoning. The ribeye was similarly delicious, with an added level of saltiness and a smoky charred crust slightly flavoured with oregano.
The only downside was that both steaks were just slightly over cooked. As our phrasebooks didn’t have the exact word for “medium-rare”, we asked for “midway between medium and rare” (for the record, we later learnt the word for medium-rate is “jugoso” or literally “juicy”). The resulting steaks were much more “medium” than “medium-rare”, but we’d half expected that from our research as Argentines have different steak preferences to us. They prefer their steaks slightly more well done, and favour the chewier cuts of meat, arguing that they’re the most flavourful. Oh, and they’re aren’t shy of offal. Regardless, our steaks were still very much delicious and the slightly overdone state was ignored as they were devoured with the many accompanying complimentary condiments.
The condiments were almost as fascinating as the steaks themselves. The many different flavour combinations to accompany the steaks ensured eating the large steak didn’t become arduous and boring as my taste buds were subjected to sweet, sour, salty and hot flavours, including pumpkin; eggplant with olives; pear and wine; onions and sweet pickles; potato mash; garlic; apple; green olive paste; corn; chilli and sun-dried tomato; beans; heart of palm and mushrooms.
Subsequent parillas we visited didn’t have such a spectacular array of condiments and some locals will even suggest that it’s just La Cabrera’s touristy gimmick and that an authentic local parilla can produce an excellent steak flavoured with no more than salt and pepper, but we really appreciated the condiments and I felt it enhanced our virginal Argentine steak experience.
By the time we’d finished our mains, we were absolutely satiated, it was 1:30am and I distinctly remember the waitress informing us that the kitchens closed at 1am. But as a waiter hands us a couple of glasses of complimentary limoncello and asks us if we’d like dessert, we decide to plunge on and go out with a bang.
Not feeling like we could have endured a heavy dessert, we end up ordering a lemon sorbet with champagne.
Lemon sorbet with champagne
Sorbete de limon con champagne $22 ARS
It’s just what we needed, a light, airy champagne topped with 2 scoops of lemon sorbet. It’s a delicious champagne spider! By the time we ask for the bill it’s 2am. We’ve been awake for a horrifying 28 hours, hopefully beaten jetlag and it was time to go home and finally allow ourselves to sleep.
Chupa Chup tree
The final bill for our dinner of two enormous entrees, two enormous steaks, a multitude of complimentary sides, an aperitif, dessert and a nice bottle of wine cost under $300 ARS or approximately $85 AUD! What a bargain! We leave smiling (and intermittently groaning and clutching our bellies), safe in the knowledge that we’re going to eat very well on this holiday.
As we walk out the door, a troupe of young men walk in, enquiring whether the kitchen was open. The waiter looks at the kitchen staff finishing their cleaning, nods, the group sits down and the kitchen fires up their stoves.
Who eats dinner at 2am??! It’s crazy I tell you. Crazy.
Despite my best efforts, I woke the next morning after a mere 4 hours of sleep, wide awake and frustrated. To make matters worse, the weather has taken a turn for the worse. The glorious 28 degree sunshine we soaked in at the game has retreated behind a heavy cloak of grey clouds and although Buenos Aires is roughly the same latitude as Sydney, there must have been a sudden Antarctic cold snap because that morning was a mere 10 degrees with icy bone chilling winds. We head to Cafe Tortoni, desperately needing our coffee fix.
Cafe Tortoni is a touristy but beautiful and opulent cafe in the CBD with a rich history. The cafe was established in 1858 and is the oldest in Argentina. It has seen its fair share of change, events and important figures come and go in its time – some of which is displayed in black and white photos on the walls and the dedicated galleries at the back of the cafe.
It was indeed touristy and both the customers and the prices reflected this, but we felt we needed to see it.
Spanish style chocolate with three churros (chocolate con tres churros),
coffees and juices $55 ARS
We ordered a light breakfast of coffees, juices and a shared churros in order to not ruin our appetites for lunch and dinner. But we were clearly too ambitious and not the reality of our finite stomach boundaries caught up with us. We skipped lunch and by dinner we’d just regained some resemblance of an appetite.
The Co-pilot was still obsessed about parillas and steaks so we decided to go to the other end of the parilla spectrum to La Cabrera, a more family friendly local parilla called El Trapiche.
The lessons of over eating at La Cabrera were quickly and conveniently forgotten in order to sample whatever our hearts and stomachs desired from the menu. We started with a bottle of wine, a Tempranillo, a full bodied red more commonly associated with Spain than Argentina.
Bodegas Salentein, Finca El Portillo,
2006 Tempranillo (Mendoza) $30ARS
The tempranillo had less complex flavours than the malbec we tried the night before at La Cabrera, with much brighter cherry notes and a rather sharp acidic tail. Noticeably, the wine list was also much cheaper than La Cabrera’s. The malbec we had the night there was listed at El Trapiche for about 70% of the price we’d paid at La Cabrera. That wasn’t particularly surprising given the establishment’s reputation as being more the local’s parilla.
To accompany the wine we ordered an array of entrees, including the jamon with palm hearts.
