There aren't many places in the world where you can get down with a juicy piece of grass-fed beef, indulge in a multi-course chef's tasting menu, and drink an excellent bottle of wine, all for under 30 dollars. Oh, Buenos Aires, you are a frugal food lover's paradise.
If you asked me when I first moved to Argentina nearly a decade ago if I considered Buenos Aires to be a top culinary destination, my answer would have been a hard-hitting no. Back then, the offerings didn't stray much beyond the 'three P diet': parrilla (steakhouse), pizza, and pasta. But fast forward a few years and the food scene has undergone a thrilling makeover. While the parrilla meat havens and old school bodegones continue to dominate the majority of the eating culture, a new generation of food enthusiasts have entered the arena to bring variety—and to reinvent the classics.
Culinary travelers, your next food vacation has been decided: If you're looking for a European vibe with that Latino flair, head to Argentina's capital to eat, drink, graze and repeat.
A Few Terms You Should Know
Parrilla: Translates to both steakhouse and the actual grill
Bodegones: Classic Buenos Aires neighborhood eateries serving local comfort foods like grilled meats, pastas, and beef or chicken Milanese with potato purée.
Asado: Barbecue, also the shortened term for tira de asado, short or long ribs.
Porteños: People who live in Buenos Aires, the port city
Puerta Cerrada: Closed door restaurant, by reservation only, generally in the chef's home. Often a fixed tasting menu is served, and tables are sometimes communal.
Cenar: To eat dinner, which just happens to be quite late, typically around 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.
For a Quick Breakfast: In Bocca al Lupo
In Buenos Aires, breakfast is far from the most important meal of the day. Instead, most porteños only require a hefty dose of caffeine and sugar to start the morning off right. A cortado (an espresso cut with a little steamed milk) and medialuna (half moon croissant), tostado de jamón y queso (ham and cheese toasted sandwich) or factura (pastry) usually is what does the trick. In Bocca al Lupo should be your go-to spot for that quick morning bite. Head directly to the inner courtyard and order one of the simple breakfast specials like the Il Rustico, which includes a coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, and a prosciutto and cheese sandwich on a toasted baguette. The cornetto smothered with Nutella is also a major winner.
The concept of brunch, which has been slowly creeping into the porteño weekend food scene, is a recent inductee into the Argentine-Spanish gastronomy vernacular. If you only have a few days in Buenos Aires, skip the Argentinized American-style brunch and save room for the local good stuff.
For the Finest Street Meat: Parrilla de Freddy
Parrilla de Freddy is where the meat magic happens. Located beside the San Telmo market entrance, the tiny space consists of a grill, a counter with some bar stools, and an old television set blasting soccer and cheesy Argentine talk shows. While this cheap and dingy meat cave probably violates all kinds of sanitation standards, all worries somewhat sizzle away once that barbecue smoke hits your nose and you lay your bedroom eyes on that plump Argentine chorizo sausage.
The short list of offerings is handwritten in marker on white pieces of greasy burnt notebook paper, including the asado all-stars: choripán (chorizo sausage sandwich), morcipán (morcilla, or blood sausage sandwich), bondiola (pork shoulder sandwich) and matambre de cerdo (pork flank steak).
It's hard to go wrong here with Argentina's favorite street meat, the choripán, a handmade chorizo sausage, butterflied, crispy on the outside and bursting with meat juices on the inside, and nestled between crusty bread and topped with chimichurri sauce. If you are lucky, the infamous Freddy will be around. He looks like he just stepped out of a Van Halen concert in 1981, sporting his rat-tailed mullet, sharing hooch from a plastic liter bottle with his boys from the barrio.
For the Steakhouse Experience: Don Julio
Making a parrilla part of your eating itinerary is an absolute must, just don't expect to roll up to any steak den for the beef of your life. At Don Julio, a classic Palermo Soho steakhouse popular amongst locals and travelers alike, each cut of grass-fed beef is cooked over an iron grill by an expert asador (grill master).
