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An Argentine Meat Feast

Normal people, they die, and they go to regular heaven, you know, with wings and clouds and harps and all that stuff. Not me. When I die, I ain’t gonna need a halo. No, I’m gonna need a passport, because I’m going to Argentina. Argentina is carnivore heaven.

Meat Nation

The first European settlers to Argentina went out to the pampas, looked around, and saw nothing but tall grass in every direction. Instead of saying “Yo, forget this, I’m going to Cancún to take in a wet t-shirt contest and suck down Tequila until my IQ hits thirty. And my travel agent is so fired” like any normal person would, they said instead “You know what this place needs? Some cows. That would liven things up.”

That was a good call. They brought in the cows, and Argentina has never looked back. Turns out cows really dig endless plains containing about 4 billion hectares of nothing but tall grass, and the cattle industry in Argentina boomed. Before you knew it, the pampas plains were home to enough cattle to make three Big Macs for every man, woman, child and dog on the planet.

The Gauchos

Back in the day, the cattle were tended by gauchos, which were a little like cowboys without all of the singing and gunfighting, not to mention all of that Brokeback stuff. Gauchos had their horses and cool ponchos and were able to survive for years at a time living on the plains, eating nothing but beef and generally getting by on about five spoken words per month. The gauchos didn’t have much to do besides look at cows, fight and eat, because hand-held video games and iPods wouldn’t be invented for another hundred years.

Since there was nothing else to do, the gauchos elevated cooking beef into a high art form, like painting or composing waltzes or sculpture or swearing (if you’re British). They didn’t have any of the modern grilling conveniences, like electric meat forks that tell you when something is done or George Foreman Rotisserie Deluxe Extra Lean Grill-o-Matics, and they would never have used such sissy devices even if they had a place to plug them in. No sir, gauchos needed only fire and cows, thank you very much.

Gaucho Cuisine

Because these early pioneers of meat had all the time in the world (their official job description read “Keep an eye on these here cattle and when you think they’re about good and ready, bring ‘em to the nearest slaughterhouse and have them send me a check”) they tended to select cuts of beef that were tough but tasty and then cook them all day until you can pull the meat apart with your fingers.

Today, Argentina still produces insane amounts of beef, and many consider it to be the best in the world, quality-wise. The gauchos are all gone, but their beef-loving legacy lives on. The heirs to their glorious and meaty tradition still cook the old-fashioned way, immense slabs of shoe-leather tough beef expertly seasoned and slow-grilled all day until it practically falls apart.

In Buenos Aires, head to a Parilla, which is a restaurant specializing in grilled meat. The tasty menu options will make a carnivore swoon with delight and send a vegetarian into therapy. You’ll find no cheeseburgers or simple rib eyes here: use this handy guide to help you make your choice.

Bife de Chorizo: Bife de Chorizo is essentially a New York strip steak, and it’s one of the few cuts of Argentine beef that is grilled relatively quickly over a hot flame. It’s a very typical dish, and even non-parilla restaurants will usually offer bife de chorizo on their menus. All told, this is probably the favorite cut of beef of Argentines. Don’t confuse this with chorizo, or spicy sausage, they have nothing in common besides the name.

Matambre: Matambre is a large, flat, very tough piece of meat taken from the chest of the cow or steer in question. As tough as the leather hide that came from the same source, matambre is usually marinated for a while before being slow-grilled over a slow fire. Any Argentine who has done any grilling knows a secret family recipe for turning this tough but tasty cut into something edible and some of them even work. If you see it on a menu at a parilla, chances are they know how to work with it, so go ahead and give it a shot.

Lomo fino (tenderloin): Lomo fino is one of the most prized of Argentine meats. It is very tender and very tasty, and it is the cut that filet mignon comes from. Argentines will grill it filet mignon-style, cook it whole, or prepare it in a variety of sauces (occasionally).  You can’t really go wrong with this one, as unless it’s over cooked, it’s almost impossible to screw up, and any Argentine grillmaster would be forced to commit ritual suicide if he ever overcooked a lomo fino.

Entraña (skirt steak): Entraña is a flat, long cut known for good flavor and for being sort of medium-tough. It is usally salted heavily and then grilled for about a half hour per side, at which point it becomes very tasty. Be warned that in Spanish entrañas mean entrails, but not in this case: entraña is all meat, no guts. If you actually do want some guts, ask for chinchulín.

Vacío (flank steak): Although usually translated as flank steak, vacío is not like North American flank steak, which is lean and tough. Vacío is the same cut, but includes a layer of fat. When grilled, the melting fat seasons and softens the meat, giving it a great flavor. Not the healthiest item on the menu, it is nevertheless very popular with veteran parilla-goers. Vacío is a good one to try if you’re an adventurous carnivore looking for something new to love.

Chorizo (spicy sausage): They’re not beef, but these tasty little greasebombs definitely deserve a shout-out here. A proper chorizo is made of pork, heavy on the fat, with powdered aji (hot pepper), garlic and paprika, among other ingredients: every butcher in Buenos Aires has his own secret recipe, which he defends to the death: some even believe that the War of the Triple Alliance (Paraguay vs. Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, 1864-1870) was started when some Paraguayan bastard tried to steal Argentine chorizo recipes. They’re about as healthy as telling Mike Tyson in a dark alley that his momma is ugly, but man, they’re tasty.

Provoleta: another non-beef item on the menu, provoleta might be there simply for the sake of giving vegetarians something to eat so they don’t cry and whine, but don’t hold its non-beef nature against it: it’s awesome. Provoleta is a type of cheese, first cousin to provolone, which has one unique characteristic: when grilled, it scorches rather than melts. It’s usually seasoned and dunked in some olive oil, and served with tomatoes, and it’s really good, especially if you like cheese and always wondered what it would taste like if it were only crispy instead of gooey.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Argentina: Vegetarian Survival in Argentina, Argentina Food and Drink, Bodega La Caroyense, Food in Buenos Aires, Meals in Argentina, Patagonian Food and Tips For Taking Tea In Gaiman.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
02 Mar 2009

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