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Drinking Out Loud

¡Hola! from Buenos Aires

Exploring Argentina’s food and wine—though still in search of a good steak house wine list

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 16, 2010

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—One of the privileges of a writer’s life—especially if he or she has no children, no pets and a spouse who loves to travel—is the ability to “up sticks,” as the British used to say, and move elsewhere. Longtime readers may recall reading about just such forays of mine—to Piedmont (one year), Venice (eight months), Melbourne (four months), and now, for an anticipated three months, to Buenos Aires.

Why Argentina, you ask? Actually, of all the questions I’ve received from friends and relations, that is the one question nobody asked. Apparently, the word is out on the wonderfulness of Argentina as a place and the Argentines as a people. And, let’s be honest, the word is also out about how wonderfully inexpensive Argentina is for those of us trading woebegone American bucks for even more economically bedraggled Argentine pesos.

However pleasurable it is to be in a place where the almighty U.S. dollar actually still is mighty (the last time I enjoyed that experience I still had hair, which will give you an idea of just how long ago it was), money is not why we moved here. It helps, sure. But the real reason we came is Buenos Aires itself and, equally, the Argentines.

Buenos Aires is famously European in style, most particularly Parisian. This is oft-mentioned, and rightly. But for this American-who’s-lived-in-Paris, the attraction of Buenos Aires lies in what might be called its “intactness.” While Manhattan and San Francisco have seen radical transformations in the past two decades (who ever thought that New York’s Bowery district, famous for its seemingly eternal flophouses, would become fashionable?), Buenos Aires seems to have retained much of its residential neighborhood character.

Mind you, this is not to say that the place is stagnant. Or that it isn’t subject to some of the same forces that have reshaped other urban landscapes. Indeed, we’ve rented a duplex apartment in what is indisputably the hippest, most newly gentrified neighborhood in the city, called Palermo Soho. A former manufacturing and warehouse district, Palermo Soho now has the highest concentration of (very good) restaurants in the city, along with an abundance of retail shops. Sound familiar? Call me a hypocrite, I confess that I like Palermo Soho’s transformation, although I’m acutely aware that such change, which all vital cities everywhere experience, comes at a price.

So why Argentina, you ask? The answer is obvious: the wine. Followed closely by the food. Allow me to disabuse you of the notion that all the Argentines eat is beef. Granted, they do love the stuff. But, at least in a big city like Buenos Aires (much less so in the countryside), the food selection is much greater. Around the corner from us is a Moroccan restaurant. Italian restaurants abound. And, surprisingly, there are a fair number of sushi places.

Still, you can’t beat the beef. The Argentine steak houses, called parrillas, are very nearly houses of worship. The city has hundreds of them. Happily, there’s a particularly high concentration of parrillas near us in an adjoining neighborhood called Palermo Hollywood.

Dining at an Argentine steak house is like eating at the Flintstones’. The portions are huge. But these bronto-steaks are from grass-fed cattle, so somehow (don’t ask me exactly how) you manage to slice and dice your way through the expanse of steak and yet not feel quite as stuffed as with America’s corn-fed beef. There’s less fat, obviously.

Oh, and there’s one other thing: The Argentines seemingly never met an innard they won’t consume with gusto. For example, the other night we went to a parrilla called El Bonpland in Palermo Hollywood. Although a new establishment (founded in 2008), you’d never know it from the older male waiters and its air of permanency. The sidewalk tables were packed.

A long blackboard in the interior lists specialties, one of which is proudly proclaimed as “Super Chinchulines.” You see them in every parrilla: grilled intestines, what we know in the American South as chitterlings or chitlins. (I’m not a squeamish eater, but I’ve never cared for the item.) Kidneys and sweetbreads are standard fare on every parrilla menu.

The attraction of these parrilla, for locals and tourists alike, is the sheer warmth of the place. You come dressed as you are. Children are everywhere, as are grandparents, dating couples and old men dining alone but contentedly. A parrilla is a “kings and commoners” kind of place. Not everything is Flintstonian, by the way. At El Bonpland, my wife had brochette de provolone—a skewer of fist-sized chunks of Argentine-made provolone cheese wrapped in strips of bacon and grilled over live coals. (I had tira de asado, long strips of grilled ribs cut thinly across the bone.)

So far, I’m sorry to say, I have yet to find a parrilla with a great wine list. (If you can recommend one, please let me know.) Unlike the better American steak houses, which now specialize in extensive selections of red wines, the homey unpretentiousness of Argentine parrillas seems to inhibit wine adventurousness. The choices too often are across-the-board offerings (Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) from just a few big Mendoza wine labels such as Trapiche, Catena Zapata, Nieto Senetiner and the like.

