In Buenos Aires, a good steak is one you can slice with a spoon. Forget knives with serrated edges; for a piece of beef to cut the mustard in Argentina, a blunt, rounded finish will do the trick. And the locals sure eat enough of the stuff to know: an Argentine gets through a sizeable 55kg of beef each year. That’s nearly 10kg more than the typical Australian.
In Argentina, respect for a decent steak is fierce. This also includes the trappings – the asados (barbecues) where it’s cooked, the pampas (fields) where it’s reared and even the charismatic gauchos (cowboys) who, at least back in the good old days, were responsible for it all.
But, like all good love stories with their twists and turns, things are starting to change in Buenos Aires. People are flirting with vegetarian food and rekindling a well-worn romance with the Italian flavours upon which the city was built. And a lot of them are doing it under the cover of darkness, behind closed-door restaurants that have sprung up in residential suburbs all over the city. They’re mysterious – and sometimes exclusive – set-ups and, judging by the popularity of the movement, they’ve thrown Buenos Aires headlong into a brand new love affair with eating out.
Meghan Lewis is responsible for one such set-up that results in 14 strangers entering her fairy light-festooned living room every Thursday night to eat her food. And all of it – every last skerrick – is vegetarian. “There was hardly any good vegetarian food in this city,” says Meghan from her home in San Telmo, the city’s oldest barrio (neighbourhood) where her weekly dinners play out. “There are more options now, but when I arrived here from America, aside from fried or mashed potatoes, the vegetarian offerings at most restaurants were sad salads or overcooked greens inside empanadas. Vegetarian food is what I like to cook and eat, and I wanted to share that.”
The idea to share on a more public scale first took hold in 2009. A yoga teacher by day, Meghan was already cooking for a dinner that took place after a candle-lit yoga class. “That’s where I gained the confidence to cook for large groups, and people kept telling me they liked my food. A friend ‘booked’ me to cook his despedida (leaving dinner), and from there it just snowballed. I started inviting staff from my favourite cafe and then local food bloggers, who helped spread the word. And I made a website.” Meghan also gave her restaurant a name: Jueves a la Mesa (Thursday at the table).
“As soon as I received a few comments on TripAdvisor, complete strangers started booking a seat. And now, even though the majority of diners are unknown to me, there’s some sort of magic that happens and the guests always seem to be really wonderful. When I’m cooking, I can hear by the hum in the next room how people are connecting with each other around our big table. It makes me feel so good when I create a nurturing atmosphere where people can appreciate food.”
Across town, on the same weeknight in a decidedly trendier barrio called Palermo Soho, it’s a similar story. The Oyuela Palacio family opens the doors of the home they’ve lived in since the 1920s to their hidden ‘knock knock’ restaurant they call En el Fondo (in the back).
“Our parents let us do this once a week,” says 25-year-old Lina Oyuela Palacio, as we take a seat in her glowing, candlelit living room that has been transformed with an elongated table. A piano in the room holds the promise of live entertainment as the night progresses. “It’s their way of helping their children earn a little money while studying,” she explains. “So, if Dad arrives home at some point, please give him a bit of applause, to thank him for letting us be here tonight.”
Dressed in chef’s whites and with an almost tangible passion for food, Lina tells us she’s simultaneously studying medicine and learning to be a chef. She says cooking for people in her home is what she loves best, a passion that was spurred by her mother – but not in the usual way. “My mum is a terrible cook!” she laughs. “So I started to do it instead and then professional lessons just followed on from there. I think what’s lovely about cooking for people in your own home is that they can always ask for seconds. You can’t provide that sort of service in a real restaurant,” she adds.
As Lina shares her story, meat empanadas are taking shape in front of us, the start of a meal that, with its cured meats and creamy pumpkin crepes, is anything but typically Argentinian in flavour. Well, at least in the sense that it’s not all about chargrilled beef. It is fitting, though, when you consider the city’s heritage: more than half of Argentina’s population claims Italian ancestry and the neighbourhood of La Boca, near what was once the town’s original port, quickly grew into the city’s first ‘Little Italy’, with immigrants arriving in the early 1800s. What is now regarded as Argentina’s most famous pizza, fugazetta, with its perfect mix of cheese and onion, was first baked in La Boca. Legend even has it that La Boca is the birthplace of tango.
“From La Boca, the Italian immigrants moved to Palermo next,” explains Gaspar Oyuela Palacio, Lina’s brother and our host for the evening, who also gives a professional tango demonstration in between courses and studying for his engineering degree. It seems this family has an over-achieving gene at its heart. “Palermo in Buenos Aires takes its name from the Italian town with the same name,” adds Gaspar. By now, we’re up to dessert – a meringue-based dish laced with dulce de leche, Argentina’s famed caramelised condensed milk. Paired with Gaspar’s tango, it’s the perfect end to a ‘restaurant’ meal.
On the other side of town at Meghan’s Jueves a la Mesa, dessert is also being served – fresh fruit and homemade chocolate. “I change the menu fortnightly, but the dessert is always the same and sometimes I think the chocolate is what gets people to my table each week!” says Meghan. “But I also know that for travellers, even the meat-eaters among them, the prospect of eating something fresh and spicy is very enticing.” And, planning her meals around a weekly theme like Mexican or Moroccan, Meghan’s meals always deliver on spice. “I love spicy food anyway, but I like to highlight the spice when I’m cooking these meals because so few places in Buenos Aires offer anything remotely spicy. At least not yet, so I guess I’m filling a void.”
If bookings are anything to go by, it’s a void people are happy to occupy. Since 2012, she’s been booked out every week. Some people even return week after week. “We’ve talked about adding another night. But two meals a week in my current apartment would be a stretch. I’ve experimented with moving the dinners to a bigger, rented space because I wanted to serve more people, but packing up half my kitchen each week was really difficult. And the diners who’d been to both places said they missed the intimacy of my home. So, for now, we’re staying put.” Which just goes to show that if it’s a unique dining experience you’re after in Buenos Aires, there’s no place like home.
The hit list
Jueves a la Mesa
It all happens here on a Thursday night. Secreted away in a private home in San Telmo (the address is confirmed when you book), it’ll cost you around AU$24 for a three-course vegetarian meal. Visit juevesalamesa.wordpress.com for more about menus and reservations.
En el Fondo
Secure a seat through Be My Guest, an ‘insider experience’ that’s included in several of Trafalgar’s South America guided holidays. Call 1300 663 043 or visit trafalgar.com for details.
Argentina’s oldest coffee shop is right in the heart of Buenos Aires. Open since 1858, it’s well worth a visit for the nostalgia factor alone. Avenida de Mayo 825, Buenos Aires, cafetortoni.com.ar.
Here, you can enjoy a selection of vegetable empanadas, as well as some creatively flavoured meat options. Araoz 1283, Palermo, lafachada.com.ar.
Old school, retro and delicious, this place is all about the pizza and the menu is suitably extensive, but make sure you try the famous fugazetta. Talacahuano 937, Buenos Aires.
Visit the city’s oldest neighbourhood on a Sunday when the cobblestoned plaza is overrun by a flea market. Make a beeline for the choripan asado and stick around for the tango that starts at 8pm.
Mercado del Progreso
Shop like a local at the biggest food market in Buenos Aires, open since 1889. Av Rivadavia 5430, Caballito, mercadodelprogreso.com.ar.
Photography by Simon Bajada.