Walking the tree-lined streets of Buenos Aires, you may notice a certain unmistakable smoky scent. A scent that barely registers in your conscious brain but immediately sets your stomach on high alert. You may notice your belly suddenly growling for meat, as though you hadn’t fed it for days. Your mouth goes a little dry and finally your nose catches another whiff. The scent of meat grilling over coals drifts through the city – never heavy, but always just there. Any time of day, any day of the week, there is meat on a grill somewhere.
Argentines love to eat meat, without a doubt. And the best way to understand their passion is to join them in dining at one of the hundreds of parrillas in the city.
Parrilla means, literally, “grill,” but it describes a certain kind of restaurant that celebrates the art of grilling meat over a wood coal fire. The parrilla experience can be very formal and high-end (and expensive) or it can be casual, boisterous and cheap. You might go there for a business dinner or a family celebration, but you will always spend time rhapsodizing over the beautifully charred cuts of beef, pork, and, less-frequently, chicken and fish.
Argentines tend to dine later in the evening around 9 or 10 pm, so don’t be surprised if you find a popular parrilla virtually empty if you arrive at 7.
If you want to try everything, order the parrillada or parrillada mixta, which will be a mixture of sausages, organ meats and steaks. Most are served with side dishes and salad. You can also order individual cuts of meat a la carte (see “Know Your Cuts” below). You will always find chimichurri, a sauce made from fresh herbs and garlic, served with the meat.
The idea of vegetarianism is still a bit foreign in Argentina. Often when you ask for a vegetarian option you are offered chicken. But in a parrilla, the side dishes can certainly make a meal for a vegetarian. Provoleta is a thick slice of provolone cheese which is grilled to a gooey perfection and seasoned with herbs. Grilled vegetables are always available, including the wonderful papas al plomo which are baked potatoes that are smashed and fried to crispy perfection.
It would seem like sacrilege to eat such a feast without an Argentine red wine. Argentina produces outstanding wines of many varietals, including malbec, tempranillo, and merlot among the reds, and torrontés, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc among the whites. You might order a pinguino, which is a carafe in the shape of a penguin, of the house wine. Whatever you decide, it is hard to go wrong, and impossible to forget your first parrilla experience.
Know Your Cuts
bife de chorizo – sirloin steak, which is very different from chorizo, which is a spicy sausage
lomo – tenderloin
mollejas – sweetbreads
chinchulins or chichulines – chitterlings
morcilla – blood sausage
matambre de cerdo – pork flank steak
vacío del fino – beef flank steak
riñon – kidney
colita – tail
costillitas – ribs
parrillada completa or mixta will be a full spread of meats, including sausages and organ meats
How to Order
Argentines typically like their steaks very well-done, so if you are prefer yours pink or red in the middle, you’ll want to be very explicit with your order.
Cocido Literally means “cooked” – Argentines love a thoroughly well-done steak.
A punto – order this way if you prefer medium well.
Jugoso literally means “juicy” – this is the way to order a steak rare, though it may not be as rare as you are accustomed to at home.
If you like your steak really very rare, you could order it vuelta y vuelta, but this is very uncommon and they might ask you to confirm your order repeatedly before they will believe you.
Upscale and Traditional Parrillas
Don Julio (Palermo)
Don Carlos (La Boca)
Brandsen 699 Near the Boca Juniors stadium.
La Brigada (San Telmo)
Estados Unidos 465
Cabaña Las Lilas (Puerto Madero)
Alicia Moreau de Justo 516
La Cabrera (Palermo Soho)
5099 Cabrera Street, and 5127 Cabrera Street. This is in every tourist guide, and it is perfectly fine, but it is not necessarily the best. Don’t go out of your way to find it. Every neighborhood has a good parilla.
Smaller and More Local Parrillas
Siga la Vaca (Palermo)
Avda. Costanera Rafael Obligado 6340
Offers a self-service buffet for meat and salad
El Trapiche (Palermo Hollywood)
Parrilla Aires Criollos (El Centro)
Av. Santa Fe 1773
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Paige Conner-Totaro is a freelance writer from Alexandria, VA.