The Gaucho goes south: a honeymoon retrospective September 20, 2011

This is the first of an admittedly belated post covering the Gaucho’s honeymoon trip to Argentina this past March of 2011.  The trip lasted eleven days and we visited three distinct parts of the country: Buenos Aires, Bariloche, and Mendoza.  The posts will mainly focus on asado and general Argentine cuisine, but where appropriate, I try to describe the broader cultura; backdrop to the trip.

Our journey began with a direct flight from Miami into Buenos Aires.  It is worth noting that Buenos Aires has two main airports:  Ministro Pistarini International, frequently called “Ezezia” (the suburb where it is located) by locals is considered the aeropuerto.  It mainly serves as the city’s international travel hub and is the likely destination for any flights originating outside of the region.  The other airport, Jorge Newberry, is referred to as an aeroparque.  It is located in the Palermo district next to the riverbank and serves only domestic traffic and flights to Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.

One thing that caught us by surprise when arriving was the Reciprocity Fee, alternatively referred to as an Airport Entry Fee, which applies to all guests entering the country with a U.S., Canadian, or Australian passport.  The fee (as of March 2011) was $140 per person and must be paid in order to clear customs.  Upon payment of the fee, a badge is placed in your passport, and is valid up to ten years from the date of issue such that if you return to Argentina within that time, you will not owe the fee again.

Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, we made our way to the neighborhood of Puerto Madero.  We were hosted by the cousin of my wife in his gorgeous high-rise condominium along the Puerto Madero waterfront.  The Puerto Madero neighborhood is one of the newer parts of Buenos Aires and features a number of recently-constructed residential living towers with modern architecture as well as an upscale pedestrian promenade along the water channels with shopping and dining.

One such popular dining establishment in the area is called Siga La Vaca.  This is a chain restaurant that features an all-you-can-eat buffet of salad, side dishes, and grilled meats.  Think of it as similar to the American restaurant Sizzler, except with far, far better food.  For about USD$15, you can get a never ending supply of salad and picadas (cheese, meat charcuterie, olives, et cetera), chorizo and morcilla, numerous cuts of beef, and dessert.  What also struck me about Siga La Vaca, was the large, indoor grilling area that dominates the restaurant.  As an American, you’d probably never see something like this in the States.  Even though there were large industrial-sized kitchen hoods above the grill station, there was still an inordinate amount of smoke and grease in the air.  I loved it!  But most American fire, health, and safety codes would never allow such a grilling station indoors.

As you proceed through the buffet line for the grilled meats, you offer your plate to the team of asadors who are working grill station.  You can request almost any cut that you wish.  On my first of many trips through the line for the grill, I selected the vacio (flank steak), bife de lomo (tenderloin), and some mollejas (sweetbreads).   Later I went back for achuras (aka: offal) which featured a large selection of organ meat such as chichulines (small intestine) and riñones (kidneys).  As a chain restaurant, Siga La Vaca is popular but not considered authentic asado by any means.  Nonetheless, when compared to places like Sizzler, Country Buffet, and other all-you-can-eat American counterparts, I was blown away by the quality of the food not to mention the ridiculously low prices.  Even the flan I had for dessert was terrific as well as the inexpensive bottle of Argentine Malbec that accompanied our meal.

CC Image by Jeffrey Hotson on Flickr

For those of you who love cigars (like the Gaucho), there is a terrific mom-and-pop tobacconist in the San Telmo neighborhood: Cinfuegos Tabacos y Cigarros.  Owned by Alejandro Weil, the shop features all the top-line Cuban brands, including a healthy supply of the Gaucho’s favorite cigar of all time: the Montecristo No. 2.  It also features antique cigarette lighters, tobacco pipes, and various other vintage tobacconist paraphernalia. The shop is located on the corner of Avenida Independencia & Defensa, right in the heart of San Telmo, and you can easily amble the streets with your Habano as you soak in the cultural activities taking place on the cobblestone roads.  There are street artists hawking their wares, impromptu tango performances, beat poetry readings, drum circles, and a variety of other activities to pass the time.  San Telmo also features a variety of older bars and cafes which add to the historical charm of the neighborhood.

On our last day in Buenos Aires, we drove out to the suburbs to an area known as Nordelta for an asado at the home of some family friends.  Nordelta consists of a series of real estate developments, some surrounding golf courses and others surrounding large multi-use recreational areas such as parks and lakes.  As an outer suburb of Buenos Aires, Nordelta offers a relaxed, country-living atmosphere but still remains close enough to the city for individuals to commute into the city for work.

When we arrived at the home of our family’s friends, we stepped into the backyard and I got my first look at the parrilla that we’d using for our asado that day.  I noticed that this particular style of parrilla was very common in the newer homes of Nordelta.  Instead of being made completely out of brick, it was a combination of brick interior with a stucco exterior.  I don’t believe the stucco materials reduced the quality of the grilling experience, but was rather an aesthetic choice to match the more modern exterior of the neighborhood homes rather than a brick parrilla which may have looked too rustic and out of place.

As is typical with the Argentine-style of brick parrillas, there was a long and narrow chimney that protruded out of the center-top of the parrilla (as opposed to Uruguayan parrillas where the brick parrillas typically have the chimney over the firebox and slant diagonally downwards from the top of the chimney—more on this in later posts).  The parrilla also had a metal firebox to the left of the grill.  This ubiquitous feature to South American grills makes hardwood grilling much easier than one might imagine.  The asador simply must fill up the firebox with wood or hardwood charcoal and set it aflame.  Once the wood/charcoal begin to get hot and turn red, the asador pokes at the pile which causes the loose, hot embers to fall below the firebox and onto the brick surface underneath.  From there, the asador simply uses a coal pusher tool to move the coals underneath the grilling surface so that the parrilla can heat up and the grilling can begin.

For this particular asado, we used hardwood charcoal.    Hardwood charcoal is not the compressed briquettes commonly found in American barbecue.  Rather, it is uncompressed (very light weight) charcoal created through a flash-heating process.  It is very popular amongst urban grillers in Argentina (a point which I was to learn about more later during my time in Mendoza) and the hardwood used for the charcoal can be every bit as varied as the wood varieties themselves.  Charcoal, while not a true gaucho method of cooking, is nonetheless a cheap alternative to hardwood grilling which takes less time and often sacrifices very little in the way of heat and flavor.

The meal itself was relatively modest by asado standards.  While there was certainly more than enough food for the ten or so people partaking in the afternoon barbecue, the selection of dishes was rather muted.  We had chorizotira de asado (beef short ribs), entrana (skirt steak), bife ancho (ribeye), and chuletas de puerco(pork loin chops).  On the side, we had some simple baguette bread and a green salad.

I was somewhat surprised by the fact that the asado had no chimichurri or salsa criolla available for the table.  After asking the host of the meal about the absence of the condiments, she explained that they rarely use such sauces for their asados and that they are typically only found in parrillas or other restaurants nowadays.  She said that making and using such condiments at home is becoming increasingly rare.  I’m not certain how true this is as I have attended numerous asados hosted by Argentineans and seen chimichurri in abundance (though salsa criolla less so).  My guess was that this family simply didn’t use the sauces, especially since the young children were picky eaters, but did not take their statement as a fact which applied to Argentine asado as a whole.

All in all, the asado was very relaxing and we spent a good deal of time drinking wine and chatting with the host family.  It was by no means my favorite meal of the trip, but it was good to see what a “typical” Sunday asado for a small group might consist of and it also gave me a glimpse into the tools and techniques that an infrequent Argentine griller might employ.  This casual, low-key experience was actually a great way to build up to the more adventurous grilling events which were to take place later in the trip.