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Midnight at La Dorita in Buenos Aires and a friend, call her Luisa, arrives from her shrink and consumes a pound or two of bloody and delicious rump steak. On the terrace the crowd eats meat and drinks red wine from old-fashioned, thick-necked carafes. In this neighborhood restaurant, almost no one speaks English. Cigarette smoke drifts on the balmy night air. Inside there are funky glass chandeliers and a picture of the Last Supper as an Argentine barbecue. I eat a three-inch-thick tenderloin.
Why all the shrinks? I ask Luisa as she lights a cigarette. "We are very into ourselves," she says cheerfully. "Very vain, very introspective. Look how many plastic surgeons there are in Argentina. We are always in crises, political, cultural. We are never sure who we are, European or South American. We fix our faces, we fix our bodies, our minds. We are always looking for our identity," she observes, laughing, for in spite of their self-obsession, porteños—these people of the port—are wildly charming. Then, gazing at the remains of her steak, Luisa adds, "At least there is this."
"It's a love affair here," says Francis Mallmann, Argentina's most famous and perhaps best chef. "The other day I was driving my jeep in Patagonia and I came across the most handsome bull. I opened my window and groaned as thick and deep as I could—he looked at me and answered back and I wanted to hug him, and I missed him for days! What health he had! Bright eyes. Two thousand pounds of happiness, dark as the night." Drinking a glass of Malbec at Patagonia Sur, his restaurant in Buenos Aires, Mallmann has his tongue in his cheek but only just.
I've come to Buenos Aires to eat beef. I've been to Hawaii for fish, where I discovered that seafood has historic, sometimes religious meaning in that Pacific Island state. More recently I went to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I learned how much meat matters in that brutalized postwar culture—a place where everyone smokes so intensely, it's as if the cigarettes were food.
I don't cook. I'm not really a food writer. But I love food—to eat, to look at, to buy. It can be borscht in Russia, fish-and-chips in England, roast chicken in Paris, gumbo in post-Katrina New Orleans, as long as it's archetypal food, thrilling food, food drawing on regional culture and community, food that's about sheer pleasure and about history and survival.
In Buenos Aires there is endless talk about beef: Locals discuss where to eat it, how to grill it, cattle and breeding, whether the asado (the country barbecue) has become theme parked. But this is a profoundly urban cosmopolis, so I keep thinking, Isn't all this talk about cows and the Jungian memories of gaucho culture as much shtick as anything else? Like New Yorkers obsessing over which pizza in their city is best? At first I'm inclined to believe the jaded comment from a Brazilian I meet on the plane. "Buenos Aires?" she says with a shrug. "Choose a cow, eat it, buy a handbag."
Buenos Aires is enormous, beautiful, melancholy—a city of broad boulevards, ripe Belle Epoque architecture, ramshackle slums, glorious parks, and a terrible history. Around a third of Argentina's population of 40 million people lives here. In terms of square miles, it's the ninth-largest metropolis on earth, so big that its suburban edges almost reach into the pampas, the grazing country. There is a tension between urban and rural but also a connective tissue. What other city holds an annual livestock show—where cattle are the superstars—in the middle of one of its wealthiest neighborhoods?
In Buenos Aires beef is part of the zeitgeist, bred in the bone, invested with the country's history, with the mythical qualities of the vast pampas, as epic as America's West or the Russian steppes. "The Argentine gaucho is the most elegant meat eater on the planet," says Mallmann of the iconic South American cowboy. "He will stop for early lunch in the country, build a fire, and roast some meat. He cuts a small chunk with his facón [the sharp curving gaucho knife], puts it on a galleta—a hard-soft bread that lasts in a brown paper bag for weeks. He eats standing up. He eats his meat well-done with lots of crust and he eats very little—that's the elegance."
