When one thinks of Argentina three things immediately come to mind – beef, tango, and soccer! Argentina excels in all these areas and they continue to be deeply integrated into the culture and daily life. As someone that has lived in Buenos Aires since 2007, I’ve had the opportunity to experience them all, but being extremely interested in food and cooking, the customs that surround preparing and serving beef have intrigued me the most.
Argentines have historically looked towards Europe for cultural guidance, but when it comes to preparing carne (beef) you’ll be hard pressed to find a local who doesn’t think that if you want to enjoy the best beef you go to a classic parrilla (Spanish for a grill or steakhouse), and definitely not a trendy fusion restaurant or some other new “concept”. Parrillas are the heart of the culinary scene in Buenos Aires.
The menus are similar but try out many parrillas, and you’ll soon notice major differences. High quality ingredients are as important as the preparation since Argentines only lightly season their meat with salt before it is put on the grill. Some parrillas refuse to disclose their meat provider because they feel it’s one of their competitive advantages.
All socioeconomic classes frequent parrillas, and the skill of the parrillero (grill cook) and quality of the meat is more important to most clients than its ambiance. Learning to grill meat is a skill and tradition in Argentina that is passed down from father to son. It takes years to learn the intricacies of controlling the heat and to know precisely when the meat should be taken off the grill. Many of the best parrilleros are older men who have perfected their techniques after working at small neighborhood parrillas for decades.
After integrating myself into Argentine culture and making local friends, I realized that most visitors to Buenos Aires eat only at a handful of parrillas that are found in guidebooks and featured in TV shows. The places that cater to tourists dress their waiters in cheesy gaucho costumes and have an ample supply of English language versions of their menus available. These visitors are not getting the opportunity to experience the best and authentic parrillas.
Thanks to my argentine friends, I have been introduced and eaten at some of the best, authentic Argentine parrillas. When you enter one, the parrilla staff, most likely proudly wearing ill-fitting tuxedos, greet you warmly as they squeeze you into a table between two large families that come to dine weekly. The waiters provide honest recommendations on what’s best to order that day, and are often so excited and curious about having a foreigner dine with them that they might sit down at your table to share a glass of local malbec. And then the meat comes – vacío, ojo de bife, bife de chorizo, asado de tira (Argentines have more than 40 meat cuts). This is the “real” parrilla experience, and now there is no question why Argentine beef has become synonymous with tango and soccer as treasures of the country.
David Carlisle, originally from Portland, Oregon, has lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina since 2007, and along with his Argentine business partner operates Parrilla Tour Buenos Aires, a food tour that focuses on bringing visitors to authentic parrillas in the city to taste and learn about the culture and cuisine of Argentina. To find out more go to www.parrillatour.com.