|Z, standing outside of El DesNivel Parrilla in the San Telmo Neighborhood of BA|
The convergence of Argentina and our married-without-kids-travel-vow turned out to be far more powerful than I could have ever expected. Then again, I had absolutely no expectations of what Argentina, particularly Buenos Aires, had to offer. Plucked from a list of international hotels owned by Hyatt, we nervously secured our complimentary guest rooms, courtesy of my employment with Hyatt at the time.
Save the advice of two extremely helpful friends, we boarded the plane to Buenos Aires armed only with our own research and planning, a folder filled with months of reading, web-searches, blog perusals and self-designed maps, plotting what we hoped would be the trip of a lifetime. Multiple ‘best steak ever’ moments, countless authentic streets lined with fantastic, sweeping trees, and my first experience with the local provoleta – one of my top food-life memories – and we knew that Buenos Aires would be almost impossible to leave. BA is, by far, my favorite major world city. I hope this trip down my memory lane shows you why…
Driving into BA from the airport, one is immediately exposed to the colorful and dramatic graffiti that adorns more walls, buildings and streets throughout the city than it does not. We whisked passed seventies-era-eyesore architecture, ghettos and impoverished neighborhoods with clothes-lines dangling in the wind, children’s socks and shirts swaying precariously along them. The sense of being removed from your ‘normal’ begins to take over. I relish this feeling.
The tombs are ornate and the designs have a decidedly European touch. This same stylistic approach was used when designing the countless parks snaking their way through Buenos Aires. The monuments are grand and the trees varied and magnificent, offering generous shade in the hot summer months of December, January and February.
These parks are shared with the dogs of BA and let me tell you – it wouldn’t surprise me if they outnumbered the humans one day. There are dogs at every turn. With every homeless person, every wealthy person. Dogs of all shapes, sizes and pedigrees. You are best to watch your step when walking these streets. Cleaning up after these furry comrades is not a priority and, unfortunately, it shows. The dogs of BA bring with them as much personality as the people, however, and despite their penchant for relieving themselves on the streets, they would end up being one of our favorite aspects of Argentina as a whole.
Traveling with my-father-the-architect gave me an appreciation for buildings and design that one can only gain from sitting in the back seat as a child while Dad suddenly pulls off the side of the road to examine a building that caught his eye, offering up a fifteen minute lecture with pure excitement.
My-father-the-architect can become wonderfully immersed in his passion and this was never so evident as the time we stopped over in Colonial Williamsburg on a road trip. Happily wandering the town, my-father-the-architect accidentally stumbled into a restricted area.
When told to leave, he apologized naturally ‘I’m sorry – just another curious architect!’ Needless to say, BA’s juxtaposition of new vs old, ornate European design set against newer, industrial landscapes, was striking and unlike any other place I had experienced. Argentina was heavily colonized by the Spanish and Italians. Touches of these cultures are evident throughout nearly every aspect of BA, however, having been to both Spain and Italy, I can say with confidence that Argentina maintains it’s own distinct identity. There is a sense that things are just slightly underdeveloped. That the city is a work in progress. This dustiness is akin to hope and progress. Big things will / are happening in BA.
Look no further than the MALBA – Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires - for a taste of contemporary Buenos Aires. Along with their Costantini Collection, there are dynamic exhibitions of various mediums. Z and I truly enjoy contemporary art and would consider this a must-stop for any trip to BA. If museum’s aren’t your thing then at least pop in their gift shop… and don’t miss the book store tucked in the back. Fantastic.
And so we walked. It’s our favorite way to experience a city. I love the feel of the neighborhoods changing beneath my feet. The sound and energy shifting as you walk out of one borough and into the next.
Buenos Aires has incredibly distinctive neighborhoods. Our favorite barrios, as they call them, were Recoleta (decidedly European and upscale… the gum trees are like nothing I’ve ever seen), San Telmo (exudes a beatnik vibe and feels entirely authentic – the Sunday vendor market is a must) and Palermo (small and ‘local’ you happen upon an endless number of boutiques and cafes as you stroll the cobble-stone streets). From one small pocket to another, we roamed the city of Buenos Aires, our very own tour guides on this custom adventure.
After some time we found ourselves on the famous Calle Florida. A large pedestrian street located in the heart of downtown BA, Calle Florida is undeniably touristy, with countless shops sitting elbow-to-elbow and peddlers thrusting tango-show fliers at you. ’Good price, good price! Si, si! Come watch the dancers.’ There is great energy and dynamic people watching on this street. Just leave the tango-fliers behind.
The thing is, there are spontaneous tangos occurring at every turn, couples dancing in all available squares. We spent an afternoon tucked up in a cafe enjoying an absurdly inexpensive bottle of wine while we watched two beautiful people perform a sensual, enthralling dance. I remember thinking that the rhythmic flow of these dancers mimicked the cadence of the city itself, the dancers simply moving in time with the energy emanating from the life of the street beneath their feet.
The energy of BA isn’t hard to find. It is in the streets, the people, the dogs, the architecture. For this foodie-girl, that energy hit home full-force as we discovered the food of Argentina. It. Is. Powerful. With the backbone of the traditional Argentinian culinary experience rooted in beef, you will encounter the smells, sights and tastes of the many parrillas that dot the landscape of this city as you walk it’s streets.
