The cuisine of Argentina is particularly famous for its huge steaks and barbecued meat. The culinary scene is naturally about much more than meat dishes; immigrants from all parts of the world, and to some extent the native peoples, have all made their contributions to the country's cuisine.
Nevertheless, vegetarians may have a harder time in Argentina than elsewhere. While almost all of the world's common vegetables are grown in the country, few dishes are entirely meat-free. Notable exceptions are pizza and pasta dishes where Italian immigrants have influenced the country's culinary culture.
Argentina is not only the world's biggest grazing grounds but also the granary of South America. Immigrants from all over the world have influenced the cuisine, most notably the Spanish and Italians. Therefore it might come as a surprise why the cuisine is so heavy on meat. The explanation is historical: the huge pampas allowed for great numbers of feral cattle, so meat became the cheapest food in the land. Large-scale organized agriculture was only introduced later, in the 19th century.
Breakfast (desayuno) is rather spartan here, most people just have a cup of coffee, possibly with a few pieces of toast bread (tostadas) or croissants (medialunas). Coffee is usually drunk black or with a few drops of milk (cortado), rarely with more milk (café con leche). Some cafés offer a larger desayuno americano.
Lunch (almuerzo) is eaten between 12:00 and 14:00, like in Central Europe. This is usually a warm and heavy meal, though not as big as dinner. It's common to have for example pasta for lunch and meat for dinner.
In the afternoon and before dinner there are two "informal" meals, that some skip. The merienda is eaten between 16:00 and 18:00 and is comparable to the British afternoon tea. This meal is commonly composed of coffee or maté together with pastries (criollos or facturas). Picada, eaten around 18:00-19:00 or after work and usually with friends or work colleagues is composed of salty snacks (cheese, sausages) and a beer.
The main meal of the day is dinner (cena) which is at least as big as lunch. As in Spain, it's eaten rather late, between 20:00-23:00, and for festive dinners (like asado) even later. Dinner usually features meat dishes, though pizza is also fairly common. On the other hand, cold dinners are virtually unheard of.
When it comes to design and menus, restaurants in Argentina are rather alike. Locals often prefer to have a traditional steak when eating out, whereas "exotic" restaurants can be found only in bigger cities.
Parrilla, "barbeque", is not only the name of the grill where the food is made, but also of the most popular restaurant type – serving asado and other barbequed foods. Bigger parrillas also have a few vegetarian and pasta dishes on the menu, but far from all of them do. These restaurants usually have the character of a "dining hall"; large, with little decoration and (often loud) music. They are especially suitable for celebrating with friends and family.
The most popular dish is the parillada, basically an asado. Guests are served different barbequed meats, sausages and offal and one can eat as much as one likes at a fixed price per person. Nevertheless, drinks, salads and sides (commonly fries or mashed potatoes) cost extra. Usually the price includes an empanada as a starter and a dessert.
Pizza and pasta
Immigration from Italy has set a remarkable mark on the culinary culture of Argentina. Pizzas and pasta dishes are some of the most beloved dishes, and pizzerias in all forms and price classes are ubiquitous. A cheap meal is a muzzarella, a simple pizza topped with tomato sauce and cheese.
Cheaper pizzerias commonly also offer other types of fast food. Higher up the price scale there are parrilla-like dining halls serving pizza instead of barbecue. More expensive places (both chains like Il Gatto and individual pizzerias) also offer a range of other Italian food, particularly pasta dishes. These more expensive places are considerably different from the rest both when it comes to the price and quality of the pizzas.
Fast food and minutas
The fast food scene is not too different from the American, but there are a few local dishes around too. Fast food places have a standard set of dishes that are the same in all outlets.
Fast food mostly comprises different sandwiches, many of which can be considered complete meals rather than quick snacks. There are often two versions of sandwiches; simple with tomatoes and lettuce in addition to the main topping, and completo with cheese, egg, sometimes ham and french fries.
A popular sandwich is lomito, a white bread with a thin slice of beef, tomatoes, cheese, egg, ham and lettuce. If the beef is replaced with schnitzel, it is known as sandwich de milanesa. Also hamburgers, commonly as big as the lomitos, are a popular choice. You may also encounter oddball sandwiches, like lomo de molleja made of sweetbread (thymus), but these are less common than in the past.