Are these wines—the Malbecs in particular—good? Yes, they are; I drink them with pleasure. But I’d like to find more of the choices that I find at what I now consider my local wine store, a place that, confusingly, sports a French name (Autremonde) yet specializes exclusively in high-end Argentine wines. “Try this Cabernet Franc,” said shop owner Victor Daniel Nastasi. “It’s from Bodega del Desierto in the La Pampa province. It’s the only winery out there. It’s totally unique in Argentina.”

He was sure right about that. And it’s aptly named, too. The vineyard is in a desert (the elegant label is a sepia-toned depiction of baked, caked, cracked earth) about 650 miles southwest of Buenos Aires in the vast, flat center of Argentina. California winemaker Paul Hobbs is the winemaking consultant, by the way.

It was a good recommendation. The 2005 Cabernet Franc from Bodega del Desierto—the label reads “25/5 Cabernet Franc La Pampa,” the 25/5 business a reference to the nearest town, called 25 de Mayo—is lovely stuff: distinctively varietal with just an (attractive) edge of Cabernet Franc’s herbaceous quality, a pretty scent and taste of cherry and, mercifully, little apparent oak. Stylistically, it’s a pure play, with no “Hey, look at me!” winemaker flourishes.

But can you find this Cabernet Franc at a parrilla? Not yet—or at least not yet by me. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up on a steak house wine list near you, as Bodega del Desierto is exported to the States. If nothing else, it shows that Argentina is more than Malbec and mountains.

Dave Lenweaver
skaneateles, ny usa —  February 16, 2010 1:36pm ET
Matt,

I had the pleasure of touring Buenos Aires 2 years ago while working for an importer and enjoyed the city immensely! The people are wonderful and the food exquisite and "honest." One place I remember well is Cabina Las Lilas in Puerto Madero...and i believe their wine list was more extensive than most. Fell in love with late harvest Torrontes (tardio) and the mid level roses available on most wine lists. The highlight of my trip was visiting Salta to the north - a dining experience of note was at Jose Balcarce, where the chef specializes in high altitude cuisine. Stop by La Posta de las Cabrisas on your way to Cafayate wine country for some fresh goat cheese. Cafayate is worth the long drive from salta...must visit michel torino while there. breathtaking.
Courtney Cochran
San Francisco, CA —  February 16, 2010 1:42pm ET
Sounds amazing, Matt. I'll look forward to reading about your coming adventures here. :)

Robert Gott
Doral/Florida —  February 16, 2010 3:38pm ET
Matt,

One place I can recommend in the area would be Don Julio. Although the wine list is not huge they have some excellent offerings on the list (this is where I had my first bottle of Mendel which is excellent). Try it out, it should be an easy walk from where you live.
Alberto Consigliere
Vi?a del Mar, Chile —  February 16, 2010 4:40pm ET
Matt,

I also love BsAs.
You should go to Happening, and expensive parrilla at Puerto Madero (Alicia Moreau de Justo 310 - Ciudad de Buenos Aires Tel: 4319-8712/5), a good wine selection will wait for you. Also try in your neiborhood La Cabrera (Cabrera 5127 - Ciudad de Buenos Aires
Tel: 4832-5754).
Michael Evans
Mendoza, Argentina —  February 16, 2010 4:41pm ET
Matt -

For steak houses, I can second Don Julio. Also check out La Brigada. Best wine lists overall include Sucre, Tomo 1, and Thymus.

And if you are headed to Mendoza, 1884/Mallman and our place, The Vines of Mendoza (100 wines by the glass).

Enjoy!
Jose Manuel Ortega
Argentina —  February 16, 2010 8:09pm ET
Welcome to Argentina. It seems that you will be an expert in Buenos Aires soon. But Argentina does not stop in BA. Do try to travel as much as you can. There are amazing places here. Do not leave the country without visiting Glaciar Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz. It is one of the most amazing sightseeing experiences. Salta, apart from being an exceptional wine region, is incredible for its beauty. Iguazu Falls will also be special. But there are so many other places worth visiting: Bariloche, Misiones, Peninsula Valdez, etc. You could spend the three months travelling and would not hit a bad place. Obviously, I left the best for last: Mendoza. I was born in Spain and I have been living in Mendoza for only three years. I could not have selected a better place to live: the Andes, the weather, the wines, but most importantly its people.
Enjoy your stay in the country!
David Field
Lima, Perú —  February 16, 2010 8:53pm ET
Matt,

I strongly recommend "El palacio de la papa frita"

http://www.elpalacio-papafrita.com.ar

I agree with you about the wine lists available in BA could use a bit more creativity.

