Argentina's Mecca for Meat Eaters

Gwen Romagnoli is a freelance writer in Watertown, Mass

Never mind that Buenos Aires means "good airs." In the context of food, it means beef, beef and more beef, Argentina's national staple. The cattle ranches of the Pampa, a 250,000-square-mile plain stretching west across the country to the Andes, provide Buenos Aires' tables with a seemingly endless supply of its quintessential meat.

In April, on our first visit to "B.A.," my husband, Franco, and I found that its fabled beef is among the many treats this magnificent capital has to offer. It boasts elegant shops, immaculately kept streets, ubiquitous and magnificent parks, and avenues that rival those of Paris (Avenida 9 de Julio, which runs through the city center, is said to be the widest boulevard in the world). The metropolis' 13 million inhabitants--about one-third the population of the entire country--make Buenos Aires larger than New York. And not only is the city splendid to behold, but we found portenos --as the people of this port city are known--to be unfailingly cordial and courteous. Cosmopolitan, too: It is said that an Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, dresses like a Frenchman and thinks he's English.

Franco and I had the good fortune to be here at the same time as our friend Paul Del Rossi, a Bostonian who travels frequently to Buenos Aires on business. He and his colleagues, all portenos , knew the best parrillas (steakhouses), where huge charcoal-burning grills are in plain view, covered with every part of the cow from intestines, glands, tripe and kidneys to the top tenderloin and ribs. The asado , or traditional Argentine barbecue, consists of a series of these meats, grilled and then consumed in a standard sequence. It starts with sausages, continuing with chinchulin (the small intestine), tripa gorda (the large intestine), mollejas (sweetbreads) and, only at the end, the ribs and loins.

According to our new friend Valeria De Luca, when British troops occupied the city in the early 19th century, the invaders sent the best parts of the beef back to England, leaving the innards to the natives. This led to the now customary and extensive use of offal, of which seemingly every kind can be found on the city's menus.

El Mirasol

Our first taste of such fare was at El Mirasol, an elegant restaurant where the maitre d' offers patrons a flute of champagne while they wait for a table. This, we soon realized, is the pleasant opening to many a meal at upscale restaurants here. We also realized that diners had best have a snack in the early evening because the normal dining hour doesn't begin until 10 p.m. At 1 a.m., restaurants are still brimming with customers.

We started our meal at about 10:30 by sharing a plate of empanadas, a popular Argentine dish. These savory pastries are made with a choice of fillings; the varieties we sampled were ground meat, onion, cheese, and ham and cheese. (All were good, but I would later find that I preferred fried empanadas to El Mirasol's baked ones.) I had a wonderful salad of paltas --avocados that were ripe, creamy and flavorful. Salads are common as a first course. So is provoleta , a cheese similar to provolone, grilled with oregano. It's great if you enjoy grilled cheese, though I would have liked the dish even more without the herb.

For our main course, naturally, Franco and I ordered beef. We were told that the juiciest and most tender cut is lomo , a tenderloin that melts in your mouth--and indeed it did. Diners who want their meat rare request it jugoso , or juicy; otherwise it's a punto, medium, or bien hecho, well done.

Our friend Delfin Fernandez had the tira , a strip of grilled rib that turned out to be the most popular among the diners around us. At first this puzzled us because the meat was chewy, but its flavor, as we found when Delfin passed us some, hits the taste buds with a tremendous zing. In fact, in all of our beef-eating forays around town, we were struck by the difference between the beef we're accustomed to and the Argentine variety--which is leaner and tougher but usually more flavorful. We tried two excellent Argentine wines at El Mirasol: a Trapiche Medalla, a blend of Cabernet, Malbec and Merlot; and a Rutini Malbec, which was even better. We found the Rutini bottlings we tasted during our visit to be consistently outstanding.