Jamon crudo (Torgelon) con palmitos $33 ARS
The dish was simple and unadulterated – the jamon was salty, stronger and gamier in flavour than your usual Spanish variety but tasty nonetheless. Like the night before, the palm hearts came with a side of thousand island dressing.
We also ordered marinated white anchovies (boquerones) but mistakenly got given chargrilled marinated capsicum (morrones). The mistake was quickly rectified and given the capsicum looked so good, we ordered the correct dish in addition. Both dishes were excellent! The capsicum had a subtle smoky charred flavour enhances by the dried oregano and the boquerones were just superb! Rarely do we get access to such delicious fresh, tart and firm little sardines in Sydney – particularly in a small local establishment. They weren’t too fishy and despite the quantity was quickly demolished.
For our main we ordered the marinated pork flank to share on the recommendation of popular Argentine blog, Saltshaker
Pork flank marinated in milk and spices (2 people)
Matambrito de cerdo al verdeo (2 personas) $58 ARS
We could smell the delicious aromas of the pork even before it reached our table. It arrived in an impressive flourish, sizzling and steaming in the plate. The waiter kindly waits for me to take my obligatory photo before he plates the dish.
The pork flank isn’t the most tender cut of pork, hence it’s not entirely surprising when the pork doesn’t instantly melt away in our mouths. But it is incredibly tasty – almost verging on too tasty and flavourful if such a thing were possible. The mound of spicy shallots on top of the pork adds another level flavour and the waxy potatoes cooked in pork juices were just divine. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, tender and pork broth flavoured within. Delicious and we ate until we groaned with belly strain but even then only made a dent into the dish.
Clearly buoyed by his new found appetite the Co-pilot orders us a round of limoncello digestifs.
The limoncello is sweeter, more syrupy, more lemony in flavour and more potent than last night’s brew at La Cabrera.
Despite both being in a world of pain, the Co-pilot seems capable of channeling a reserve stomach and his eyes linger on a sweet dulce de leche flan heading to another table. With a wink to the waiter, it is not long before we have a flan being placed before us. (Here I must digress – as dulce de leche is a Spanish dessert, the correct pronunciation of “dulce de leche” is “dool-se de le-che”, and not “dul-che” as it’s not Italian).
The flan is not too sweet and just right. The underside of the flan lends a slightly burnt but pleasant bittersweet edge to the flavour and the dulce de leche is superior to anything I’ve had in Sydney. It’s still sweet and rich but has an incredible silky smoothness that seems to melt and disappear the minute it touches my tongue.
Being unbelievably full, we get the bill which totals about $190 ARS or just under $55AUD! Oh, good affordable food is just bliss!
The El Trapiche experience was certainly different to the La Cabrera one – both delicious, but the El Trapiche experience feels more local, low-key, genuine and authentic whilst La Cabrera is where tourists and the elite go to celebrate special occasions or to be impressed then have their expectations exceeded. Both are excellent and both have their different merits.
We’ve really enjoyed the first two days of our South American trip and Argentina has been exceptionally kind to us. We hope our next stops, Salta in north west Argentina and Chile will be equally enjoyable!
Nicaragua 4583, Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires
Tel: (+5411) 4833-0060
Notes: Request a room on a higher floor further from the noisy, echoing stairwell
La Cabrera Cabrera 5099, Palermo Viejo, C14BGS
Open: Wed – Sun 12:30pm – 4pm; Sun – Thurs 8:30pm – 1am; later on weekends.
Tel: (+5411) 4831-7002 Email: i...@parillalacabrera.com.ar
Notes: Major credit cards accepted, promotions & discounts available with MasterCard.
Cafe Tortoni Avenida de Mayo, 825 Buenos Aires City
Open: Mon – Thurs 8am – 2am; Fri – Sat 8am – 3am; Sun 8am – 1am
Tel: (+5411) 4342-4328
Notes: Cafe Tortoni doubles as a popular tango show venue by night.
Paraguay 5599, Palermo Hollywood, Buenos Aires
Tel: (+5411) 4772-7343
Foodie Traveller in the know:
- Reservations: Unless you have a reservation, the waiting times outside popular restaurants for dinner can be quite long, so either make reservations or go early (around 8pm) or late (around midnight) to avoid standing in queues.
- Tipping: Some degree of tipping has come to be expected in the more popular touristy restaurants, but if you pay by credit card, tip in cash as the tip you leave on the credit card goes to the restaurant. Of the times we tried to tip on our cards, our waiters would cross out our tip on the final bill and hint that perhaps cash would be more welcome.
- Language: Lastly, it’s not clearly mentioned in any guide or phrase book but the Argentines tend to pronounce some words a bit differently to the rest of Castillian (Castellano-speaking) Latin America. For instance, they pronounce the “yo” as “sho” so “Mayo” becomes “Ma-sho” – a tip which would have been handy to know before we tried to provide confusing directions to taxi drivers.
- Currency exchange: At the time of our travel the AUD was very strong where $1AUD was about $3.3ARS. It is generally about $1AUD to $3ARS