To start, order the goat cheese provoleta—cooked on the grill to form a crackling crusty exterior with oozing melted cheese inside—plus the mollejas (veal sweetbreads) extra crispy with salt and lemon juice, and the arugula and butternut squash salad. For the main attraction go with the house specialty, entraña (hanger steak or skirt steak) and bife de chorizo (sirloin strip steak), which is like a damn M&M melt in your mouth of meat cuts and served alongside the national condiments, chimichurri and salsa criolla (onion and tomato relish).
Navigating the grill: Most asados (barbecues) start with the real local delicacies: the achuras, or offal. Think morcilla (blood sausage), chinchulines (chitterling), mollejas (sweetbreads), and chorizo (sausage). It continues on with a second meat course, heavily seasoned with salt and slow cooked on a grill over a low flame with wood or natural lump charcoal. The most popular cuts in Argentina are asado de tira (short ribs), bife de chorizo (sirloin), matambre de cerdo (pork flank), cuadril (rump), vacio (flank), and entraña (skirt/hanger). Many parrillas tend to slightly overcook the meat, so if you are a fan of medium rare, order your beef jugoso. For medium, apunto, and for well done... well, you shouldn't even be eating steak.
A Fast Empanada Snack: La Cocina
If Argentina created a food pyramid consumption chart, empanadas would dominate at least half of the triangle. Whether it be baked or fried, meat or vegetarian, just about every province in the country has their own take on the empanada. The shape and the repulgue (how the empanada is folded and sealed) tells a lot about the filling inside. Most empanada shops display a handy diagram so eaters can decipher the different flavors.
La Cocina, just blocks away from the Recoleta cemetery (a popular sightseer's landmark), serves homemade empanadas hailing from Argentina's northwestern region, Catamarca. The unassuming empanada shop features only two items: locro, a hearty stew packed with different cuts of meat, vegetables, and hominy, and eight different types of baked empanadas.
Order the carne picante empanada, 'spicy beef' that's not actually spicy, instead seasoned with cumin and ají molido (a mild crushed red pepper) and baked in a super flaky dough. Or go with the house specialty, the Pikachu, made with three different types of cheese and a dash of hot sauce—when you bite into this empanada it's like you won a cheese award.
Ice Cream, Argentine Style: Jauja
Helado is much more than just ice cream in Buenos Aires, it's a favorite pastime. The creamy, cold treat can be likened to gelato, generally still made the old-style Italian way, and found just about on every other corner in the city. Coming directly from their family-run operations in Patagonia, Jauja's ice cream has been known to trigger serious helado addictions. They offer over 80 flavors, including 13 variations of chocolate, 10 types of dulce de leche, and a wide selection of native berry flavors.
It's definitely intimidating, and slightly stressful to pick your poison, but luckily each portion allows two different flavors—unless you order by the kilo, where you can try up to four. Argentina ice cream virgins should start by choosing the basics: a variation of chocolate and dulce de leche. The doble dulce de leche consists of a rich dulce de leche ice cream with added swirls of gooey dulce de leche in thick, caramelized form. For those less inclined to undergo an absolute sugar shock, the dulce de leche con moras (blackberries) brings the best of both worlds combining the ultra sweet and cutting it with the tart berry. Chocolate freaks lick up the super powerful chocolate profundo, an intense dark chocolate mousse ice cream or the CassiChoco, chocolate ice cream mixed with a black currant sauce made with berries sourced from a single forest in El Bolsón, Patagonia.
To Your Door: Ice cream delivery is big business in Buenos Aires. Just call or order online and almost every heladería (ice cream shop) will deliver by the kilo to your house for no extra charge. Many offer the service until 1 a.m. and even arrive on motorcycles customized with a climatized helado storage vessel.
Affordable Local Specialties: El Obrero
Bodegónes are the epitome of traditional Buenos Aires dining culture: casual neighborhood eating temples where family, friends, and entertaining barrio eccentrics congregate to partake in Argentina's version of a comfort food fest. El Obrero, a fútbol themed lunch and dinner spot located in the working class La Boca, means "the worker" in Spanish, is a local institution without any affected touristy kitsch.
