Sunday, November 28, 2010

La Comida!

Wouldn't be Thanksgiving if I didn't get a leg.

Thanksgiving was a huge success at Casa de California. We cooked up a storm for 12 friends and admirers, and only had to substitute one ingredient: cranberries. They don't really know what those are here so we made cherry sauce instead with some lemon juice to jump start the tart factor and it rocked.

A table full of extranjeros.

Enough with what we're bringing to the table. How about that Argentine cuisine? Well, most portenos have heart diseases when they're older, especially men (Como se dice "diet"?) as the culture hasn't quite adopted basic nutritional understandings such as avoiding fried food or red meat, or fried red meat. That's not to say that there aren't affordable alternatives to the standard Argentine regiment, but these aren't so popular with the locals.

Lunch time: Milanesa sandwich (left) and empanada (right)

No one can talk about Argentine cuisine without discussing minutas (fast food). You can find freshly made milanesas, essentially fried breaded meat (steak or chicken), at every porteno restaurant and market in this city. Same goes for empanadas -- meat pastries usually stuffed with chopped peppers, onions and eggs -- which are pretty much the go-to cheapest option and can be the most filling meal in the city. A milanesa, also known as a "milanga," can go for anywhere between 10 and 25 pesos (2.5-6.5 USD) depending on what you get on it, while empanadas usually sell for 3 or 4 pesos per pastry. A milanesa completa/suprema is the Argentine equivalent of "the works" and comes with ham, lettuce, tomato, and sometimes an egg on top of the breaded meat. Another popular lunch dish is the tarta (tart), which can be as simple as spinach and cheese or as complex as a triple or quadruple layered pie.

Don't feel like sleeping? Look no further.

Following the workday, at around 5 PM, locals will sit down for some yerba mate (highly caffeinated herbal tea) and facturas (pastries) for their merienda (tea time). Some people add spices or orange juice to their gourd of mate (pictured above) to counter its naturally powerful earthy flavor. You traditionally use a bombilla (metal straw with a strainer at its base) to drink this afternoon delight. The term "facturas" literally means "receipts": a name that caught on when Italian expat anarchists were running bakeries and coining anti-establishment names for their pastries during the first half of the twentieth century. Facturas come in many varieties (see picture below) and are insanely cheap. Many of these still retain the names the anarchists had given them, such as bolas de fraile ("balls of the priest") or vigilantes (derogatory name for cops). Many facturas are filled with dulce de leche (milk caramel, as you can see in the powdered ones pictured below).


Dinners usually take place at around 10 or 11, though this Yankee likes to grub earlier most nights when I'm not eating out. The "eating in" strategy is particularly viable in Buenos Aires as many affordable (and not-so-affordable) dinner spots deliver free of charge. If there's one website that can save an expats' life on a Sunday night...

A helpful guide for most restaurant menus in Buenos Aires (courtesy of

If you decide to dine out, the main staples of Buenos Aires dinner cuisine are parrilla, asado, pizza, and pasta. Parrilla is served as an assortment of different parts of the cow or pig, while asado is the equivalent of ordering a nice cut of steak. Despite my infatuation with empanadas, I try not to eat too much red meat but the steak here is impossibly good considering how simply it is prepared and how cheaply it's priced. It comes down to the quality of Argentine meat (which has been its staple good for most of its history due to decades of misdirected economic planning) and the way it is cooked in antique open ovens.

Special delivery: pizza jamon y morrones (ham and roasted red peppers)

The pizza here is nothing short of spectacular for similar reasons. And while the ingredients are ostensibly simple, most of the open-oven firepit cuisine at pizza bars here would be considered gourmet in the States. The fact that many of these places deliver free of charge (one of our favorites delivers on rollerblades) only adds to the convenience and affordability that makes Buenos Aires food culture so great. You can see my favorite kind of 'za pictured above, which offers a unique sweet-and-savory balance and is pretty common to find at any of the myriad eateries claiming to specialize in the art. Though usually not as remarkable as the pizza (I'm not the biggest fan of cream sauces), you can find various types of pastas at most sit-down restaurants around town, including tallarines (spaghetti), ravioli, and gnocchi.

Cazuela de calabazas y lomo (squash and sirloin stew).

One of the more popular and reasonably priced restaurants in the city, located a few blocks from my apartment, is known for their traditional Argentine stews known as cazuelas (pictured above). Many of these cazuelas are basically empanadas in a potato or squash stew: chock full of meat, peppers, onions, and egg. Add in a couple of olives, maybe some cheese on top and a lot of deliciousness and you've basically arrived at my new favorite winter's meal. It's summer here, but it's just too good and cheap to pass up. I pretty much eat at this place once a week minimum, as one of my missions while I'm down here is to try everything on its diverse menu.


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