Our friends informed us that, although Argentine cuisine is not known for its desserts, one is a national specialty (and we found it in every imaginable form, from candy to ice cream). Dulce de leche is simply milk and sugar, slowly cooked to a creamy caramel; as a dessert it is often used as the filling for a crepe, which is the form it took at El Mirasol. It was excellent there, but we had it at many other places and generally found it too sweet for our taste.

Dinners are often finished off with herbal teas. One is manzanilla , or camomile, and another favorite is cachamai , a mix of herbs said to aid digestion. Yerba mate tea, Argentina's national drink, is made from the leaves of an herb in the holly family, infused in a hollow gourd and sipped through a long metal straw.

We finished our dinner at El Mirasol well after midnight (the waiter will never bring the check until it is requested); the cost, including wine, came to $30 per person.

Piegari

Nearly half the Argentine population is of Italian heritage, so la cucina italiana is the most popular cuisine after the ubiquitous parrillas . Piegari, an Italian restaurant next door to El Mirasol, was said to be the current "in" place.

Franco is a native Roman, chef and cookbook author, and I lived in Italy for 13 years, so both of us are well acquainted with authentic Italian food. Piegari had it.

Our group of five started by sharing an antipasto plate. The prosciutto crudo was exquisite, as were succulent breaded shrimp and sun-dried tomatoes. For the pasta course we tasted thin "guitar string" spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce ($21), and delicate ravioli in a tomato cream sauce ($24). The pasta is homemade and portions are huge, so splitting them turned out to be a wise course.

In a switch from the usual beef, we ordered lomitos de pollo al verdeo , a tasty chicken dish made with leeks and potatoes, for $21. With it we drank a lovely Syrah ($50) called Finca la Anita from the province of Mendoza, Argentina's principal wine region.

Desserts included the usual dulce de leche; arroz con leche, rice with sugar and cinnamon; and pastelitos de batatas , a pastry fried in lard and oil and filled with sweet potato. Here, and at other restaurants, we were served a complimentary plate of little cookies and pastries as we waited for dessert.

Happening

The Puerto Madero area is along the docks in the center of town, near the Casa Rosada (Pink House), the presidential palace. As in many U.S. cities, the old warehouses of the port have been transformed into handsome shops, clubs, boutiques and restaurants, many of which have decks for outdoor dining overlooking the basin where yachts and sailboats are moored. The boat basin opens out into the Rio de la Plata, which at this point is so wide--about 30 miles--that you cannot see the opposite shore in Uruguay.

We sampled the fare at Happening, an elegant parrilla overlooking the harbor. Our group began with a plate of prosciutto, mortadella, salami and Italian cheeses ($9) that Franco proclaimed to be as good as any in Italy.

The restaurant is known for its beef, but there were also some tempting fish dishes on the menu. One of our dinner companions ordered the grilled salmon. I wanted to try the tira again--so tasty, even if it keeps you chewing overtime. Each cost about $10.

The menu notes that all the vegetables at Happening are organically grown, and they are cooked al dente, nice and firm. But the portions at all the restaurants we tried were so big that by the time we got to the vegetables, we could hardly eat another bite. One vegetable that always stood out was the luscious avocado that I enjoyed at nearly every meal.

The wine list had a nice selection of Cabernets, Merlots, Syrahs and Malbecs among the reds, and Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Chenins and Torrontes among the whites. Here, as elsewhere, there was a good choice of Argentine and Chilean wines, though French and, especially, Italian vintages are also well represented.

Our dessert at Happening was Freddo ice cream, a popular local confection, with chocolate sauce. Locals rave about the brand, but we found it comparable to American ice cream.

Antigua Tasca de Cuchilleros

On Sundays the flea market is in full swing in the San Telmo district, just south of the city center. This area was one of the earliest parts of the city to be settled, but in 1871 yellow fever decimated the population, and survivors fled the neighborhood. It lay in disrepair until the early 1970s, when it was declared a historic zone. Since then, dilapidated 19th century buildings have been renovated and transformed into cafes, shops, tango bars and restaurants.