The menu hasn't changed since opening in 1954 and features specialties like berenjenas en escabeche (thin strips of pickled eggplant swimming in a glorious oily marinade), and tortilla española, a thick egg and potato Spanish omelette packed with hefty chunks of charred cantimpalo chorizo. The revuelto gramajo might just be the ultimate hangover dish: greasy scrambled eggs, with some ham, fresh peas, and French fries—a bit perverse, but in the best way possible. Oh, and who could ignore the milanesa napolitana, a colossal portion of veal or chicken Milanese, probably longer than your arm, perfectly coated in a crisply fried breadcrumb crust, and piled with sweet tomato sauce, ham, cheese, and a thin piece of roasted sweet red pepper. Ask for it a caballo and you'll get a runny sunny side egg on top.
Dinner Behind Closed Doors: I Latina
There's only so much meat one can ingest in a short period of time, and sometimes even the bloodiest carnivores need a break from cow once in a while. Colombian cook Santiago Macías puts a refined spin on Caribbean flavors, serving a seafood-rich menu that features Colombian, Peruvian, and Argentine ingredients. Macías' brother Camilo runs the front of the house of this closed door restaurant, where he has transformed a rundown home on a hidden Villa Crespo street into a beautifully refurbished sorta-secret restaurant.
The seven course tasting menu changes seasonally. Standout dishes include a tropical play on ceviche served with mango, fresh coconut, and lychee and a deconstructed arepa—pulled beef and citrus avocado salad on top of a crispy patacón—that showcases contrasting temperatures and textures. Perhaps most memorable: an intense 85% cacao Ecuadorian chocolate truffle that is drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with chamomile and flakes of Patagonian sea salt. It's an impeccable union of flavors. A meal at I Latina is one of the pricier dining experiences in the city at about US$75 per person, but it's worth it.
The Closed Door Phenomenon: Restaurantes a puerta cerradas, which translates to closed-door restaurants, are all the rage in Buenos Aires. They're open just a few days per week, by reservation only, and serve a set tasting menu, often inside the cook's home. Ranging in professionalism and quality, these days it seems like everyone and their mother is jumping on the closed door bandwagon. But if you stick with these spots, you won't be disappointed: Adentro Dinner Club, where hosts Gabriel and Kelly invite an intimate group of diners into their home to experience a true Argentine asado (barbecue) dinner party; Cocina Sunae, where chef Christina Sunae serves some of the best Southeast Asian inspired food in the city; and Paladar Buenos Aires, a unique interpretation of modernized Argentine cooking, set inside the home of the owners, a local chef-sommelier couple.
For A People-Watching Coffee Break: Coffee Town
While most Buenos Aires cafés are stricken with poor quality beans that have been roasted with sugar, Coffee Town brings somewhat of a coffee revolution in the form of a tiny hut in the middle of the iconic Mercado de San Telmo. Champion baristas whip up textbook-made espressos using their own house blend, which are freshly roasted meters away in a coffee laboratory.
Coffee Town is also one of the best people watching spots in the city. Perch yourself on top of a bar stool, sip some of the good stuff, and witness the bustle of daily shopping at the market.
Learn Argentine Wine: Pain et Vin
Exploding with a new generation of brilliant winemakers and sommeliers, exciting times are ahead for the Argentine wine industry. But if you don't have the time to visit Mendoza or Salta, stick to a CliffNotes drinking version at Pain et Vin's interactive (and affordable) wine tastings. Sommelier Eleonora Jezzi's informal slosh sessions give visitors a chance to explore see that there's a lot more to the Argentine wine scene than just Malbec. Discover a smart selection of Pinots from Patagonia, Torrontés from Salta, and Cabernet Franc or Bonarda from Mendoza. The wine tastings are served with an exquisite cheese plate and homemade sourdough breads baked in a wood-fire oven the owners constructed themselves.
A Slice of Argentine History: Pizzería Güerrin
Some people love it, others love to hate it, but you really shouldn't leave Buenos Aires without snacking on a slice of Argentine-style pizza. The pizza recipe at Güerrin hasn't changed much since they opened in 1932: light on the tomato sauce, thick on the dough, and even thicker on the cheese. Order at the counter and head to the standing section in the front to get down with a slice of fugazzeta, a thick-crusted focaccia bread oozing with cheese and piled with onions, or the napolitana (tomatoes, cheese, and garlic) with fainá, a Genovese chickpea cake that's peculiarly placed on top of the pizza slice and eaten together in the same bite. Wash it all down with a liter of Quilmes, the national beer, or sweet moscato wine from Bodegas y Viñedos Crotta.