In Argentina beef is about style, sex, religion, and art. There are tangos about beef and movies about beef. Think of the words: carne (meat or flesh), carnival (the time of sensual abandon just before Lent, traditionally a nonmeat-eating period), carnal. Armando Bó's 1968 kitsch classic film, Carne, had for its subject a young girl working in a meat plant who is repeatedly raped in the back of a refrigerated meat truck. She is finally rescued by her true love, the only one who sees true purity in her gorgeous flesh.
In The Daily Telegraph, Chris Moss writes that when men on the street in Buenos Aires see a pretty woman they will groan "¡Qué looooomo!" which can mean "What wonderful thighs she's got!" but also "What a fillet steak!"
The sweet smell of cooking beef scents the air in Buenos Aires—from backyard barbecues and the open windows of thousands of parrillas (steak houses). At construction sites, workers grill meat on portable hibachis.
Over the course of a week, I sample beef at a dozen restaurants. I talk to chefs and butchers and one local who reports discussing beef with his shrink. Along the riverside, men of a certain age in tiny Speedos roast in the sun like meat on a spit as I munch on a choripán, grilled sausage in a bun, B.A.'s hot dog. I think: This is not shtick.
Beef in Buenos Aires is, more than anything, like music in New Orleans. It goes through the city—and the country—like wine through water; it's part of its soul, a kind of cultural glue. At some parrillas, the diners applaud the parrillero (grill master) as he produces the beef for his audience.
At La Brigada, owner and chef Hugo Echevarrieta oversees a well-ordered frenzy—the cooking, the seating, the wine list. I'm here with a local friend and Jack, my old traveling companion whom I sometimes call the Cynic because he resists the hyperbole about food I'm prone to. The sound at the restaurant is of families—children laughing, babies crying—and the lip-smacking anticipation of beef. The walls are crammed with pictures of soccer players and cows. If La Brigada looks like a pub, its reputation for great beef and a certain chic means people clamor for tables, especially at Sunday lunch, with urban desperation. "Even the president can't always get in," a woman sitting near us points out. "But then, he doesn't want us eating beef." The week before I arrive, Argentina's president, Néstor Kirchner, has urged the country to eat less beef in order to force prices down. At La Brigada, no one seems to have noticed.
After an appetizer of sweetbreads and chinchulines, the delicious crispy intestines, there's a rib eye, a skirt steak, and a 30-ounce baby beef. At first bite, Argentine beef seems less voluptuous, less overwhelmingly rich than great American beef. Then you eat some more and realize it's also more flavorful. American beef is bred fast for fat—the marbling is what counts. Argentina's is leaner and sweeter. It can also be chewier because the cattle range free, work hard to feed, get more exercise, and are more muscular than force-fed American fatties pumped up with hormones in feedlots.
It is, finally, about grass. Cattle are meant to eat grass—it's how their stomachs work and anything else is alien and, in a sense, artificial. It's why every piece of Argentine beef tastes different, depending on which part of the pampas the cow or steer grazed or how the weather was. Like wine, nature gives each animal a singular inflection. This is as far from a Big Mac as you can get; the beef I eat in Buenos Aires tastes, and everyone says this, but it's true, of the way you hear tell preindustrial food once did.
In Buenos Aires people are not coy about the parts they eat. I consume rump, sirloin, T-bone, and flank steak. There is beef carpaccio, veal carpaccio, sausages, ribs, empanadas stuffed with tongue. If I had time I would run over to the Jewish neighborhood in the Once district to try a corned-beef sandwich. There are beef stews and beef tamales and fried beef cutlets called milanesas. (I also buy a leather handbag and silver pins in the shape of cows and sit on ottomans made of brown-and-white cowhide.) I eat blood sausage and kidneys. I draw the line at udder; the Cynic refuses bull's penis.
The names of the different cuts are confusing, the translations not always the same from restaurant to restaurant. Bife de lomo is described variously as fillet or tenderloin, bife de chorizo as "steak cut off the rib similar to sirloin or porterhouse" and as "something like an English rump." Asado de tira is described as rib roast grilled on a spit, tira de asado as short ribs, which is also how I saw rump steak described. There are 27 cuts, about 19 of which are frequently used, and few conform to those prepared by American or European butchers.
