Cities Food and drink

Reaping the meat: a whistle-stop tour of Buenos Aires steak

How good can a steak be? Earth-shatteringly good, it turns out, but you won’t truly know that until you’ve been to Argentina.

Steak generalI’ve had great steak in London, New York, Paris and many other places, but the quality of meat in Argentina is simply on a different level. And Buenos Aires, the country’s boisterous capital, is the best place to indulge.

Once you’re in the city, though, it’s very, VERY difficult to decide where to go for steak, especially if you’ve only got one shot at it. If you ask for recommendations, everybody will give you a different one, and there are literally hundreds of steak restaurants that score four stars or higher on TripAdvisor.

The reviews on TripAdvisor are not the most reliable either. Many are written by people who have only visited one steak restaurant, and so have nothing to compare it to. You have to be careful to read between the lines.

I am not an expert by any means, but having spent several weeks in Buenos Aires and eaten close to my body weight in steak, I will attempt to give a comparative overview of the various places I tried. Read on for my mini review of six places to eat steak in Buenos Aires.

I’ve included price information in Argentinian pesos – at the time of writing, the exchange rate was about 23 pesos to the British pound.

Desnivel (4)Desnivel

In the heart of the lively San Telmo district, Desnivel is an authentic, no-frills local parrilla. Think budget but quality. No elaborate décor, no wooden slabs or sauces in fancy patterns, just a hunk of meat served with tongs on a plate.

Booking is not essential: we were warmly welcomed here on a Friday night after being turned away from a couple of other nearby joints that were full. They cram a lot of tables into a tight space, but it felt comfortable nonetheless, and if you don’t want to dine in they offer a takeaway service. When we arrived there were more locals dining than tourists – always a good sign.

We went for the 900g bife de chorizo (sirloin) to share for a bargain 590 pesos, with a side of papas fritas provencal (fries in garlic and parsley). The meat was cooked just right and full of flavour. They put a lot less salt on the meat in comparison to other restaurants we tried, trusting instead in its natural flavour.

Won over by the excellent food and super-friendly service, we decided to go back a couple of days later for a choripan at lunch. It didn’t disappoint.

Final bill for two (a large steak to share, portion of chips, one bottle of wine, cubierto cover charge and tip): 1,020 pesos

Santos Manjares

This lunch-only spot near Retiro is not in one of the main areas for eating out, but is within 30 minutes’ walk from either Recoleta or San Telmo. It’s also not far from some of the city’s major icons, like the Obelisk and Plaza de Mayo, and so can be neatly slotted into a day of sightseeing. We came in for lunch after taking the morning free walking tour from Congreso.

It’s a cosy place and it was packed even at 2.30pm – mainly with tourists – probably owing to the fact it rates the highest in the city on TripAdvisor for steak at budget prices. While we had better steak elsewhere, the meat was still very good, and it was indeed excellent value for money.

We both opted for the house speciality of bife de chorizo (sirloin) accompanied by jacket potato stuffed with cheese and bacon, all for 210 pesos a serving. It would have been worth it just for the potato-cheese-bacon tastiness.

This was the only place on the list where we didn’t have wine or beer to accompany our steak. Not wanting to weary ourselves for the afternoon of activity ahead, we instead had some Aquarius pomelo, a fizzy grapefruit drink that we had only seen in Argentina.

So in a nutshell: not blow-you-away amazing food, but a good option to try Argentinian steak on the cheap. Be prepared to queue for a table if you turn up at peak lunch time.

Final bill for two (steak each with potato, cheese and bacon, grapefruit drink and tip): 500 pesos

La CarniceriaLa Carniceria

Palermo is a slightly more upmarket area for eating out, and the city’s most popular nightlife spot, teeming with bars spilling revellers into the streets in the evenings. This is the setting for La Carniceria, a fancier establishment than the others I review here.

With only 8 tables and exclusively open for dining slots at 8pm or 10pm, booking ahead is essential. There were more staff than tables, and so the service was very attentive, but not annoyingly so.

I subscribe to the view that the fewer menu options a restaurant offers, the better the food is likely to be, and that was absolutely the case here. There are four cuts to choose from: parrilla cut, smoked cut, wild boar, or catch of the day (but who would come here and order fish?!).

We decided to warm up with some starters only to find they were big enough to satisfy a full meal, but we weren’t complaining. I had the chorizo, served in a frying pan with egg, potatoes and spinach (basically a mini fry-up), and Lisa the steak tartare.

For the main I went for the smoked cut and Lisa the parrilla cut. This was the most delicious piece of meat I have tasted, not only in Buenos Aires but in my entire life. Melt-in-the-mouth – I mean, knock-you-over incredible – and gigantic portions to boot. Well and truly satisfied, we headed on out for a dessert of the famed Palermo nightlife.

