The Parrillas of Buenos Aires

IMG_2285

“There are gods here beside tango and football or soccer as we call it. There is beef….” – Anthony Bourdain

Grass-fed beef sizzles on the grill. Fruity Malbec swirls into glasses. Waiters scurry with plates and bottles. Customers wait in line at the doorway. Aromatic smoke from the grill wafts under their noses and into the street.

The parrilla is an Argentinian institution. They are on almost every block in Buenos Aires. The word means grill and rhymes with Alicia, and not as I thought with Mariaand, no, not with gorilla, either. Argentinian steakhouses elsewhere in the world try to recreate the ambience, but it rarely travels well.

DSC_0961

A parrilla can be bustling and informal like El Desnivel in San Telmo, where the walls are cluttered with old photographs, tango posters and beer adverts, and the chimichurri comes in a plastic bowl and locals jostle for tables with tourists clutching Lonely Planet guides.

But it could just as well be hushed and slick like Al Carbón in the Microcentro with its blonde wood floor, exposed girders and customers negotiating deals over food which is not just put on the plate but presented.

Or it might be as traditional as El Establo in Retiro with shaded gold lettering on the windows and an interior of wood panelling, landscape paintings and hunting trophies.

IMG_2287

But at the heart of them all is the long grill with a firebox at one end where burning wood glows red hot and the smouldering embers are shovelled up and laid beneath the  slats, which are v-shaped and on a slight incline to drain off excess fat, and the parrillero* uses a pulley to raise and lower the grill to regulate the heat.

By tradition, you might start with sweetbreads or chitterlings cooked on the grill. But the more squeamish can choose things like boquerones (marinaded anchovies), grilled Provoleta cheese sprinkled with dried oregano, slices of prosciutto served with palm hearts, or empanadas, as if you will not have eaten several of those already.

Order bife de chorizo for main and you get a slab of sirloin steak the thickness of three fingers. Ojo de bife gets you ribeye, entraña skirt, vacío flank and lomo fillet or filet mignon.

IMG_2288

Surprisingly in a nation passionate about beef, the steaks tend towards overdone. By default, they come a punto, at best, which is medium well. If you want your steak cooked as it ought to be, you have to ask.

Muy jugoso, literally very juicy, is said to mean rare but is more often interpreted as medium rare. Vuelta y vuelta gets you something closer to the European idea of rare. At the other extreme, cocido is how my dad would have liked it: as if it had dropped into the firebox and been forgotten about.

It is often said that the only condiment needed for the meat is the salt with which it is grilled. But at some parrillas it will come with a bowl of chimichurri, made with finely-chopped parsley and garlic, a hint of chilli flakes, an abundance of dried oregano, olive oil and a good slug of red wine vinegar. There may also be salsa criolla, which is red and green peppers, tomatoes and onions diced and mixed with olive oil, wine vinegar, chopped garlic and a shake each of dried oregano and chilli flakes.

beef-416967_1920

Fries are the classic side dish, usually plain, sometimes a la provenzal with chopped garlic and parsley sprinkled over them when hot. There might also be a token salad of lettuce, tomato and onion.

Steak will not be the only main. Also popular are tiro de asado (short ribs), the Argentinian versions of chorizo and morcilla and – for groups – a parrillada or mixed grill. This might typically include vacío steak, chorizo, morcilla and achuras or organ meat. The ethos in Argentina is to use every bit of the cow, so there might be some surprising bits and pieces. They could serve you criadillas, if they have the balls for it.

Vegetarian options include cheese.

© Richard Senior 2020**

*Grill chef

**Except chorizo image via Pixabay

2 thoughts on “The Parrillas of Buenos Aires

  1. “No tenemos veganos” told me a cab driver in Buenos Aires. God damn how much I miss Argentina. The best and the worst of Italy and a side of Fernet Branca. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  2. I think he’s right. I don’t think they do. I mean, where would they eat? Argentina is one of my favourite countries too. I take your point about the best and worst of Italy but there is an English influence as well (the red phone boxes, Harrods, the old fashioned tailors etc). I was introduced to Fernet Branca by a Swedish traveller in Bolivia who told me that it was like Jagermeister but worse. The next day was not very productive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s