Have you had the chance to try Bodegas Chacras Pinot Noir?
Best in the Southern Hemisphere some have said.
Jason Carey
willow, ny usa —  February 17, 2010 1:43am ET
I was Just there.. I don't think you will really find that.. They are more like the French in the Respect they really only drink their own...
By the way check out an awesome Peruvian restaurant.. very simple but the best fish soup...

Status Restaurant..
Address: Virrey Cevallos 178, Congreso, Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires
Phone: 11/4382-8531

And
Check out the website saltshaker.net for some interesting other restaurant ideas.
Maria Loson
Argentina —  February 17, 2010 12:26pm ET
Dear Matt and Cabernet Franc lovers:

Here are the Parrillas in Buenos Aires where you can find our 25/5 Cabernet Franc.

La Cabaña
Don Julio
Mirasol de la Recova
Mirasol del Puerto
Al Carbón
Club del Progreso

Natalia (proud team member of Bodega del Desierto)
nfarallo@bodegadeldesierto.com.ar

Ari Glazer
Florida —  February 17, 2010 12:52pm ET
When we were there, the best wine list was probably at Sotto Voce (we dined at both locations;

La Cabrera was the best Parilla we ate at, followed by Don Julio - thanks Rob.

Resto - was probably the best dining experience of our trip - I believe we had an Achaval Ferrer there.
Koa Communications
San Francisco —  February 17, 2010 6:09pm ET
Hi Matt - Wonderful post! Full disclosure here - my firm represents Argento out of Mendoza. I'd be remiss if I did not mention that you can grab some of these wonderful Argento wines (Malbec, Torrontes, Bonarda, Pinot Grigio, Chard and Cab) at local stores like Jumbo, Disco and Supermercado Vea - they aren't listed in any BA restos yet - but should be soon! Instead, enjoy these wines if you have a BYOB resto OR naturally at home! www.argentowine.com. Salud!
Thomas Schaal
CA —  February 17, 2010 7:11pm ET
Hi Matt,

We visited Buenos Aires over the 2009-2010 holiday season. The best place that we dined, by far, in the two weeks that we were in BA was Grand Bar Danzon (by a wide margin). Very high quality, well-chosen wine list and the food was incredible. The worst place that we dined, by far, was their sister restaurant Sucre.

Many of the Argentinian wines that we tried were wonderful, although we did not travel to wine region of Mendoza. We had plenty of wonderful Malbecs and Malbec blends, but we also sampled many of the wonderful Argentinian Torrontes and roses.

We also tried some of the wines from the wine country in Uruguay, located just north of Montevideo (take the ferry from BA). Some very nice wines are being created from the tannat grape varietal, and all the wines were beautifully paired with food at Bodega Bouza. Their 2008 albarino was quite remarkable, too. We stayed for lunch at Bodega Bouza...it was a great overall experience with the winery tour, tasting flights, and very high quality food. The best parrilla (with the best steaks) that we ate at during the entire trip was El Palenque in the Montevideo "old city".

Enjoy your trip!
Francine Kowalsky
New York, NY, USA —  February 18, 2010 9:08am ET
Hi Matt
Very lucky man! I am about to go down there for 2 weeks to see all our wineries. I recommend going to Cabana las Lilas, La Cabrera and of course La Brigada -- all very classic steakhouses. La Brigada is really an experience. Also along the Costa Nera Norte area there are a bunch of Rodizio style places for all you can eat meat by the river, great views! As for Cabernet Franc, Trapiche's Broquel makes a great one -- in Argentina it's known as Fond de Cave and you can find it on a lot of the better steakhouse wine lists.
Edwin Wu
Lima, Peru —  February 18, 2010 5:25pm ET
Dear Matt,

I happpen to be a frequent visitor to BA. Since Lima is only 4 hrs away it definitely makes it possible to enjoy the city: their restaurants, wines & nightlife in general.

I have found the best wine list at Nectarine in Recoleta. A small french restaurant where the food is excellent. My favorite Italian restaurant would be Sottovoce (one in Recoleta, another in Pto. Madero).

For parrillas look for Cabrera (two locations in the Palermo district) and La Cabaña where the sweetbreads and the local bred kobe/wagyu is very good.

