“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 Maria – and, no, not with gorilla, either. Argentinian steakhouses elsewhere in the world try to recreate the ambience, but it rarely travels well.
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.
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.
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.
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**
**Except chorizo image via Pixabay