Our visit was at the beginning of the Southern Hemisphere's autumn, warm and pleasant enough for strolling through stalls loaded with antiques, clothing, leather goods, silver jewelry and bric-a-brac. The tango dancers were out, too, as they are all over the city, tango being the national rage. At the edge of the market, an elderly but agile couple were performing on a raised platform accompanied by guitar and concertina. Down the street, a woman wearing a bright red miniskirt and black lace stockings was doing a solo tango, hoping for tips.

At 1 o'clock we met our friends Paul and Delfin at the Antigua Tasca de Cuchilleros, a restaurant with a lovely tree-shaded courtyard. Cuchilleros are knife users; we saw a lot of stalls in the market selling the traditional meat-slicing knives used by gauchos, Argentina's cowboys.

Contrary to tradition, we decided to try a series of snacks instead of the lengthy Sunday asado . All around us, though, were large families at tables with individual grills filled with beef cuts of all sizes and shapes.

We opted for a plate of empanadas that were delicious. The pastry was fried, probably less wholesome than the baked variety but much tastier. The filling was made with chunky bits of beef, which we preferred to the ground meat we had had elsewhere. We also sampled morcilla , a decadent blood sausage--definitely an acquired taste--and chorizo, a fat and flavorful pork sausage. Prices were moderate, the mixed grill ranging from $7 to $12, appetizers $4 to $9, and desserts (flan, pudding or fruit salad) $3 to $9.

Cafe Tortoni

A culinary tour through Buenos Aires would not be complete without a stop at a cafe, the most famous of which is Tortoni. Its brochure says it was founded in 1858, making it "the oldest coffee shop in the whole country with a very rich history visited at all times by intellectuals, politicians and artists." It has a charming Old World atmosphere, with dark wooden walls, oak and marble tables, and waiters sporting full-length white aprons.

Two of Tortoni's specialties--both of which we sampled--are churros, accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate, and leche merengada , ice cream with a meringue topping. (As with dulce de leche , we found it a tad cloying.) Like all cafes in Buenos Aires, Tortoni also serves sandwiches, liquor and full meals.

Though no brief visit could do justice to this megalopolis, we think we got a representative sampling of its culinary pleasures. And while they are manifold, there's no doubt that beef is the heart of the matter.

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Guidebook: Grill Watching in B.A.

* Getting there: LanChile offers nonstop service from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires; connecting service is available on American, Copa, Delta, Mexicana, United and Varig. Until Oct. 31, the restricted round-trip fare on Mexicana is $668. Otherwise, high-season fares (to July 31) begin at $937, low-season (Aug. 1 to Dec. 17) at $888.

* Where to eat: The telephone numbers below are to be used when dialing from within Buenos Aires. To dial from the United States, add the prefix 011-54-11. Most restaurants open for lunch around 2 p.m. The Argentine peso is pegged to the U.S. dollar; one dollar equals one peso.

El Mirasol, Posadas 1032; local telephone 4326-7322. Great grilled beef. Lunch and dinner daily; meals average $30 with wine.

Piegari, La Recova, Posadas 1042; tel. 4326-9430. Excellent and authentic Italian cuisine. Lunch and dinner daily; $30 to $35 with wine.

Happening, Avenida Alicia Moreau de Justo 310, Puerto Madero; tel. 4319-8715. Argentine cuisine in an attractive setting on the water. Lunch and dinner daily, $35 to $40 with wine.

Antigua Tasca de Cuchilleros, Carlos Calvo 319; tel. 4307-0594. In the San Telmo district; great for Sunday lunch when the outdoor flea market is on. Lunch and dinner daily, $15 to $25.

Cafe Tortoni, Avenida de Mayo 829; tel. 4342-4328. Landmark Old World cafe; serves full meals, specializes in Argentine pastries. Open daily 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Also well worth trying: Bella Italia Ristorante, Republica Arabe Siria 3285; tel. 4807-5120. Good Italian cooking. Dinner from 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, about $35. The neighboring Bella Italia Cafe Bar serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily from 7 a.m. until well after midnight.

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