Argentines take barbecuing to heights you cannot imagine. Their best pizzas and pastas vie with those of New York and Naples. They make fabulously tasty wines and impossibly delectable ice cream. And ethnic cuisine is rampant in Buenos Aires. In fact, you’ll eat so well here that you’ll need to power-walk between lunch and dinner to work off the excess calories.

Local Specialties & Flavors

The World’s Best Steaks

Argentines have perfected the art of grilling beef on the asado (barbecue). This involves cooking with coals and using only salt to prepare the meat. On the grill itself, slanted runners funnel the excess fat to the sides, and an adjustable height system directs the perfect amount of heat to the meat. The asado is a family institution, often taking place on Sunday in the backyards of houses all over the country.

A traditional parrillada (mixed grill) is a common preparation at parrillas (steakhouses) and offers a little bit of everything. Expect choripán (a sausage appetizer), pollo (chicken), costillas (ribs) and carne (beef). It can also come with more exotic items such as chinchulines (small intestines), mojellas (sweetbreads) and morcilla (blood sausage).

Common steak cuts:

  • Bife de chorizo Sirloin; a popular thick and juicy cut.
  • Bife de costilla T-bone or Porterhouse steak.
  • Bife de lomo Tenderloin; a tender, though less flavorful, piece.
  • Cuadril Rump steak; often a thin cut.
  • Ojo de bife Rib eye; a choice smaller morsel.
  • Tira de asado Short ribs; thin, crispy strips of ribs.
  • Vacío Flank steak; textured, chewy and flavorful.

If you don’t specify how you want your steak cooked, it will come a punto (medium to well-done). Getting a steak medium-rare or rare is harder than you'd imagine. If you want some pink in the center, order it jugoso; if you like it truly rare, try vuelta y vuelta.

Don't miss chimichurri, a tasty sauce made with olive oil, garlic and parsley – it adds a tantalizing spiciness. Occasionally you can also get salsa criolla, a condiment made of diced tomatoes, onion and parsley.

Desserts

One of Argentina’s most definitive treats is dulce de leche, a milk-caramel sauce that is dripped on everything from flan to cake to ice cream. Alfajores (round, cookie-type sandwiches) are also delicious – Argentina’s version of the candy bar. The most upscale and popular brand is Havanna (also a coffee-shop chain), but kiosks carry many other kinds.

Because of Argentina’s Italian heritage, Argentine helado is comparable to the best ice cream anywhere in the world. Amble into a heladería (ice-cream shop), order up a cone (usually you pay first) and the creamy concoction will be artistically swept up into a mountainous peak and handed over with a small plastic spoon tucked in the side. Important: granizado means with chocolate chips.

Some of the best heladería chains – with branches all over the city – are Persicco, Freddo and Una Altra Volta, but many smaller independent shops are excellent too.

Italian

Thanks to Argentina’s Italian heritage, the national cuisine has been highly influenced by Italian immigrants who entered the country during the late 19th century. Along with an animated set of speaking gestures, they brought their love of pasta, pizza, gelato and more.

Many restaurants make their own pasta – look for pasta casera (handmade pasta). Some of the varieties of pasta you’ll encounter are ravioli, sorrentinos (large, round pasta parcels similar to ravioli), ñoquis (gnocchi) and tallerines (fettuccine). Standard sauces include tuco (tomato sauce, sometimes with meat), estofado (beef stew, popular with ravioli) and salsa blanca (béchamel). Occasionally, the sauce is not included in the price of the pasta – you choose and pay for it separately.

Pizza is sold at pizzerías throughout the country, though many regular restaurants offer it as well. It’s generally very cheesy and excellent, so go ahead and order a slice or three! Other common Italian-based treats include fugazzeta (similar to focaccia) and fainá (garbanzo flatbread).

Spanish & Other Ethnic

Spanish cooking is less popular than Italian but is a cornerstone of Argentine food. In BA's Spanish restaurants, many of them found in the Congreso neighborhood, you’ll find paella, as well as other typically Spanish seafood dishes.

The Palermo Viejo neighborhood offers a selection of Armenian, Brazilian, Mexican, French, Indian, Japanese, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines (among many others). If you're craving spicy food (anathema to most Argentines), this is the place to come.

Closed-door Restaurants

A popular Buenos Aires culinary offshoot are ‘closed-door restaurants’ or puertas cerradas. These places are open only a few days per week, have timed seatings and are generally prix fixe (and mostly cash only). They’re not marked with signs and you have to ring a bell to enter. They won’t even tell you the address until you make reservations (mandatory, of course). But for that tingly feeling brought on by discovering something off the beaten path – with some of the city's best food to boot – these are the places to go.

There are two kinds of puertas cerradas: the first is where you dine in the chef's actual home, and usually sit at a large communal table. This is a great way to meet other people, often interesting travelers or expats; it's ideal for folks traveling alone. The second kind has more of a restaurant feel and tables are for separate groups – just like a regular restaurant, but not open to walk-ins. Many puertas cerradas are located in Palermo.

Some of BA's best puertas cerradas include i Latina, serving exquisite Colombian food; Casa Saltshaker, where you'll sample ex–New Yorker Dan Perlman's culinary creations and Casa Coupage, specialising in modern Argentine cuisine and wine pairings.