Specially designed parrilla grills are often on display, tilted ever so slightly and lined with chicken, sausage (blood, chorizo and the like), and every part of the cow imaginable. Argentina’s cattle boast pristine bloodlines and have been grass fed and allowed to run free for nearly their entire existence.
This ideal habitat translates directly into the beef, onto the parrilla and subsequently onto your plate. What makes the overall food experience that much sweeter is the price – take every tab and divide it by four. That is the equivalent of what you are spending in US dollars.
Two perfectly grilled steaks, appetizers, salad, a bottle of wine and post-meal espressos? Around $40 USD TOTAL, including tax and tip. It made experimenting with the menu that much more fun and gave us an opportunity to try more specialty items than we would have had if we were working with the euro. Yet another reason to add Argentina (or all of South America) to your travel wish-list.
I will admit our first two parrilla experiences did not exactly live up to our expectations. Preferring our beef on the rare side, Z and I both ordered our steaks medium rare. We were presented with beautiful and delicious filets, however they were far past medium rare and were leaning more toward the medium well side of the fence. After much pondering and general observation in other restaurants, we realized that the local set tends to prefer their beef cooked well – all the way through with little to no pink in the center. We took a gamble on our third go round and asked for our steaks to be cooked rare. Aha! We cut into perfectly charred medium rare steaks that felt as if they would melt in our mouths.
Z and I shared different ‘oh-my-goodness-this-is-the-best-steak-of-my-life’ moments. I found my steak soul mate in a tiny town outside of Mendoza, Argentina (more to come on that in a later post). Z’s was waiting for him at Rio Alba, located in the Palermo barrio. With the majority of menus displaying their cuts of beef for you to select, Zach ordered the ojo de bife, a ribeye. I chose the bife de lomo – the filet mignon. The lomo was wonderful. The ojo? OUT OF THIS WORLD. I can’t really explain it… there is just a richness in the meat that was so satisfying, so fulfilling. Subsequently, I am a ribeye girl now. The ratio of fat to meat is perfect, allowing for a balance of flavor that the leanness of a filet mignon just can’t match.
Rio Alba gave us more than just the one of the best steaks of our lives. They introduced us to the magical, melty, charred, herbal magnificence that is provoleta. Provoleta is a half-inch thick slice of provolone cheese which has been charred on the grill and then drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with dried oregano. It is warm and salty, the edges crunchy and tasting of the wonderfulness that is burnt cheese. The olive oil and oregano bring a smooth and earthy quality to each bite. After sampling provoleta at Rio Alba we made sure to order it at every opportunity. It was always good but Rio Alba’s version took the cake. Top five food memory for me. Unforgettable.
While Argentina’s steak stands on it’s own, I challenge you to resist the chimichurri sauce that is served along with it. A finely minced blend of garlic, parsley, oregano and vinegar, you can expect to find chimichurri on every dining table – high-end or otherwise – and it goes well with everything. Different restaurants and parrillas served up a variety of chimichurris and ‘house specialties’. The classic version was continuously my favorite.
We left our food agenda purposefully open-ended however we had noted a few select spots which we had discovered throughout our research and were excited to try. Don Julio was one of these spots and we happened upon it during one of our day-long explorations. We enjoyed a mid-afternoon snack of house-made blood sausage and small slices of chorizo topped with provolone cheese and charred sun dried tomatoes. I regret that we didn’t make it back for dinner. Not only are they known for their steaks, but their wine list is hearty and their chimichurri is perfection. The atmosphere was lovely, the walls, ceiling, stairs and halls lined with wine bottles signed by previous guests. A great find.
We’ve all had wonderful dinners. Meals that are delicious and satisfying, bringing smiles to both our faces and our stomachs. And then you have meals that are experiences. Meals that connect with you on another level. We had one of these rare meals during our dinner in Barcelona at Alkimia.
We were also given one of the best meals of our lives by La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar, a tiny spot in the San Telmo barrio. Boasting 16 courses, La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar offered an intensive and intimate experience. We were two of only seven diners and were seated directly adjacent to the kitchen, where we were able to catch a glimpse of Chef Alejandro Diglio and his team constructing our multi-coursed meal, incorporating traditional elements with modern molecular gastronomy techniques.
I will not say that every course was perfection. Some where stronger than others. But to see that level of experimentation taking place, to be brought into their intricate web as they literally told us a story through their food. It was exhilarating, delicious and emotional. It was worth so much to us… FAR more than the mere $100 USD/each it cost (this includes tax, tip and two fantastic bottles of Argentinian wine). A value that cannot be recreated. I can only hope to return to La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar one day.
Our final afternoon was spent at our favorite cafe, La Biela. La Biela has a large patio that sits just underneath the sweeping branches of Recoleta’s gum trees. I could look at these gum trees for hours. Their branches are so large, so gracious in their shade and beauty.
They seem to be reaching out to you, to Buenos Aires, taking in as much as possible. Z and I had a couple of hours before we were off to the airport and we chose to soak up these last precious moments under this canopy of the gum trees, listening and watching BA simply happen.
The sounds of the locals meeting for a drink surrounded us, the wind winding through the gum tree whispered above us. I said my silent goodbye and made a heartfelt promise to return. We would be off to Mendoza and wine country and were enthusiastic for our next adventure yet so filled with gratitude for Buenos Aires. BA is a city that has made an everlasting impression on Z and I. We would – and will – return in a heartbeat.