You can also find very good peruvian restaurants as well. Look for Astrd & Gaston (which has an extensive wine list), Osaka, a peruvian japanese fusion cousine and Pozo Santo with classic peruvian food.

I hope you enjoy it!!!!




Thomas Matthews
New York City —  February 18, 2010 5:45pm ET
This response is exactly why we have instituted a comments system -- to harness the wisdom of crowds. It's impressive to see how much experience our members have in Argentina -- makes me want to go!
Matt Kramer
Oregon —  February 19, 2010 8:09am ET
Muchichimas gracias, todos. (I hope I got that right; everything I try to say in Spanish somehow seems to come out closer to Italian!)

Anyway, I’m very grateful—and touched—by all of your comments. Believe me, I intend to follow up on everyone’s suggestions. Clearly, an awful lot of you have covered the ground in Buenos Aires.

I’ll try to reciprocate as best I can in the various “Drinking Out Loud” columns to come.
Mark Krieger
Lincoln, NE, USA —  February 19, 2010 8:12pm ET
Wow, I have been trying to get my wife to go south to BA rather than east to Europe for years!! Congratulations as I am green from head to toe. I started getting serious about wine a couple of years ago and transformed by myself a former 15 x 20 coal room in our tudor home into a Cellar. Now, the question, where to get the information to buy the wines without blind luck. I got a Wine Spectator subscript as a gift and spend FAC on my proch reading the same with a new wine each week. I found myself drawn to your writing and advice quickly and have been buying and enjoying the wines you find and describe in each article. Recently I have acquired the "wines to drink before you die" and shared it with my beer drinking friends. I bought three of each and will be hosting a party series at my house drinking one a week so they can all die knowing they have fulfilled your suggestions!! Keep up the work as there are those out here in fly-over country that really enjoy your insight. Stay safe and enjoy your time there. Mark
Dan Perlman
Buenos Aires —  February 20, 2010 9:33am ET
Ahh, if only it were still true that all the steakhouses here served grass-fed free-range beef. With the advent of feedlots (in imitation and at the urging of various nortemericano interests), and that with the various political problems between the government and the ranchers, Argentina is now importing a large amount of its beef, the percentage is now down to not much over 50% of the beef served, and dropping steadily.

In terms of great steakhouses with great wine lists - check out Don Julio in Palermo, where the current owner, Pablo, son of the founder, is also one of the city's more respected sommeliers.
Steven Haught
Oklahoma City, OK USA —  February 23, 2010 1:25pm ET
My wife and I were there last May. Don Julio has the best wine list for a stak house in Palermo.
Jonathan Larson
winter park, colorado —  February 23, 2010 9:55pm ET
matt,

i know of a couple places a little to the north in campana you may find interesting. i can put you in contact with my friend, a retired argentine engineer turned full time wine and food geek. if interested contact me at jldm@rkymtnhi.com
Mihnea I Vasilache
UK —  February 24, 2010 1:40pm ET
La Cabana in Recoleta

www.lacabanabuenosaires.com.ar

Extensive wine list, somewhat expensive and stiff but very good nonetheless
Craig Mason
X —  February 25, 2010 3:44pm ET
Will you still be writing for the Oregonian?
Matt Kramer
Oregon —  February 26, 2010 1:31pm ET
Hola Amigos:

Thanks for all of your comments. It’s a bit awkward to reply to everyone individually. So please allow me to jump around a bit.

Several of you recommended the parilla (steakhouse) restaurant Don Julio. And how right you are! It’s just a few blocks from our digs in Palermo Soho and it serves some of the best steak I have yet had in Buenos Aires.

As for La Cabrera, I haven’t yet made it there. It’s a very famous parilla, of course, and it’s currently at the top of our list to visit. (A local chef recommended that I check out Parilla Peña, by the way. Anybody been there?)

As for the other restaurant recommendations, well, I’m working on them! I’ll be going to the much-touted Peruvian/Japanese fusion place called Osaka in the near future.

Dan Perlman commented that the amount of traditional grass-fed beef in Argentina is declining rapidly. Quite honestly, this was news to me. So I am now planning on pursuing this matter, as I think that it will make for an interesting column. (After all, you’ve got to have some beef with your Malbec, right? And just as with wine, it should be the “right” stuff.)

Jonathan Larson offered to put me in touch with his friend in Campana (which is about 50 miles northwest of Buenos Aires) Thanks, Jonathan. That’s very kind of you. I’ll keep you and him in mind if I head up there.

Again, thanks for all of your suggestions. They are sincerely appreciated.

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