Smaller sandwiches include hot dogs, the usual version seen around the world (pancho), with a spicy chorizo sausage (choripan), or barbequed blood sausage (morcipan). Middle Eastern fast food like döner and shwarma are surprisingly uncommon.
Almost all fast food places also have pizza and empanadas. In addition they serve minutas, a name for simpler dishes like schnitzel (milanesa) with mashed potatoes and some simpler pasta dishes.
While global fast food chains (McDonald's especially) aren't hard to find, but most fast food places are independent (some of them part of local chains operating in one city or area). Overall the quality of the food varies, but the food is rarely really bad. Some sandwich places aren't proper fast food places but "higher up" in the price range with their own signature sauces and finer toppings.
Tenedor Libre and comida por kilo
Tenedor Libre or Diente Libre are buffets, places where you pay once and may eat as much you like. They are comparable in size to parrillas, and relatively cheap. The food quality varies widely in such places, and if you plan to go to a cheap establishment, better inquire with locals before, to avoid disappointment.
Tenedor libre restaurants often offer Argentinian fare, ie. plenty of red meat, some chicken, empanadas, a variety of potato and rice side dishes and simple salads. There are also tenedor libre restaurants serving Chinese food.
Comida por kilo is a variety of this, you can also fill your platter with as much food as you wish, but it's weighed and you will pay according to the weight. Often these places have better food than tenedor libre restaurants.
Restaurants with regional specialties are common in Northwestern Argentina. This is the only region with a cuisine notably different from the rest of the country.
Such restaurants are often aimed at tourists, but as most tourists here are domestic, it won't necessarily mean they are expensive. Dishes to try include humita and tamal (two types of maize porridge), chicken served with rice and hot pepper sauce (picante de pollo) and various empanadas. The ambience in the restaurants varies, though the decoration is usually "regional" with ponchos and gaucho hats.
Fine dining isn't really a thing in Argentina. Restaurants with star chefs are to be found only in major cities. These places are naturally expensive, though the ambience is more elegant than normal restaurants. These are as a rule the only places where steaks are served with sauce.
Unlike regular restaurants, "star chefs" (the Michelin guide doesn't cover Argentina yet) cook Argentine, South American and more exotic dishes. For instance Southeast Asian dishes are a quite common sight on menus in fine dining restaurants.
Popular in Argentina since the 1990s, Resto-Bars or Restó are a mix of restaurant and bar. These are places where you can have dinner, listen or dance to music, and stay for a few drinks, or just come for one of these.
Some restós only have fast food like empanadas on the menu, others have a creative chef making new dishes every day, and as such these are the most affordable places to have "unusual" dishes.
Asado (barbeque) can be considered the signature dish of Argentina. There are few places where barbeque has such a large place in the local cuisine as in Argentina. It's a true social institution, often bringing together the extended family and friends.
Beef is the most common meat on the asado, especially in the Pampas. In Patagonia, where sheep is the main livestock, lamb is more popular. Also common are goat (cabrido) and chicken (pollo asado). Pork is rare, and considered a delicacy. Frequently many different meats are barbequed.
Many parts of the animal can be barbequed. Ribs come in three variants, costilla, tira de asado and falda depending on how the meat is cut. Falda is composed of the smaller, fattier ribs at the ends of the chest. Vacío (flank) and different round steaks are also common. Common barbequed offal includes molleja (sweetbread), chinchulines (small intestines) and riñones (kidneys). Sausages such as chorizo (spicy) and morcilla (blood sausage) are also common on an asado.
In the "normal" version of asado, the meat parts are prepared on a grill, and always over the glowing charcoals, never over the flame. In the traditional version, asado con cuero, the animal is cut up in a few big pieces and set above a fire or heap of glowing charcoals. The biggest versions of asado con cuero entails the whole animal being roasted in this way, though this is common only at really big events such as folklore and gaucho festivals, and this preparation reportedly makes the meat particularly delicious.
Side dishes are usually limited simple salads (green, tomato, and potato salad). Spicy chimichurri sauce made up of oil, spices and herbs (red pepper, black pepper, oregano and parsley) is common.
Steaks and other meat dishes
Some popular steak varieties include:
- Bife de chorizo, comparable to rump steak. It's usually welldone, served with a side dish and without sauce.
