Back in November, we took an amazing 15-day trip to South America. We spent a week in Buenos Aires, a few days in the Mendoza wine country, a one-day jaunt to an amazing waterfall on the border between Argentina and Brazil, and five blissful, languid days on the beach on Uruguay.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure: vibrant city life, jungle hikes, relaxed wine tastings and lazy, breezy days on the beach.
And we have tons of great memories. Tango hall! Flea markets! Museums at midnight! Doing an Evita impression at the Casa Rosada!
But when people have asked us what Buenos Aires was like, or how much we enjoyed our trip, somehow we always keep answering in terms of food...
So we wanted to share some of our fave food memories with you from our trip. To that end, here are 9 Unforgettable Meals from our trip to South America!
It truly was an incredibly special experience. (We have long-term plans of compiling hotel info and such, but if you're going to Buenos Aires, Mendoza, or Punta del Este in Uruguay, email us and we'll pass along any info we can!)
Okay, now: On to the 9 Unforgettable Meals!
Meal #1: Steak at La Lechuza
Buenos Aires is absolutely synonymous with grilled steak. Bistro steakhouses, called parrillas, seem to sit on every corner of the city. We had steak at least once a day during our week in BA, and we never once had a disappointing meal. The photo at the very top of this post is from our first meal in Buenos Aires, a lunch at La Cabrera, which is one of the most popular restaurants in all of Buenos Aires. We loved it for all the inventive side dishes that came with the steak (that's mashed pumpkin with raisins in the center of the photo!).
But our absolute favorite steak experience was at the most divey, most downmarket parrilla we could find, La Lechuza. It was recommended to us by a friend, and it was about as low-key and local as it gets: only cash, no English, bright lights and a menu that consisted of hand-written scrawl on a few Xeroxed pages stapled together.
We had peeked into La Lechuza earlier in the week, and we'd seen a man eating the most delicious-looking meatballs we'd ever seen. (Buenos Aires is about as Italian as it is Spanish: At the turn of the 20th century, a million Italian immigrants flooded into the city, altering the language and especially the food.) One problem, though: We had no clue how to say "meatballs" in Spanish. Zach was able to eke out, in his stilted high-school Spanish, "Yesterday...I come...here....I see...a person...he eats...little...meat...bags...with...sauce...of...tomato." It worked! It was our single greatest linguistic triumph of the trip.
Anyway, turns out they're called albóndigas, and they're fabulous:
(Oh, hey, one blanket comment about these photos -- many of them were taken with our camera phones, so the quality isn't great.)
We followed up the albóndigas with a salad, served with an upturned can of olive oil, with a hole poked in the lid, as a dressing. Love it!
After the salad came the best steak we had in Argentina: Flintstones-huge with a crackly char on the outside and a perfectly medium-rare center.
One quick thing about the steak in BA: There's actually a cut of steak that's unique to Argentina, called a bife de chorizo. It's sort of like a boneless Porterhouse cut (and it has nothing to do with chorizo sausage). It's what we ordered at every meal.
La Lechuza was a knockout, and so cheap! The whole meal, plus a bottle of wine, cost us about 30 bucks. (The great conversation with the two charming old Argentine ladies we shared a table with was free.)
Meal #2: Tegui
Twenty-four hours before we ate at La Lechuza, we ate at the opposite end of the culinary spectrum. Tegui is a high-end, pushing-the-envelope restaurant focused on nouveau-Argentine cuisine. It opened in 2009, and it's one of the most stunning restaurants we've ever dined in. Coincidentally, it's featured in the February 2011 issue of Bon Appétit!
Anyway, the front of the restaurant is a graffiti-covered wall with a big black door:
The interior of the restaurant is jaw-droppingly gorgeous:
(This image: Wallpaper* Magazine)
Anyway, the food at Tegui was phenomenal. We did a chef's tasting of seven courses. Here they are (and, again, apologies for the poor photo quality -- trust us, the food was delicious!).
Fried oyster with corn custard and a green onion foam.
Asparagus, brie mousse, arugula sprouts and tomato ice cream.
Sea bass with crispy ham, scallop foam, and apple.
Foie gras, brioche cake and plum-ginger puree.
Peaches, pistachio crumbles, balsamic glaze and peach mousse.
Chocolate bombe cup, quince, mint ice-cream.
There was one other course at Tegui that we didn't snap a photo of: Lamb chops with fava beans, breadcrumbs and a goat cheese foam.
The entire experience at Tegui was incredible. Truly one of the best dining experiences we've ever had.
Meal #3: Alfajores
Okay, these aren't a meal (unless you eat enough of them!). But alfajores, sort of the unofficial dessert snack of Buenos Aires, are worth writing about. They're like smaller, gourmet versions of a Moon Pie -- layers of chocolate, soft wafers, and dulce de leche. We ate more of them than we're going to admit, and we even brought some home to give as Christmas gifts (they're literally the only souvenirs we purchased).
