Contrary to popular belief, Argentine food isn’t always about steaks, empanadas and pizzas. OK, it is usually about steaks, empanadas and pizzas, yet some diversity does exist. A huge number of different ethnicities are represented in Buenos Aires’ cultural make-up – and where there’s people, there’s food.
A whistle-stop culinary world tour is possible without leaving the capital. You can spot Italian, French, Greek, Mexican, Japanese and Armenian restaurants without even leaving Palermo. However, for a more authentic experience, I prefer the ethnic barrios within the multi-cultural city – sampling soup and street food in Chinatown, chowing down on ceviche and chillies in Abasto and coupling Korean food with karaoke in Flores.
This is my passport to culinary happiness in Buenos Aires.
Variedad de comida; Photo courtesy of Fabio Téllez.
Finding the restaurants in Barrio Coreano Flores and Floresta is an adventure in itself. You’ll feel very Bill Murray in Lost in Translation* as a lack of decent signage practically classifies the hidden eateries as speakeasies. You’d never venture in unless you knew what kimchee nirvana and spicy porkiness was awaiting you. Once you do, you’ll be back – like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
(*I’m aware that Lost in Translation was set in Japan, not Korea.)
HAN HUK GUAN, Saraza 2135, Flores (map)
This resto has the most authentic Korean food in Buenos Aires, with all-you-can-eat BBQ for 70 pesos per person. The meat is incredibly tender and well marinated. They also give more than 15 side dishes.
CARABOBO 1575, Flores (map)
This is a dingy, but authentic, all-you-can-eat Korean tabletop bbq experience. To be safe, get a cab to the above address. There’s no menu here, the food just keeps coming – from seaweed, kimchi and oysters to raw beef, pork and octopus. For a happy end to the night, cross the street to the infamous Chess Karaoke Club at Carabobo 1548 and sing Roxy Music’s “More Than This”.
Carabobo; Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lazar.
KIL CHONG, Campana 714, Flores (map)
Another place hidden away in Flores, this one has just 16 dishes, including bulgogi (grilled beef) and bibim bap (my favourite). Kil Chong’s USP is that it makes its own kochujang, the fermented red pepper soyabean paste used in Korean dishes.
CASA MUN, Palermo (website)
Chef Mun runs a Pan-Asian fusion puerta cerrada (closed door restaurant). He vows by Flores for key ingredients, especially a Korean store called CHUNG ANG in Floresta. In addition to their regular stuff, the owner can find things for you.
BI WON, Junin 548, Congreso (map)
Koreatown is a pain to get to and not in the safest part of town. If you don’t fancy venturing to Flores, just blocks from Recoleta is the city’s best-known Korean restaurant. The Asian community flock here, which is a great sign of authenticity. Order bulgogi (meat to bbq at the table) and dolsot bibimbap. For a spice injection go for kimchi soup with pork. Last time we went, none of us remember paying the bill after getting drunk on soju and whiskeys.
Bi Won in Congreso; Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lazar.
BBQ TOWN, Juramento 1656, Belgrano (map) (facebook)
Another taxi-friendly Korean option exists in Chinatown. BBQ Town does exactly what it says on the tin – and the portions are massive and spicy. Do it as a warm up and then get yourself to Koreatown next time. For more on BBQ Town visit Pick Up The Fork.
Probably the littlest Chinatown there is, Barrio Chino is situated alongside the train tracks at the intersection of Juramento and Arribeños in Belgrano. Although home to some terrible excuses for Chinese restaurants, if you know where to look you can satiate your craving for exotic spices, fresh fish, hard to find Asian veg and spicy food – plus, purchase mini top hats, stuffed birds and all the kitsch you could ever want.
Barrio Chino; Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lazar.
LAI LAI, Arribeños 2168, Belgrano (map)
This is Chef Mun’s favourite Chinese resto. He recommends the hot and sour soup and kung pao chicken as they make them pretty spicy.
Lai Lai in Barrio Chino; Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lazar.
HONG KONG STYLE, Montañeses 2149, Belgrano (map)
This is my favourite Chinese restaurant in Buenos Aires, palitos (chopsticks) down – especially for dim sum. Order one of each, a hot and sour soup and ask for the spicy chilli sauce. For more on Hong King Style visit Pick Up The Fork.
ASIA ORIENTAL SUPERMARKET, Mendoza 1677, Belgrano (map)
Locals say the place to eat real Chinese is a supermarket. Shop for spices, then cram onto a bench and slurp a noodle soup from the back eating area. Make sure you also order fideos de sesamo (sesame noodles). Beware: the entrance stinks of fish.
Asia Oriental Supermarket; Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lazar.
For dessert, I recommend the perfect chilli antidote: melon ice-lollies (aka popsicles for the Americans). Buy from any of the kiosko street counters selling battered prawn skewers and spring rolls. Seriously cooling and only AR$3.
Whilst the master chefs at high-end Peruvian and fusion restaurants like Astrid & Gaston, Chan Chan and Osaka have brought a love of ceviche (raw fish in citrus juices and chilli peppers) to tourists, the truly authentic experience is to be found in the ‘Peruvian hood’ of Abasto – also spiritual home of the tango and Argentine icon Carlos Gardel. Always packed with families demolishing massive platters of riquissimo food, I love the onda of this micro-barrio, and the enthusiasm with which freshly-made salsa verde is being liberally thrown about (ridiculously hot rocoto pepper sauces). Porteños, beware!
Ceviche from Solo Pescados; Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lazar.
SOLO PESCADOS, Anchorena 533, Abasto (map) (website)
This small diner might be opposite the massive Abasto mall, but proves a bigger draw for me. Order the mixed ceviche lenguado (sole = best texture). Warning: ask for date-friendly reduced onions if you intend speaking to anyone at any point in the next 48 hours.
Solo Pescados; Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lazar.
LA RICA VICKY, Ecuador 467, Abasto (map)
For less than 25 pesos you can get the Menú del Día lunch special of chicken soup, a main course, and a cup of chichi corn drink. I recommend el seco de carne (tender, slow cooked beef with pinto beans and rice). Come for the food, but stay for the Peruvian concerts being broadcast.
CARLITOS, Corrientes 3070, Abasto (map)
To munch on pollo a la brasa (Peruvian roasted chicken) to the soundtrack of Andean music on the jukebox, head to Carlitos. It has a largely chicken-based menu, incredible chips and a good lunch menu deal. Random fact: Carlos Gardel used to hang out on this corner.
LOS TRUJILLANITOS, Corrientes 3564, Abasto (map)
If it’s baby goat you prefer, this place might feel hole-in-the-wall, but it’s a killer cabrito place with an unreal goat and bean dish.
Spice aficionados, note the Peruvano and Bolivian street vendors sitting on corners. They have the hottest skinny chillies at the best prices. I go to the Peruvian lady near Abasto shopping mall for aji picantes chicos, huge ginger roots and salsa verde in little plastic baggies.
(I’ll let you into another secret: in Congreso, five elderly ladies sit in front of the plaza selling ceviche out of coolers at lunchtime. The one to look out for is Doña Rosa.)
Pés de galinha; Photo courtesy of Gabriel Gama.
If you’re feeling hardcore and in the mood for some loco market action – as well as chillies, cumbia and chaos – check out the Bolivian market in the barrio of Liniers. Beware though, it tends to be extremely busy, so keep your wits about you whilst munching your way through the deliciously spicy and cheap treats.
Cover photo of Casa China courtesy of Alexandra Lazar.