Baby beef usually takes center stage, though. Back at La Brigada, with a hokey magician's flourish others might use to flambé a crêpe tableside, the waiter wields his spoon over the beef and then, making sure we're watching, uses it to cut the meat. It's a gimmick, of course, and I'm not all that interested in cutting my meat with a spoon; I'm fine with a knife. But the beef—two or three inches high—is incredibly tender and somehow light and not greasy. Still, it is the skinny skirt steak, strips of beef both crunchy and substantial, I am crazy for.
Busting from lunch at La Brigada, we have coffee outside in the Plaza Dorrego, which sits on the oldest roadway in the city, the ancient colonial Calle Defensa. The San Telmo district, with its cobblestoned streets and colonial mansions, was home to Buenos Aires's rich up until the 1870s, when a yellow fever epidemic sent them fleeing north. The neighborhood declined and became a backwater of working-class flats. Now it's the loveliest part of town, Buenos Aires's Greenwich Village, its Latin Quarter.
Only Francis Mallmann would put a restaurant in La Boca. The old port district next to San Telmo is a seedy waterfront area, and apart from some tourist cafés on the docks and a strip of workers' shacks made of corrugated metal painted a hundred colors, it's a wild warren of old warehouses and factories. The area is dark at night and delectably edgy, like New York's SoHo when I moved there 25 years ago.
Mallmann's place, Patagonia Sur, is a converted townhouse that's all books and art, old furniture, flowers and candles, and erotic cartoons in the bathroom. It looks like a rich bohemian's private house and, in fact, Mallmann lives upstairs. "Classical rebellion" is how he describes his culinary style, ex-plaining that he considers cooking "a craft" and that " 'art' is a bit of an arrogant term for what we do with our pots and pans."
Although Mallmann's lamb, chicken, ri-sotto, and pasta are terrific, it's the beef dishes that are sublime: a rump steak with thyme-flecked vegetables; a thin-cut griddled fillet steak with sweet-potato fries, guacamole, and tomatoes; and something Mallmann calls "a tummy cut of the beast" roasted with boiled new potatoes, then smashed and burned on a griddle with chile flakes. Finally there is the classic rib eye over potato galette with chimichurri, the ubiquitous sauce made of oil, coarse salt, oregano, chiles, vinegar, and garlic. (It's about the only sauce you find at most steak houses here. For the most part, in Buenos Aires the beef comes big and naked.)
Francis Mallmann, chef, poet, dandy, wit, was born and lives in Buenos Aires and has owned restaurants in Spain, in Brazil, and on New York's Long Island. He is an urban guy, a porteño, but he gets his identity from the immensity of the country—Argentina feels itself to be a big country. When I meet him, he has just returned from a 6,000-mile trip around Patagonia.
"When I think of my happiest night," Mallmann says, "it will be under the stars, standing by my fire with a large stick roasting Andean potatoes al rescoldo [buried in ashes] while half a cow on my grill marinates with salmuera [brine]."
La Boca was the point of disembarkation for millions of European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, many of them Italian. The faces here—elderly shoemakers, workers at the factories—are those of Turin, Genoa, Palermo. It's at El Obrero, an old café five minutes by cab from Patagonia Sur, that I become addicted to the local ribs, which are similar to dry Chinese spareribs, succulent but much more subtle than greasy southern ribs that ooze barbecue sauce. With its checkered curtains and menu on a blackboard, El Obrero is an ancient and venerable workers' canteen at lunchtime; at night it has a certain slumming-it chic. The photos on the walls are of footballers but also visiting celebs: Wim Wenders and the awfully ubiquitous Bono. As everywhere in B.A., there's a picture of Diego Maradona, the soccer player who is the Argentine Jesus of sports—or maybe just the Argentine Jesus. (What I love is that as often as not, there is also a picture of the great writer Jorge Luis Borges next to him; it's like finding Walt Whitman hanging beside Babe Ruth in an American sports bar.)