Steak Outside the Box

Going to a parrilla is probably on every BA visitor's to-do list, but if you want to eat meat in a different way, try these options:

Argentine Experience Learn the meaning of local hand gestures, the story of Argentina's beef and how to make empanadas and alfajores (cookie-type sandwiches usually stuffed with dulce de leche). Plus you'll eat a supremely tender steak.

Steaks by Luis An upscale asado experience where you'll nibble on cheese and sip boutique wine while watching large hunks of meat being grilled.

Parrilla Tour Meet your knowledgeable guide at a restaurant for a choripán (traditional sausage sandwich), then an empanada. You'll finish at a local parrilla.

Vegetarian Travelers

Argentine cuisine is internationally famous for its succulent grilled meats, but this doesn't mean vegetarians – or even vegans – are out of luck.

Most restaurants, including parrillas, serve a few items acceptable to most vegetarians, such as green salads, omelets, mashed potatoes, pizza and pasta. Words to look out for include carne (beef), pollo (chicken), cerdo (pork) and cordero (lamb), though all meat cuts are described in different words. Sin carne means ‘without meat’, and the phrase soy vegetariano/a (‘I’m a vegetarian’) comes in handy. Pescado (fish) and mariscos (seafood) are sometimes available for pescatarians.

In the Center there's the vegan cafe Vita. In San Telmo, head to Hierbabuena. Palermo has plenty of options, including Artemisia, Bio and Buenos Aires Verde.

Eat Like a Local

When to Eat

Argentines eat little for breakfast – usually just coffee with medialunas, either de manteca (sweet) or de grasa (plain). Tostadas (toast) with manteca (butter) or mermelada (jam) is an alternative, as are facturas (pastries). Most hotels offer this basic breakfast, but some higher-end hotels have breakfast buffets.

Argentines make up for breakfast at lunch and dinner, and they love to dine out. Every neighborhood has basic restaurants serving the staples of pasta, pizza and steak (though for the best meats, head to a parrilla).

Where to Eat

Cafes (which serve snacks, light meals and sometimes more) and confiterías (restaurant-cafes) are open all day and into the night. Bars or pubs usually have a more limited range of snacks and meals, though some offer full meals. A tenedor libre (literally, ‘free fork’) is an all-you-can-eat restaurant; quality is usually decent, but drinks are often mandatory and cost extra.

Large, modern, chain supermarkets are common, and they'll have whatever you need for self-catering, including (usually) a takeout counter with a decent range of offerings. Smaller, local grocery stores – usually family-run – are also ubiquitous, though they won't have takeout.

Tea for Two

Following in the grand tradition of Londoners and society ladies, porteños have taken to the ritual of afternoon tea. Which isn’t to say that mate is on its way out, mind you – taking a break for chamomile and crumpets is just another excuse for these highly social souls to get together and dish the latest gossip.

At these grand tea institutions, you won’t just be sipping Earl Grey – with an array of crustless sandwiches, sweets and pastries, the experience is more like a full meal. The grandmother of the tea scene is the lavish L’Orangerie at the Alvear Palace Hotel, where white-gloved service and impossibly elegant little cakes await guests fond of old-fashioned pleasantries. For something more casual but endlessly charming, go for a cuppa at El Gato Negro.

Need to Know

Opening Hours

  • Restaurants are generally open daily from noon to 3:30pm for lunch and 8pm to midnight or 1am for dinner.
  • A sure bet for that morning medialuna (croissant) and cortado (espresso coffee with steamed milk) are the city’s many cafes, which often stay open from morning to late at night without a break.

Reservations

Reserve at popular restaurants, especially on weekends. If you don’t speak Spanish, ask a staff member at your hotel to make the call for you. Or check out www.restorando.com.ar.

Tipping

Tip 10% for standard service; make it 15% for exceptional service. Tips usually cannot be added to credit-card purchases. The word for tip in Spanish is propina.

Etiquette

  • Most porteños eat no earlier than 9pm (later on weekends).
  • Ask for your bill by saying, ‘la cuenta, por favor’ (‘the bill, please’) or making the ‘writing in air’ gesture. Be aware that not all restaurants accept credit cards – always ask first.
  • At upscale restaurants, a per-person cubierto (cover charge) is tacked on to the bill. This covers the use of utensils and bread – it does not relate in any way to the tip.

Cooking Courses

Taking a small-group cooking class or private class is probably the best option for short-term visitors who don’t speak Spanish. At Norma Soued you can learn how to cook Argentine dishes such as empanadas, traditional stews and alfajores (traditional cookies).

If you have time, speak Spanish and are considering making cooking a profession, try the highly regarded Instituto Argentino de Gastronomía or Mausi Sebess, located in BA’s suburb of Vicente López.

Glossary

agua de la canilla – tap water (drinkable in BA)

alfajor – Argentina’s candy bar; a round cookie sandwich, usually covered in chocolate

chopp – draft beer

cortado – coffee with milk

dulce de leche – Argentina’s delicious version of caramel

entrada – appetizer

jugo (exprimido) – juice (freshly squeezed)

licuado – fruit shake

medialuna – croissant

milanesa – breaded cutlet

postre – dessert

sandwiches de miga – thin, crustless sandwiches

submarino – chocolate bar in milk