The Dishes You Can't Miss in Buenos Aires, And the Best Places to Find Them
Buenos Aires is famous for its grass-fed beef and its intense Malbec wine. Most visitors to the so-called “Paris of South America” have no problem finding those, setting aside at least one meal for them at one of the city’s internationally known parrillas (steak houses). But with its unusual mix of European and indigenous influences, Argentina actually offers a dizzying buffet of more specialities that visitors ought to be ordering, too. Buenos Aires' range of delicious, only-in-Argentina dishes will satisfy almost every palate—even vegetarians. The following foods and drinks also define the Argentine culture and character, and these places serve our favorite definitions of each dish. ¡Ay, que rico! (How delicious!)
Empanadas are the classic on-the-go food in Buenos Aires, and the Argentine style of empanada— baked or fried dough stuffed with a variety of fillings— is the paragon among the empanadas in all of Latin America. Typical fillings are beef, chicken, and humita (sweet corn), but you can also find calabaza (butternut squash), blue cheese, and ham with cheese, among others. Each kind of empanada has its own particular repulgue (crust pattern), so you can tell them apart without having to break them open.
Doughs and fillings vary regionally, but the king of empanadas is the salteña, from Salta, which includes a spicy beef version with onions, red pepper, and potato. Ña Serapia (Av. Gral. Las Heras 3357) is run by Héctor Yepez (pictured), a native of Salta who came to Buenos Aires in 1972 when he was just 16. It’s a warm and welcoming hole-in-the-wall of a restaurant. The empanadas here are as authentic as they come.
Most visitors are surprised to find that Buenos Aires is full of fresh pasta shops, but there’s a reason for it. During the great immigration wave from 1880 to 1930, Italians, mostly southern, made up 45.6% of the immigrants coming to Argentina and their influence is notable in the language, the gestures and, of course, the food. It's a case of the Old World meeting the New World: Modern Argentines mix the traditional cooking styles of their Italian grand and great grandparents with personal twists and local ingredients.
The Stagnaro family has been serving homemade pasta in its cozy fine dining restaurant called Il Mattarello (Martín Rodríguez 517), or “the rolling pin” in Italian. It has been in the neighborhood of La Boca for over 25 years. The family opened a second, fancier restaurant in the hip neighborhood of Palermo, but if you want to be pampered by the second and third generations of Stagnaros themselves, we recommend the original.
Another traditional Italian dish that made the crossing was farinata de ceci, or faina, as it was called by the immigrants from Liguria that worked in the ports of Buenos Aires. A thick, savory pancake made from chickpea flour and olive oil and often seasoned with rosemary, faina is eaten with pizza. Porteños, as the natives of Buenos Aires are called, simply order a muzza con faina: a slice of farinata with mozzarella pizza.
There is a lot of competition among pizzerias in Buenos Aires, but if you want to move off the tourist track and eat with the locals, take the subway (subte B) to the Federico Lacroze station in the neighborhood of Chacarita and pay a visit to El Imperio de la Pizza (Avenida Corrientes 6891), which translates as “The Empire of Pizza.”
While we are charting the culinary map of Argentina, we don’t want to forget what many tourists have heard so much about: the asado, or beef. What makes Argentine beef different? It’s grass-fed, distinctively cut, and cooked slowly using only salt on an iron grill called a parrilla (pronounced pa-ree-sha) that drains off excess juices and prevents flare-ups that would burn the meat. An experienced, trained asador (“grill master”) makes all the difference.
If you are looking for top quality and generous portions at a place that won’t rush a thing, we recommend Rio Alba (Cerviño 4499), a family-run parrilla restaurant on a quiet street in the Palermo district. To sample a variety of cuts, assuming you have a big appetite, order the parrillada mixta (“mixed grill”).
Originally from France, where it was considered a varietal for blending, Malbec was brought to Argentina in the mid-19th Century and after more than a hundred years of cultivation in the province of Mendoza, found in the foothills of the Andes, the wine has come into its own and been adopted as a native child of the nation. The reserves are warm with hints of chocolate, vanilla, leather, and tobacco, but if you are pairing with beef, have a young wine where the aromas and taste of plum and berries balances nicely with the savory qualities of the grilled meat.
Tierra Mendocina (Carlos Calvos 451), owned and operated by Flavio, who grew up in the heart of wine country, not only sells an enormous variety of wines from small family vineyards, but also offers excellent and economical wine tastings. Or go next door to the Old Market, where he has a stand for sharing a glass with a friend.
