It was week 4 of our month-long South American trip, and other than 2 Japanese meals, we had not veered outside of local cuisines. Though there was plenty of regional cooking to try in Brazil, there had been less variety to choose from in Argentina. And after a week of steaks and empanadas, even the most die hard beef lover had to take a breather. Thank goodness we had plenty to choose from in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires.
I’m not my self-confessed Chinaman father’s daughter for naught. Ever since I found out about the small Chinatown (Barrio Chino) hidden in the Belgrano district, I became obsessed with the idea of settling our first meal in Buenos Aires there. The fact that we found a straight bus bringing us from the B&B to Chinatown sealed the deal. Problem was, there were very few online write-ups about the dozen or so restaurants lining the 2 main streets of Chinatown, and the only recommendation we had, the stand in the supermarket was closed by the time we got there. 2nd line of attack? The line test, where any restaurant with people waiting outside is theoretically worth a shot. Cantina Chinatown was one of the only two restaurants with a semblance of a crowd that night (the other being a vegetarian restaurant), so we hunkered down and ordered away. Eschewing the chop suey and fried noodles other tables were ordering, we flipped to the specials page and were surprised to find a short list of traditional Taiwanese fare, such as lu-rou rice, ordering a pork chop rice and a bowl of pork and preserved vegetable noodles. The verdict? Pas mal and slightly above our watered-down expectations. P’s pork chop was generous, with enough spices on the batter and not too greasy, though one could give the bland noodles a miss. Though the room was full, it consisted largely of non-Asian diners, the only Asian tables besides us being a young Korean family. I guess the Chinese in Buenos Aires choose to eat at home.
Peruvian food has gotten chic over the years with the growing popularity of certain fusion styles (Peruvian-Japanese, and even Peruvian-Mediterranean). Since it is very rare to find Peruvian restaurants where we live, we made sure to visit Chan Chan – a relatively well touristed restaurant in the Micro-Centro – for lunch.
Arriving slightly before 2pm, the room was still buzzing with a mix of locals and tourists, the brightly hued room decorated whimsically with strange cartoon animal murals and a row of colorful Catholic figures on the ledge above the door, Mother Mary smiling beatifically at you as you sup on spicy fish stew.
As entertaining as the scenery is, what grabbed us was the food. Ceviche, the Peruvian staple of fish and seafood cured in acidic lime juice, was the dish we took least too despite being the most famous. While it was cold and tart, we tasted just a tinge of fishiness that could be a sign the fish was not pristinely fresh.
Better were our mains, for P a leg of rabbit slathered in a thick curry-like sauce and some crack-like stewed potatoes imbued with rich savory flavor, and for me the aforementioned fish stew with a request to spice up the broth. The kitchen certainly applied the spices, the resulting an orangey broth enriched with sweet onions, studded with chunks of merlan and spicy enough to ward off a cold. We washed it all down with a penguin pitcher filled with chicha morada, the purple corn drink loaded with cinnamon that I liken to Peruvian Dr Pepper.
Not that well-known within the tourist or blog spheres, we landed up at Casal de Catalunya’s restaurant on the back of a local’s recommendation. Indeed, we would have never found the place on our own, the intimate restaurant tucked inside an old historic townhouse in San Telmo, which also houses an old theatre and 125 year old cultural foundation for the Catalans in Buenos Aires. There are no signs outside and one can only enter after someone inside the restaurant responds to your door bell.
Traditional Spanish cuisine is served at the restaurant, and that day we feasted on a beautiful cast-iron pan of firm, white fish poached in a garlicky wine and olive oil based sauce. With spinach for added vitamins, potatoes for added starch and bread for even more starch (and to sop up the super tasty sauce), it was a well-rounded meal in a pan.
Dessert was the traditional creme catalana, an egg-rich custard not unlike a more liquid creme brulee, with a hint of cinnamon and a light crust of burnt sugar. Highly recommended, as with the restaurant in general for a slightly upscale meal in a beautiful setting.
It is estimated that up to 25 million Argentines (~60% of total population) have some degree of Italian ancestry. So despite Argentina being a Spanish colony, it is the Italians that had firmly ingrained their culinary DNA into Argentine kitchens. Besides steak and empanadas, the next most common menu item is often pasta, and pizza shops are dime in a dozen.
However, while Italy can claim its influence on Argentinian cuisine, Argentine pizza is a completely different beast from its brethren in the old country. Whereas Italy is best known for its thin crust Neapolitan pizza, the ones we tried in Argentina had thicker crusts and were largely pan pizzas, the texture not unlike the commercially made Pizza Hut pizzas, though with a much better char on the bottom. And while the Italians are quite sparing with their toppings, Argentinians love having more on the dough, especially piles and piles of cheese.
Fugazzeta pizza is a decidedly Argentinian invention, a white pizza loaded with onions, that having undergone high oven heat, gain textures and tastes ranging from blistered and crisp, to soft and caramelly sweet. Another invention is the faina, a thin slice of chickpea dough that complements the pizza. We saw people place it on top of a slice of pizza, making an impromptu pizza sandwich.
Finally, a good place to try the fugazzeta and other oven-baked delights is Las Cuartetas, kitty corner to the Obelisk and a crowd favorite judging by the number of people there on a Saturday night while other neighboring pizza shops had half the clientele. The atmosphere was noisy, the pace frantic. We decided to join those on the self-serve line, meaning we got to experience ordering at the cashier, waiting haplessly at the counter with our receipt (before a bemused cooked decided to help me bark out orders to the pizza handler), and sitting side by side on the benches placed at the edge of the room for folks like us, who ordered take out but nevertheless wanted to eat our pizza there on a plate. All in a night’s work.
Cantina Chinatown: Mendoza 1700, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Chan Chan: Hipólito Yrigoyen 1390, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Casal de Catalunya: Chacabuco 863, entre Estados Unidos e Independencia, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Las Cuartetas: Avenida Corrientes 838, Buenos Aires, Argentina