The days pass in a whirl of beef and balmy weather. More parrillas, more late nights, more bottles of good Malbec—I'm in love with Buenos Aires. I adore its size, the way it spreads out along the river, the feel of the streets—small scale here, as monumental there as at the great central square Plaza de Mayo. This has always been a febrile, complicated metropolis at the center of a country beset over the years by colonial wars, Indian wars, military coups, the "dirty war," political instability (left and right), and most recently fiscal crises. In 2001 the bottom fell out of the economy and destroyed the middle class; even now no one feels really secure. People who can send their money to foreign banks. "Maybe there's something in the cow that's reassuring," says the Cynic. "Something in that stolid bovine creature forever lumbering to the horizon of the endless pampas. People know there will always be food. This country has always, at least, been able to feed itself."
Beef has been inextricably tied to Argentina's history from the beginning, but for hundreds of years after the Spanish settled, the cattle ran wild and were mainly used for tallow and hides. Early gauchos killed them for the tongues, which they ate.
An Englishman named John Miller im-ported the first shorthorn bull in the 1820s. Nowadays people say the purest British beef on earth is in Argentina, and locals will show you breeding records and old tinted snapshots of herds of Hereford and Aberdeen Angus. The most telling photograph I saw in the whole city was at a souvenir stall: a sepia print from the forties of a big naked man with his big naked bull.
The imperial Brits always considered beef and Britishness synonymous—think John Bull, Beefeater, the Sunday roast, Mrs. Lovett's meat pies before she met Sweeney Todd. In the late 19th century, England ran Argentina's railways, much of its industry, and its meat-processing plants. The Harrods building still stands in Buenos Aires and there's a Hurlingham club, where members play cricket on weekends. Some call Argentina Britain's lost colony.
Technological ad-vances made ranching possible and profitable—barbed wire for fencing, windmills for water, railways, refrigeration, meat-processing plants. Beef barons built extravagant houses in town and out, a Tudor mansion here, a French château or an Italian villa there—crazy symbols of wealth and domination and an assertion of European identity, sticking up from the endless flat pampas.
Buenos Aires boomed, grand boulevards were laid out in the style of Haussmann's Paris, Beaux-Arts mansions and an opera house were built, as well as grand parks, a zoo, and botanical gardens. Emigrants came from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Croatia. By 1914 it was the biggest city on the continent, the hub of a country that looked as if it would be a world player.
How about some fish-and-chips?" the Cynic inquires when we arrive at La Cabaña, where two life- size cow sculptures greet us at the door. Located in the elegant Recoleta district, the restaurant is done up like a beef baron's mansion. You can have beef in the various communal dining rooms or private rooms or on the terrace. They also serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, and tea and offer a half-day course in the art of the barbecue. Eat the King's Beef—named for King Juan Carlos of Spain—a statuesque, immense, deep, profound rib eye. Afterward you can get a photograph of the steer you just ate, complete with its weight, age, and ancestry.
At Casa Cruz, a restaurant in the northern residential area of Palermo Viejo, there are mahogany paneled walls and velvet drapes. A waitress brings out an exquisite slice of steak and artistically arranges it on a plate alongside a marrowbone split lengthwise and dots of tomato confit. Juan Santa Cruz, one of the owners, stops by. "I was an investment banker in New York," he says. "But then I started to miss eating beef every day."
The next day there is a flank steak with mashed potatoes, carpaccio like silk, a very fine burger, and a rib eye with mashed potatoes, all at Bar Uriarte, also in Palermo Viejo. This is a long, cool space with an open grill and a garden in back. You sit outside and feel as if you're in southern California.