For Argentina’s only wine that is derived from an indigenous grape: Torrontés. Cultivated predominantly in the northern region of Salta, the Chicha Criolla grape gives this unique white wine a wonderful and surprising combination of a flowery, peachy aroma with a very dry taste. Torrontés is perfect for fish and spicy foods, but it is also a pleasure to drink on its own.
Visit the charming Nilson wine bar (Carlos Calvo 463) in San Telmo to try a glass and ask Samantha, the house sommelier, or her partner Sergio for a recommendation. On Thursday nights they have live jazz duets, making for an ideal night out with the locals.
Argentina can do all sorts of wonderful things with its fine meats. Choripan, literally a chorizo sausage sandwich, is the pride of the Argentine working class, Summer is not summer without the smell of the ubiquitous chorizo wafting from grills everywhere: in public plazas and parks, at soccer games, or from makeshift picnics on the sidewalk.
Choripan is traditionally eaten with chimichurri sauce or salsa criolla (an onion relish), but you can try fancied-up versions, all a sausage lover's delight, at La Choripanería (Bolivar between Carlos Calvo and Estados Unidos) in the Old Market in San Telmo.
Pastel al barro
Along with empanadas, pasta, and pizza, another distinctive option is pastel al barro, a rich mix that includes mashed potato, squash, corn, and onions, baked in a deep clay casserole pot. This is very much a northern dish with versions that differ between the provinces of San Juan, Mendoza, Jujuy, and Salta.
Pan y Arte (Boedo 876), in the neighborhood of Boedo, offers a great selection of pasteles along with other specialties from Mendoza. It has a theater and an art gallery, too, to double up your taste of local culture.
Before ending with a trio of sweets, we recommend at least trying the very bitter infusion drink that is as Argentina as soccer and tango: yerba mate. Predating the arrival of Europeans, mate takes its name the Quechua word mati which, among other things, refers to the dried squash gourd from which the infusion is traditionally sucked through a straw. Though an acquired taste for many, sipping mate is seen as an act of friendship—you share the drink from the same gourd or traditional vessel, using the same straw as the other people in your group.
The trick to trying yerba mate is that it is, in general, not something that one orders at a café or restaurant, but rather something one makes at home. If you are feeling adventurous, there is a student-run café by the School of Social Science in the neighborhood of Constitucion called Bar la Dignidad (Humberto Primo 1290) where they have mate gourds and help you prepare the drink.
Dulce de leche
After you’ve tried yerba mate, you may wonder how Argentines enjoy such a bitter concoction. The truth is that many people drink it while eating facturas (pastries) with dulce de leche, an addictive, smooth caramel spread that seems to be on or in every other dessert (like this one). Traditionally made by simmering and mixing milk and sugar for seven hours, it is as good as it sounds if you have a sweet tooth.
For a traditional Argentine breakfast or merienda (afternoon tea) of facturas, spend an hour at Café de los Angelitos (Rivadavia 2100) in Balvanera, just a five-minute walk from the Argentine National Congress. The café, established in 1890, served as a regular hangout for legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel, and his guitarist friend, José Razzano, from 1912 to 1930.
Sure, helado is just Spanish for ice cream, but adding in the Italian influence, Buenos Aires is heaven for heladerías artesenales that serve a gelato-like ice cream that is to die for. Along with the traditional flavors we all know and love, expect to find sambayón (an Argentine variation on the Italian custardy zabaione), mascarpone, and of course lots of versions of dulce de leche.
Heladería Boutique Buffalá (Avenida Pueyrredon 2100), in the neighborhood of Recoleta, takes things a step further with flavors with names such as Moulin Rouge, Wonder Woman, and the Oreo-mixed Valentín. What's the secret to its recipes? The right mix of cow milk to buffalo milk.
We finish things off with an Argentine sweet that owes it origins to the almost 800 years of Muslim rule over Spain: the alfajor. The name comes from the Hispanic-Arabic word al-hasú, which means “filling.” That’s a good way to describe a dessert that is basically a healthy dollop of dulce de leche between two cookies. The permutations are many and delightful: thick cake-like ones, thin wafer ones, cornmeal cookies with coconut shavings, quince jam filling, dipped in chocolate… to name just a few.
For a great selection of on-premises baked alfajores, visit the century-old bakery La Pasta Frola (Avenida Corrientes 1365), which is in the theater district just three blocks from the Obelisk and the widest avenue in the world, La Nueve de Julio.