- Bife de lomo, filet steak, served like bife de chorizo but is a bit more tender.
- Bife a caballo, any steak served with a fried egg.
Chicken is commonly eaten barbequed with potatoes (fries or mashed potatoes) or rice with red pepper sauce (in the north, known as picante de pollo). Chicken schnitzel (milanesa de pollo) and chicken steaks (suprema de pollo) are also popular. Boiled chicken isn't very common, save for the guiso stew.
A particularly delicious chicken dish is pollo al disco, which, like asado is eaten at festivities among extended family and friends. Remotely reminiscent of Spanish paella, this is a big pan with chicken, onions and red pepper heated on the parilla, later white wine and rice is added and everything is boiled.
Empanadas and Tartas
Empanadas are stuffed dough pockets, mostly in the shape of a half moon, and with a characteristical pattern at the edge where it is closed. It's the most famous dish of the northwestern part of the country, and probably from the Salta province, which would explain why they are called salteñas in neighboring Bolivia.
There's a range of different empanada fillings:
- criollas saladas, with a spicy mix of ground meat, olives and eggs
- criollas dulces, also with ground meat, but with added sugar to make it sweet-sour
- criollas picantes, like criollas saladas, but spicier
- salteñas, with ground meat, red pepper, and potato pieces
- cordobesas, sweet-sour with ground meat, raisins and potatoes
- jamón y queso, with ham and cheese
- cebolla y queso, with onions and cheese
- roquefort, with Roquefort-cheese
- atún, also known as de vigilia (fasting empanadas), mostly eaten during lent, with tuna
- tomate y albahaca, with tomato and basil
- de acelga, with mangold cheese
- árabes, with ground meat and onions. Originally from the middle eastern cuisine, these are different from the rest of the empanadas; triangular in form, and the filling isn't boiled but the meat is left to simmer in onion and lemon juice whereafter the empanadas are baked.
Tartas are vegetable pies made with similar dough and fillings as empanadas. Some popular fillings are ground meat with egg, mangold cheese, ham and cheese, and corn.
In addition to asado, stews also have a central part in the cuisine of Argentina.
Locro is the national dish, and is traditionally eaten on both national holidays (25 May and 9 July). This is a stew of corn, beans, tomatoes, different meats, sausages, onions and sometimes red pepper, all cooked in a big kettle. On national holidays, free locro is served for on many main squares of Argentinian cities. Other than that, you can find it on every folklore festival.
Puchero are stews based on potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and carrots. Popular additions are ossobucco and other cheap meats, mangold, onion and eggs.
Guiso are stews based on rice and noodles. To that is added ground meat, chicken pieces or offal, beef stomach (mondongo), tomatoes, onions and spices.
Regular restaurants usually just have a couple of salads on the menu. The most common is ensalada mixta made of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, oil and vinegar. Normally you can opt to have an even simpler salad made of those ingredients. Ensalada completa is another common salad, and is made by adding egg, carrots and red beets (remolacha) to the former.
Restaurants with more salads on the menu usually offer potato salad (often as ensalada rusa with mayo, peas and carrots), ensalada criolla with tomatoes and red peppers, and ensalada de arroz y atùn with rice and tuna. Waldorf salad is another fairly common occurrence.
A South American specialty is ensalada de palmitos, which is ensalada completa with added hearts of palm. This salad is available in almost all upscale restaurants.
Vegetarianism is practiced in Argentina on a small scale, mostly in bigger cities and some alternative lifestyle communities. The main options are pizza, pasta, salads, humita (see regional cuisines), and whatever a creative chef is able to make. Vegetarian sandwiches, frequently with cheese and vegetables, are in general available at fast food restaurants. Tortillas are also available with vegetables, and the most popular tartas are vegetarian (filled with chard and maize).
Entirely vegan food is rare, and limited to some restaurants in Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Rosario. Elsewhere, self-catering is often the only reliable way to get vegan food. Especially in the north there are a lot of fruit and vegetables available. If you speak Spanish, you may be able to get a restaurant to leave the meat and cheese off a pasta or salad dish.
In addition to mate, expect to find the same types of beverages as in Europe or North America.
