I love the sound of an Argentine barbecue. It’s gentle and unhurried; a sizzle here and there as another goblet of fat falls onto the coals and if you lean in close you can hear a slight crackle and pop (yes, like the breakfast cereal, just sparser, and crisper), the sound of meat slowly searing to perfection.
“That’s the secret,” nods Alejandro as we stand over his chulenga (the classic barbecue, a half oil drum on four legs with a grid balanced on top), the fire must be weak enough that you can hold your hand next to the meat and not get burned. Then you will hear that slow crackle and you’ll know that your meat is cooking perfectly.”
He should know, he and Ezequiel are the master grillers of one of Buenos Aires best loved parillas del barrio (neighbourhood barbecue restaurants) and every day they take charge of six chulengas straining under several kilos of meat. They have perfect control over their charges, shuffling and timing everything so that nothing is overcooked and that over the space of the day they can serve up slices of beef cooked to every taste and specification.
La Esquina (which quite simply translates to, the corner) is the name that has stuck, but most will just refer to it as, “That barbecue place on the corner of Sucre and Miñones.” Twelve years ago this temple of carnivory was a green-grocer and the owners would drag a drum outside onto the sidewalk and cook up some meat on the weekends. It turns out that they had a deft hand with the flames and soon enough passersby were stopping and asking to buy a hunk of vacio (flank steak) off the grill – it just looked so good they couldn’t resist stopping to ask. Soon enough word spread, they upped the frequency of their barbecuing operations and soon enough, the vegetables disappeared completely. These days the only hint of green is the chimichurri on every table, a powerfully flavored salsa of chopped herbs oil and vinegar which does wonders for any meat sandwich.
Today the most popular remains the vacio, sold by the kilo or sliced up onto one of the fluffy white rolls mountained up on the counter to make the famous vaciosuper sandwich for ARG$20. Next on everyone’s list is the choripan, the same bread, but this time filled with a crisp, chubby pork sausage.
The blackboard tacked against the wall above the chefs reads like a shortlist of every argentine’s favorite things from the barbecue and it is well worth successive visits to work your way through them all. The tira de asado (short ribs – a strip cut from the ribs) is classic bone-nibbling goodness, the mollejas (sweetbread) served super crispy are divine with a squirt of lemon and the morcilla (blood sausage) is sweet and well spiced with a hint of clove; simply spectacular.
Beyond delicious meat La Esquinahas a perfect atmosphere for anyone who loves the casual, street food way of eating. Sure it is indoors, but only just, as the exterior wall is basically a set of four holes shaped like the structures commonly known as ‘door’ and ‘window’. Inside, the lucky few who arrived early enough fit themselves around cheap red plastic tables, decorated only with the chimichurri and the worst napkins in the world. Every parilla in Argentina seems to stock these same napkins which dissolve on contact with liquid and have absolutely no absorptive properties – serving only to move the grease on your hands or face from one place to another. They’re a classic though, and the experience just wouldn’t be the same without dozens of napkin balls scattered all over the table.
At the peak hours around mid-day, the stream of people is never ending and the tiny space fills to overflowing. Passersby are tempted in by their noses, dogwalkers choose their route very carefully to pass by this particular corner, groups of men and boys pop in to refuel after football practice – spiked boots in one hand, chorripanin the other – glassy-eyed expats revel in the taste of home, meat hungry tourists gorge and of course, the regulars, known by name are integral participants in the non-stop banter held forth by the two chefs. Alejandro and Ezequiel are the lords of their realm; easy smiles and sharp wit never ease up as they alternate between service and grilling, loading sandwiches into waiting hands and sending them out to carry on with their day, just a little happier than before.
Sucre y Miñones
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Hours: La Esquina is open Tuesday to Sunday between 12:00 and 15:30, go with hunger.
Greg de Villiers, a South African food photographer and travel writer, lives – for now – in Buenos Aires. To see more of his work, visit: gregdevilliers.com. To find out more about his life philosophy, sit yourself down in the most beautiful place you can imagine, with the best bottle of wine you can find, and drink it all; slowly, lovingly but all of it, down to the very. last. drop.