Our first night in Buenos Aires involved one of those happy happenstances that make travel so intriguing. Staying at The Complejo Tango had us hidden away in a neighborhood far from the usual tourist services, and with a massive case of jet lag we had no desire to explore the bus/subway/taxi system of the city, so we wandered in search of sustenance in the immediate vicinity.
This led us to the only restaurant nearby, El Litoral, and the ultimate carnivorous chow-down of our lives. The Coast, as the name translates, is the epitome of a corner joint. We were greeted warmly by the gregarious waiter/maître d', Martin, and curious stares from the patrons who were obviously not used to strangers, especially hungry gringo tourists, frequenting this hideaway.
Acquainted with the concept of parrillas via internet - Buenos Aires is famous for these establishments - we had heard of the legendary meat consumption.
Parrilla simply means grill, and a huge grate of roasting meat is the centerpiece of any good one, but even after eyeballing the amazing array of flame kissed cuts brazing in the open air kitchen of El Lioral we were not prepared for what was about to be set in front of us.
In an effort to take it easy on our first experience, we attempted to stick to what appeared to be reasonable portions judging from the menu. By pointing at pictures and blithering in our trademark broken Spanish, we ordered Bife de costilla, which is a T-bone steak, and Bife de lomo, which is a fillet that we had read was usually the best in any parrilla.
When they arrived we found them to be very reasonable... for a small army.
Veronica was served a plate loaded with two huge steaks, either one of which would have been the hungry-man special at most steak houses, and I was presented with, as near as I could tell, an entire side of beef. These were accompanied by mashed potatoes and a salad. Luckily we only ordered one of each side dish because they were family style, and by that we mean enough for a family.
While we sat in awe of our plates Martin brought us an array of sauces, or chimichurri, for the meat.
Fantastic flavors of onion, garlic, tomato, and cilantro blended beautifully with the perfectly broiled beef.
Several customers were clearly entertained by our reactions to, and attempts to consume, the Flintstone-like platters set before us. One, a cabbie, even came over for quite an in depth conversation in an amusing, and sometimes confusing mixture of Spanish, English, and Italian.
The ultimate point that he wished to drive home was that this place was the real deal. We could search the entire city and never find a more authentic parrilla. In fact, the word auténtico must have been expressed several dozen times to describe the food, the beer, the clientèle, the staff, the neighborhood, even himself... absolutely everything was auténtico, being pronounced the same no matter which language we were currently babbling at each other.
But we had no doubts to the authenticity of El Litoral without any testimonial from our taxista amigo. The place reeked of it, and the final bill left us completely certain, just over one hundred Argentine pesos, about twenty dollars, for the entire orgy of food.
This must be carnivore heaven.
Paradise or not, after that meat-a-thon, we weren't ready to take on another parrilla for several days. It takes that long to digest half a cow. But we didn't suffer because Buenos Aires is a huge city, over eight million people, and has a vast array of eating opportunities. There is a large Italian community so pizza and pasta are common, but most anything a heart, or stomach, could desire is available. We even found the palace of fried potatoes, El Palacio de la Papa Frita.
Right next to the home of the royal potato a window with a huge open fire surrounded by whole carcasses splayed out for roasting caught our attention.
These were arranged in a disturbing circle of what looked like miniature metal crucifixes. In addition to the bonfire, an enormous grill laden with every imaginable cut of beef, pork, lamb, and chicken sizzling over the coals was featured on the opposite side of the door, making what looked to be the ultimate meat-eater's Macy's Christmas window display.
We figured before we left Argentina we should take the plunge one more time and try one of the fancier carnivore cafes that cater to tourists, so we stepped inside.
La Estancia was the polar opposite of our previous parrilla experience. A large, elegant dining room of linen table clothes set with fine china and silver, and a uniformed staff performing in formal precision.
Going with the program, when in Rome and all that, we ordered the Argentine Barbeque for 1, and for comparison purposes, another Bife de costilla. But before we could get to those main events we were kept busy with a parade of tasty tidbits that come as Servicio de Mesa, or table service. This consisted of a meat pie (in case we weren't going to get enough meat), breads, sauces, and roasted peppers.
Then came the big Kahuna, an enormous platter sizzling on its very own bed of coals was lovingly presented in the center of our table. The dizzying array of chicken, carne asada, sweetbread, kidney, chorizo, veal tripe, blood sausage, and udder, plus the fact that this was the "for 1" version, sent a shiver of impending meat sweats down our spines.
The Bife de costilla was fantastic, even bigger and a little more tender than the El Litoral version, but the "Argentina para uno" was the star of the show.
Not for delectable flavor, actually we found most of it barely edible, but for a completely unique gastric experience.The chicken and beef were basic, tasty but nothing special. Chorizo isn't all that uncommon or adventurous. We had tried blood sausage before, and at least heard about tripe, sweetbread (which is a fancy name for pancreas or other mysterious glands), and kidney consumption, but udder? Holy cow! Literally, holy cow!
Try as we might, we just couldn't find any upside to eating udder. It's simply not good. We discovered later that it is illegal in the United States. The law is concerned with health issues, but it should be banned for plain old bad taste.
We did our best, and to our credit we tried at least a bit of everything on the platter. But there was no finishing it, and not just because it was at least three pounds of animal parts. It was what parts that played a prevalent part in our inability to partake in the particular portions.
Our final verdict was unanimous, go with the neighborhood joint. Not only for the authenticity, food and fun, but also a bill that came to one quarter of the cost of the touristy place.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
YOUR TURN: Which Parrilla would you choose?
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