Argentine-Style Pizza 411: Thin crust lovers might have more of an appetite for pizza a la parrilla, a cracker thin crust cooked on the grill from La Más Querida, or a traditional Neapolitan style at Siamo nel Forno.
Aperitivo O'Clock: Bar El Federal
Dating back to 1864, El Federal is considered a bar o café notable, part of a group of porteño cafés deemed by the city as historical landmarks. The low wood bar takes center stage, adorned with stained glass and intricate carvings. Skip a meal and instead go for the late afternoon aperitivo hour.
Fit in with the locals by ordering a Fernet and Coke or Cynar with grapefruit and soda water (that comes in a personal dispenser called a sifón), and you'll be served a decent (and complimentary) picada (charcuterie) spread.
Merienda Time: Since dinner is eaten late, Argentines sneak a fourth mini meal between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. called merienda. Although the exact foods vary, it almost always consists of something from the favorite food groups: salt, sugar, caffeine or alcohol. Trendy cafés like Oui Oui, Malvón, and Florencio tend to serve sweets like fruit cheesecakes, muffins, and chocotorta, a chocolate cookie and dulce de leche layered cake. Historic cafés like El Gato Negro, El Banderín, and Las Violetas excel at more straightforward classics including medialunas and churros filled with dulce de leche or chocolate.
For Dates and Solo Diners: Aramburu
Traditional Argentine cooking gets a modernist makeover at this spot on the city center's outskirts. After stints working with renowned chefs like Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Joël Robuchon, and Martín Berasategui, Gonzalo Aramburu returned to Buenos Aires to bring an imaginative interpretation of local dishes and ingredients with his restaurant of only 10 tables. Solo diners, this place is for you too—request the high top table that overlooks the open kitchen and watch the cooks put on a show.
The 12 course tasting menu changes seasonally, and emphasizes a balance of flavors and textures with a playful presentation. Some of the hits include creations like mushrooms and scallops served on a wooden plank underneath a witch-like globe filled with applewood smoke; shrimp wrapped in a nest of kadayif shredded phyllo dough, cooked over a hot lava stone and topped at the table with a creamy shrimp bisque.
Agustina de Alba, two-time winner of the "Best Sommelier in Argentina" competition, curates the wine list featuring wines from some of the more exciting boutique bodegas in the industry, like Zorzal from Mendoza, Chacra from Patagonia, and Cara Sur from San Juan.
The Modern Argentine low down: Referred to as Nueva Cocina Argentina, Argentine chefs—after working abroad in some of the world's top restaurants—are returning to their homeland to put a contemporary twist on seasonal Argentine cooking. Some other restaurants leading the way: El Baqueano, Paraje Arévalo, Astor,Local, Hernán Gipponi Restaurant, Las Pizarras, Roux, and Tarquino.
Cocktailing Until 4 a.m.: Florería Atlantico
Florist and wine shop on the main level, with a hidden underground bar below, there's nothing quite like this nautical themed bar and florist in Retiro. Inspired by BA's immigrant port watering holes during the turn of the 20th century, the drink menu is divided by countries, celebrating porteño immigration groups from that era: Italy, Spain, France, England, Poland and the criollo locals.
Ordering a drink with Príncipe de los Apóstoles, the house gin created by one of the owners, is a must. The gin is made with yerba mate (Argentina's national drink), eucalyptus, peppermint, and pink grapefruit peel. Try the 'Gin with tonic and something more,' a mixture of homemade tonic water, grapefruit, and thyme, or if you are in a larger group, get a pitcher of Clericot N°872, a refreshing summer drink similar to sangria, made with gin, Aperol, riesling from Patagonia, pink grapefruit, and mint.
Want to do a bar crawl?
A crew of young barman and cantineros (bartenders) have upped the game of the Buenos Aires cocktail scene, armed mostly with Cynar, Cinzano, Campari, and Aperol, along with locally made amargos like Pineral, Amargo Obrero and Hesperidina. Expect to drink classic cocktails tweaked with one of the bottles mentioned above. Thirsty? Check out Verne Cocktail Club, Victoria Brown, Doppelganger, 878, and Pony Line.