I'd like to report that I ate the best beef in Buenos Aires in a bare-bones hole in the wall no one else has ever heard of; the truth is, the best I've ever eaten is at Restaurante Cabaña Las Lilas. Las Lilas, as regulars call it, is in Puerto Madero, the renovated docklands near the river. Modern hotels and office buildings glitter against the sky and yachts bob in the marina.
This is a huge, handsome restaurant where businessmen—the tassels on their loafers jiggling in anticipation—hunker down to eat enormous slabs of beef at massive tables cut from Brazilian trees. Squads of big-shouldered parrilleros work the massive grills. The meat comes directly from Las Lilas's private cabaña, or cattle station, where champion herds are raised.
We settle down in large chairs at a big table on the wide terrace. The dry-aged rib eyes are succulent, gorgeous, deep, meaty, the porterhouse big enough for two or three. There is rump steak and grilled sweetbreads. The sizzling papas a la provenzal are sensational (french fries here are often cooked in rendered beef fat). I am drowning in beef. As we leave the restaurant, a worker pushes a handcart piled with steaks into the grill area and looks down tenderly at the beef.
"Most of the city's institutions—schools, supermarkets, hotels, the army—come here to buy," says a meat broker in a green plaid shirt and black jeans. He's standing in the Mercado de Liniers meat market, sipping from a tiny paper cup of espresso he bought from a little boy with a thermos and inspecting glossy brown cows neatly lined up in one pen. "They seem almost to know as if this was the end of the line," he added with a certain Argentine melancholy.
At dawn, the slanting early-morning sun lights up the cattle in the pens like a Brueghel and picks out an orange beret worn by a cowboy on horseback. A cigarette hanging from his lip, cell phone in hand, a pot of yellow paint hanging from his saddle, he has a branding iron, which he dips into the paint to mark the various groups of cattle for sale today.
Suddenly the auctioneer raises his megaphone and raps a tiny metal hammer on the iron railings. Behind him, anxious to bid, the buyers form a kind of urgent conga line, their hands literally on the shoulders of the man in front, and follow the auctioneer along the walkways as he shouts out prices. "Three and a half pesos per kilogram today," the amiable manager of the market says to me. "Most days we sell be-tween five and ten thousand head."
Even the graffiti in the bathroom at the market is of cows.
The next day, my last, Francis Mallmann cooks lunch for some friends at Patagonia Sur. Six of us sit down and nibble at bruschetta and drink red wine. And then…the beast is borne in by several waiters from the back of the restaurant, where it has been roasted. A whole leg of baby cow, crusty, glistening brown, served up with potato galettes. Mallmann rises to carve it and places huge dripping slabs on each plate. The texture is like roast beef, but different, better, more poetic.
We eat. Mallmann looks pleased. He's in love with it all, the country, the city, the cows.
"Fire, wood, coals, and beef are the ro-mance," he says. "It's a silent language that sleeps in our guts when we are born and then takes our soul as we grow."
Is This The Best Beef In The World?
Below, the stats on eight restaurants you can't leave Buenos Aires without visiting.
Dinner, $40. 1572 Uriarte, Palermo Viejo; 54-11/4834-6004; baruriarte.com.ar
Dinner, $30. 465 Estados Unidos, San Telmo; 54-11/ 4361-5557; labrigada.com
Dinner, $100. 1967 Rodríguez Peña, Recoleta; 54-11/ 4814-0001; lacabanabuenosaires.com.ar
Dinner, $65. 1658 Uriarte, Palermo Viejo; 54-11/4833-1112; casa-cruz.com
$ Dinner, $20. 1905 Humboldt, Palermo Hollywood; 54-11/4773-0070; parrillaladorita.com.ar
$ Dinner, $15. 64 Agustín R. Caffarena, La Boca; 54-11/4362-9912
Dinner, $100. 801 Rocha, La Boca; 54-11/4303-5917; restaurantepatagoniasur.com
Restaurante Cabana Las Lilas
Dinner, $60. 516 Avda. Alicia Moreau de Justo, Puerto Madero; 54-11/4313-1336; laslilas.com