The best store brand is Havanna. Interestingly, in December, Saveur featured a recipe for how to make your own alfajores at home.
Meal #4: Pizza at El Cuartito
As we mentioned earlier, there's definitely an Italian undercurrent to Buenos Aires, especially in the food. You see pasta on just about every menu, especially ravioli. Pizza's big, too, and when a friend of a friend (who splits his time between Washington, DC, and Buenos Aires) suggested El Caurtito, a 24-hour pizza joint open since 1934, we knew we wanted to try it.
The pizza was good -- more like a Western-style Chicago pizza that we were expecting. Gooey, cheese and full of pungent oregano:
And we really enjoyed trying fainá, a fried chickpea bread:
El Cuartito was a fun break from our all-steak diet, and we loved the feel of the restaurant itself: counters stacked high with delivery boxes, boxing posters plastering the walls, Buenos Aires business people who ducked in for a slice on their way home, eating the messy pizza while standing up at the counter.
Meal #5: Ice cream
In BA, ice cream is more than a treat. It's a national treasure. The original home of dulce de leche, Buenos Aires ice cream is like an amazing hybrid of American ice cream and Italian gelato. We sampled many different kinds, but our favorites were the chocolate/dulce de leche blends from Freddo and Chungo:
Meal #6: Lunch at Cafe Cluny
We stayed in the Palermo Soho neighborhood of Buenos Aires. It's hip and trendy, full of cute little stores, high-end design boutiques and countless picturesque sidewalk cafes. Our favorite was a place called Cluny. With its expansive interior and picture-perfect garden terrace, Cluny was one of the most ineffably pleasant lunch experiences we've ever had.
And what was the food?
Pâté, toasted blueberry bread, balsamic glaze.
Tomato-and-onion quiche. (Truly one of the best quiches we've ever had -- packed loose, with only enough egg to hold everything together. Delicious!)
Pork chop, mashed yams, plantain chips.
Crisp-skinned whitefish, charred risotto cake, blue-cheese sauce.
Petis fours for dessert.
Meal #7: Submarinos
Like the alfajores, these aren't really a meal. They're just a fun treat. In BA, you can order a breakfast drink called a submarino (well, we suppose you could order it whenever you want). Are you ready for the cutest thing ever? It's a glass of piping hot milk, served with a piece of chocolate in the shape of a submarine.
Dive the submarine into the milk, stir it up and voila! Hot chocolate!
Meal #8: Lunch at Croque Madame Cafe
Buenos Aires may have an Italian streak, but aspirationally, the city is all about Paris, especially when it comes to the architecture, the boulevards, the plazas, the parks. There are whole blocks -- whole neighborhoods, especially Recoleta -- that look like they were airlifted out of France. (It's not an accident: In the late 1800s, when Argentina was really starting to make money from cattle and agriculture trading, the city elite decided that the only way to get Buenos Aires accepted on the global stage was if it looked more like Paris. So they tore down all the Spanish Colonial buildings, ripped up several streets, and set out to copy the French capital.)
All that Francophile stuff made sense once we found ourselves at the Croque Madame Cafe for lunch. Located on the grounds of the National Museum of Decorative Arts (which is really just a huge, amazing furnished manse from the 1910s that you can tour), the cafe was the site of the second most pleasant lunch of our trip.
We sat at a sun-dappled table beneath a large tree, drinking wine and watching beautiful Buenos Aires families enjoy a lingering lunch, surrounded by the blooming purple jacaranda trees that fill the city in spring.
Clay had a simple -- perfect -- pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil.
Zach had a saffron risotto with chicken. Comforting and mouth-wateringly tasty.
Meal #9: Chivitos in Uruguay
If you want to have the best food in Uruguay, there's only one word you need to know: Chivito. We had other good things during our time in and around Punta del Este, a huge beach town that's only a 25-minute flight from Buenos Aires. The local brotola whitefish is great; we had a lovely octopus salad.
But the chivitos were life-altering. A chivito is a sandwich that's sort of a mash-up of a messy hamburger, a muffuletta and a steak sandwich. Every place serves them. Even at a little grocery/deli dive where it wasn't on the menu, when we asked, "Chivito?", the guys were like "Sure! of course!"
Each chivito varies, but here's the main gist: grilled steak, ham (or Canadian bacon...or both), mayo, cheese sauce, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, olives, peperonata and, if you're lucky, a fried egg. It's very much a kitchen-sink sandwich -- some places threw on pickled cauliflower, red peppers and God knows what else. They are heaven on two slices of bread.
Anyway, please to enjoy this chivito montage:
Absolutely, unbelievably good.
So that's it! The 9 Unforgettable Meals from our trip! Hope you enjoyed reading about them as much as we enjoyed eating them! Have you been to Argentina or Uruguay -- what was your favorite meal there? Heck, we'd love to hear about any unforgettable meals from anywhere! Leave them in the comments!