Photo by Terrence Henry
Argentina has a reputation for being a "steak only" type of place, a country where the cuisine doesn't really extend beyond a grilled slab of meat, with a little salt (if any) added to the mix.
Yes, on nearly every block, you'll find a steakhouse (parrilla) that uses a wood-fired grill, but next to those steaks on the grill, you'll find short ribs (a prized cut here, but the last one I would ever think of throwing on the grilll), chorizo sausage, blood sausage, kidneys, intestines, and sweetbreads.
As with the steaks, these are all prepared by grilling with just a little salt. There's no brining, marinating, or sautéing, just the grill. There's no black pepper, no option of a mushroom sauce or burgundy reduction. Things are kept simple: Meat. Fire. A Little Salt.
This approach works well for the steaks and sausage, but for me at least, I'm used to having my offal go through more of a transformation process before setting my fork and knife upon it. I like my sweetbreads to have a nice breading, to have been soaked ahead of time to remove the blood and mellow out the taste. I like them to taste like a rich, creamy morsel of buttery fried chicken, I guess, instead of the Argentine preparation which is a little to close to the thymus gland's original form. (And the same goes for the kidneys and intestines. The blood sausage is great, though.)
Which is all a long way of saying that when you come to Argentina, you are likely to be eating steak. A lot of it. And so herewith a guide for enjoying steak here:
1. Temperature. Argentines generally like their steaks cooked medium well to well-done (much like Obama likes his burgers), partly I suspect because they leave some fat on them and like to render it down. If you prefer your steak rare to medium rare, like I do, you'll want to ask for it either "vuelta y vuelta" (basically, a "turn and a turn" of the steak on the grill), which is a true rare, or "jugoso," which technically translates to rare but actually ends up medium rate, or all too often, medium or medium well, in which case you'll need...
2. Patience. Odds are (I would put them at 7 to 1) that your steak will come out one to two temperature grades above what you ordered. I usually smile and politely tell our waiter that the steak isn't cooked properly, and then they take it back. A few minutes later, we'll have a different steak on the table, cooked right. It's important to not be afraid of sending your steak back here, because you'll run into the problem regularly.
3. Tools. Argentine beef is (mostly) free-range and grass-fed, and I think it's a good idea the first few times to take the steak as they serve it, and add just a little salt, to get to know the delicate flavor. But come steak number three or so, you'll be wanting to add a little depth. One option, which won't be on your table, is ground black pepper. But if you ask your waiter, they'll be happy to bring one for you (most of the more popular steakhouses have them). Or you could just pack your own heat.
Another option is Argentina's steak sauce, chimichurri, a tasty pesto of sorts made with parsley, garlic, cracked red pepper, oil, and vinegar. This adds a little heat and flavor, and is most welcome. But many places cheat and use a dry mix of the spices to which they add oil and vinegar, which mutes the flavor and gives you a brown sauce. So I usually ask if they make their chimichurri fresh and in-house before adding it to my order.
4. Wine. On nearly every wine list, you can find a decent Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon for around ten dollars, an excellent deal. While more and more Argentines are choosing beer to go with their steak (thinking that it's cheaper, and there's more to drink), wine pairs so much better than watery beer, and won't fill you up as much.
5. Share. Steaks here are cut to a size that make them perfect to share. Since you'll want to have some fries, provoleta and maybe a chorizo to start your meal, and need to save room for dessert, the 16 to 20 ounces of steak are more than enough for two people. Some steakhouses like La Cabrera recommend sharing all of their steaks, but also offer a half-portion for solo diners.
6. Cut. Beef is butchered differently here, so there isn't always a direct translation of one cut, i.e. I can't seem to figure out where to find hanger steak here. Cuts that we enjoy are Ojo de Bife (ribeye) and Bife de Chorizo (strip steak), but there are many others. I don't favor the Tira de Asado (short ribs) too much, this is a cut that is meant for braising, not grilling. Nor do I often go for Lomo (tenderloin), because it has less flavor than the ribeye or strip. But your mileage may vary.
7. Not All Parillas Are Created Equal. While they're ubiquitous, some clearly stand out from the rest. We've enjoyed the immensely popular La Cabrera, any of the Las Cholas family of steakhouses (Las Cholas and Las Cabritas in the Las Canitas neighborhood; Las Cabras in Palermo); and we've had some good steaks at El Primo (also in Palermo and Las Canitas) and Campobravo (also in both neighborhoods). Others have been less than stellar, however. We tend to look for parrillas that are drawing good crowds on weeknights (nearly all parrillas are crowded on weekends), and then take a walk through to see what people are ordering.
Surprisingly, we haven't tired of steak yet. I doubt we'll ever be in a position again to eat such quality beef at such low prices, but I'm sure our arteries are looking forward to a break soon.