We did pay a pretty penny for the pleasure in La Carniceria. The mains were 380 pesos each, the starters 160 pesos, and the wine started at 420 pesos a bottle. If you are willing to splash out a bit for your Buenos Aires steak experience, you will not walk away from here disappointed.

Final bill for two (starter each, main each, one bottle of wine, tip): 1,690 pesos

Chin Chin

While it’s easy to get lost in the mess of bars, cafés and restaurants that line the streets of San Telmo, you can’t miss Chin Chin, standing out proudly on the corner of Bolivar and Estados Unidos. It’s a bit of an institution among travellers around the area, and liked by locals too.

More rustic pub than formal restaurant, a craft beer with your steak feels more appropriate than wine here. In the evening groups often come in just for beers and it can get pretty rowdy, so don’t expect a peaceful meal; but if (like me) you like a bit of raucous, then come on down for some quality value steak.

Chin Chin is not exclusively a steak outfit – it serves a typical range of local pub fayre, such as fish, pork ribs or curry.

We went for the signature ojo de bife (rib-eye) for 220 pesos each, garnished with fries, and of course washed down with a craft beer. As it seems the norm for Buenos Aires steakhouses to serve enough meat to feed a small army, we were almost taken aback by the more manageable portion, but it was still more than enough to fill us up, and full of juicy flavour. You’ll struggle to find a better steak for the price.

Final bill for two (steak, fries and a pint of craft beer each): 620 pesos

El Zanjon del GatoEl Zanjón del Gato

While ultimately we had our best steak in La Carniceria, our favourite all-round experience by far was in El Zanjón del Gato. Another San Telmo establishment surrounded by noisy bars, this place is so small and inconspicuous that we walked past it at first, and when we did find our way inside, the vibe was plain and minimal. But we left an hour and a half later with smiling faces and slightly woozy heads.

Let’s begin with the wine. There are a few options, but you do not need to look further than the house bottle, a malbec–syrah blend at 120 pesos a pop. I’ve been known to exaggerate, but I don’t think I am doing so when I say this was the best wine I had in Argentina (and that’s saying something).

Then came the entradas. Oh my word. We ordered roasted eggplant and squid fritters with pickled chorizo to share. This might sound like something from a pretentious East London gastropub, but the chef clearly knew what he was doing – simple, creative, delicious, and just the right amount to whet our appetite for a kilogram of steak.

That’s right – a kilogram of steak – T-bone to be precise. This house favourite costs 650 pesos with sides included, a large helping of aligot (cheesy mash) and a bowl of cherry tomatoes cooked in meat juices and balsamic vinegar. The steak arrived readily cut into pieces for our convenience, glistening with juicy goodness, and it tasted fantastic – not quite La Carniceria quality, but not a long way off.

Final bill for two (starter each, 1kg t-bone to share with sides, two bottles of wine and a tip): 1,425 pesos

Rayuela Hostel

Our accommodation during our extended stay in Buenos Aires was Rayuela Hostel, a popular budget spot for travellers a short walk from San Telmo. This place became a home away from home for us, and won our hearts over with the asado night it runs once every week (usually Thursdays).

The asado night is intended for hostel guests in the spirit of getting everyone socialising, and providing an Argentinian meat experience for those passing through. For 300 pesos a head, it’s billed as “more meat than you can eat”, with unlimited wine. It lived up to the billing.

We were lucky enough to attend three asado nights, and it was packed out every time. Hosted by the hostel manager Rhys and owner Christian, it gets under way at 9pm, the way any Argentinian asado experience does. Rhys serves various cuts of meat that have been slowly cooking on the barbecue through the day, giving explanations of what they are and how they’re prepared – usually sirloin, ribs, pork, blood sausage, choripan and more. Salad is served to garnish, and later in the night a helping of crispy potatoes cooked in meat juices.

Veggie options are provided as well, and to ensure a truly fair balance, a full-on vegetarian food night is hosted on Tuesdays for just 50 pesos a head.

The asado night was our first steak experience in Buenos Aires and the perfect introduction, giving us an education on the essentials and a taster for what was to come. We also made a bunch of new friends, shared travel experiences and wound up with three thoroughly worthwhile hangovers.

Final bill for two (inclusive of all-you-can-consume meat and wine): 600 pesos

Not steak, but worth a mention

There is one more Buenos Aires eatery that I cannot omit from this article, although it does not serve steak. The very first place we ate in the city was Banco Rojo – once again in San Telmo – a trendy burger bar that prides itself in serving super-messy, super-greasy food at ridiculously cheap prices.

Back home in London, hip new burger shacks have been sprouting all over like flowers in the spring over the last few years. Banco Rojo feels like what they’re all trying to be: great burgers, and no holds barred on tasty, fatty toppings and accompaniments.

We paid 100 pesos each for the special burger of the day with fries, and the same for two house craft ales each. Amazing stuff, and we didn’t find anywhere cheaper to eat in eight weeks of travelling around Argentina.

Final bill for two (burger each, two beers each): 400 pesos

 

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