After their football team, the object of Argentines’ national pride is their meat – and they have every right to revel in one of the deadly sins. It’s widely accepted to be some of the best in the world and, as a consequence, they also indulge in another deadly sin: gluttony. Argentines, until they were overtaken by the Uruguayans last year, were biggest consumers of beef in the world. An average of 70kg was eaten by every man, woman and child each a year. It’s now a mere 56kg (Uruguayan eat 59kg) a year, but that’s still a lot.
And while football, tango and crazy nights out are often reason enough for visitors to go to Argentina, mostly it’s the food, and that means meat. The word ‘steak’ is forever associated with Argentina and no one I have spoken to has ever left disappointed. Why?
There was a book a while ago by Toby Green called Saddled with Darwin – it’s an entertaining romp around Uruguay, Argentina and Chile mostly on horseback. There’s a passage that stood out. Green was discussing beef with a gaucho in charge of several hundred head of cattle. The gaucho was utterly taken aback when he asked: “What do they eat?” The open mouthed cowboy replied, “Grass. What do they eat in England?” Green reeled off a list of ingredients that I can’t even bear to recite. I know cows don’t smile (well, I’ve never seen one), but given a few more muscles in their (delicious) cheeks, they probably would. I’ve also heard an Argentinian butcher explain that because the pampas is so flat, there’s never any strain on the muscles – perfect for meat. In short, the meat is damn good.
It is, however, somewhat misleading to assume that Argentines eat steak all the time. They certainly eat meat all the time (with brief forays into pizza or pasta), but the steak as we know it – rib eye, sirloin, porterhouse – are not as common as you’d imagine. Firstly, the cuts are totally different to the US, UK and France. Look around at any restaurant in Argentina, and chances are the locals are not cutting through a sirloin, but cheaper cuts, such as asado (ribs) or vacio (flank) – and that’s not always for budgetary reasons.
The principal steak cuts, as those from the UK and US would recognise them, are bife de chorizo – nothing at all to do with a chorizo sausage, but a strip loin steak or top loin. It’s usually sold by the gram, with a nice layer of fat running through it. Other steak-like cuts are lomo, which is the tenderloin, and the bife ancho or ojo de bife, literally ‘eye of beef’, or rib eye. The bife de costilla is a T-bone and cuadril, a rump roast.
All delicious and tender parts of the cow, but chances are the dishes plonked down throughout Buenos Aires are not these prime cuts, but the aforementioned asado or this blogger’s favourite, vacio.
The asado de tira is perhaps the most popular. They are the ribs and are cut very short. It’s cheap, fatty and full of bones, but, as many aficionados claim, it’s the tastiest cut. Vacio is the flank, a cut that is becoming slowly more popular in gastropubs and upmarket restaurants in the UK and US. The meat is chewier than a bife de chorizo, but it’s much tastier than a tender steak. Another cut becoming marginally popular outside Argentina is known as a skirt steak, or entraña. It’s thin, chewy and packs a flavourful punch.
It’s the quality of the beef, of course, that really matters. As we’ve said, even in a cheap places, chances are the cow would have been a content one. But some places really stand out for certain cuts. In Palermo, my favourite is Don Julio (Guatemala 4691), a classic joint – try the bife de chorizo. No doubt you’ll end up in La Cabrera (Cabrera 5127), so there’s barely any need to recommended it – it is one of the best. In San Telmo, El Desnivel (Defensa 855) is an enduring classic and great for vacio. It’s more, erm, ‘atmospheric’ than the last two recommendations and quintessentially Buenos Aires.
Other great restaurants on the list include the San Telmo joints La Brigada (Estados Unidos 465), famous for its offal, or try the entraña Gran Parrilla del Plata. A classic in Palermo is El Trapiche (Paraguay 5099). It’s a curve ball, but the vitel tone – cold roast beef in a mayonnaise and tuna sauce (trust me) – is astonishing for a starter.
Here’s a tasty steak with roasted vegetables recipe from the folks at Argento Wine to try at home:
Jarilla Scented Sirloin of Beef With Sun-dried Tomato Ratatouille, Grilled Vegetables and Chimichurri
Ingredients (Serves 4 people)
1kg Sirloin of beef
100g Jarilla or mixed herbs (25g each of rosemary, thyme, chili and garlic powder)
1 tablespoon Flour
100g Sun-dried tomatoes, hydrated for 1 hour and chopped
1 Carrot, sliced
1 bunch Parsley
1 sprig Thyme
2 teaspoons Dried oregano
2 Garlic cloves
2 teaspoons Dried chili powder
3 tablespoons White wine vinegar
Salt & pepper
- Sirloin of beef: Marinate the beef in olive oil and jarilla (or mixed herbs) for 24 hours. Cook the beef on a hot barbecue or grill pan for 3 minutes on each side, and allow to rest for 5 minutes.
- Potato and sun-dried tomato ratatouille: Peel and grate the potatoes, add the egg and flour, and mix well. Add the chopped sun-dried tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Pour the mixture into a baking dish and cover. Cook in the oven at 200°C for 20 minutes. Remove the cover and cook for a further 10 minutes or until golden brown.
- Chimichurri sauce: Add 1 tablespoon of salt to 1 cup of hot water. Separately, ground together the parsley, thyme, oregano and garlic in a bowl. Add the chili powder and 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper. Add the mixture to the hot water and allow to cool; then add the white wine vinegar and 1 cup of olive oil.
- Grilled vegetable: Grill the leeks, carrots, zucchinis and tomatoes in olive oil.
- Place the sirloin, ratatouille and grilled vegetables on a warm plate and top with the chimichurri sauce.
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