Mate is the national drink. This is a herb tea made of the yerba mate plant, cultivated mainly in northeastern Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil. It's available in "normal" tea bags (mate cocido), but most people prefer to prepare it the traditional way. It's drunk out of a gourd, also called mate, drunk with a metal drinking straw (bombilla) and the gourd is commonly shared by drinkers.
To prepare mate, heat up water to a temperature of 70-85°C. Some brands give a specific temperature on the mate leaf package, but the important thing is that the water must not boil. Not only will you burn your toungue on the bombilla and the tea, but healthy nutrients in the yerba leaves will be destroyed by boiling water. Fill the gourd up to 3/4 with mate leaves, tilt the gourd a little bit to make the leaves fall on one side, put in the bombilla, and pour water on the side where the bottom is exposed to fill up the gourd. The idea is that not all of the mate powder should be wet, but when you tilt it back, there should be a top layer of dry yerba leaves which the water will infiltrate later on to make sure there's the full taste of mate also when you've drunk most of it.
Wine is mostly cultivated in western Argentina. Argentinian wine is usually of good quality and low price.
Red wines are most popular, and the most common types are Borgoña (Burgundy), Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. One traditional specialty from the northwest is vino patero, a sweet hand-crafted red wine. Though less popular, white wines are also available, as are sparkling wines.
Restaurants often have a house wine (vino de la casa) that is cheaper than the ones on the wine list. When shopping, vino fino, "fine wines" is a term for better and more expensive wines, and "table wine", vino de mesa, means cheaper products.
In particular in the Province of Mendoza, wine has an important role in regional culture and tradition. In the provicinal capital with the same name, a wine festival, Fiesta de la vendimia, is celebrated each fall. This is a really big event with music, theater and fashion shows accompanying.
Beer is as popular as in Central Europe, and part of any party. For beer connoisseurs the selection might at a first glance appear disappointing. Big brands like Quilmes, Brahma and Isenbeck mostly offer lager beers, though Quilmes has a wider selection including bock and stout. North American and European global brands are also present. Beer is mostly sold in one liter bottles.
For some tastier beer, you will have to search for some small independent breweries. They do exist in all bigger cities and places with a tradition of immigration from Central Europe. Small breweries rarely advertise, and restaurants usually serve beer of the big brands. A good place to sample products of small breweries is the national beer festival in Villa General Belgrano in early October.
Other alcoholic beverages
There are just a few specialties when it comes to hard liquor. Caña made of sugarcane is the most traditional spirit drink of Argentina, has a sweetish taste, and an alcohol content of 15-25%. Another traditional drink, popular in the countryside is ginebra, Argentinian gin. Local fruit brandies are known as aguardiente. Other than that, there are many different liqueurs, for instance made from dulce de leche or corn (known as chicha in the Andean provinces and chipilka in Patagonia).
Mixed drinks are widely available. Fernet con coca is a cocktail of Italian Fernet Branca herb liqueur and Coca Cola and very popular in the country – in the bars of Cordoba it's even regarded as an unofficial national drink. Fernet Branca itself is popular too, 50% of the globally produced Fernet Branca is consumed in Argentina and there are several local brands of similar beverages.
Like in much of the world, products by the Pepsico and Coca-Cola-Company corporations are widely available. Another set of soft drinks are made by the Argentinian Pritty company. Diet soft drinks with low carbon dioxide content are popular, brands include Magna und Ser. Fruit juices aren't very common, and mostly in the form of concentrate or powder, natural fruit juices are expensive when available at all. That said, at hotel breakfasts you can usually have a glass of orange juice.
Mineral water (agua mineral) is usually non-sparkling, if you want the sparkling version, ask for agua mineral con gas. Soda will get you tap water with added carbon dioxide, safe to drink but without minerals.
Coffee, tea and other warm beverages
Coffee is popular here, as proven by the abundance of the street cafés. On many occasions you will be offered a cafecito – a small cup of black coffee with sugar. The already mentioned cortado and café con leche are drunk at breakfast, when also cappuchino is an option. The milk is usually normal milk rather than milk powder.
On the tea side, aside of mate, different varieties of black tea is common, often aromatized by orange or lemon. Herb teas are fairly popular too and known as infusión rather than té.
Hot chocolate (chocolate caliente) is rare in restaurants and cafés but you can buy it in any supermarket. What you instead can get served is a submarino, hot milk with a chocolate bar dissolved in it.
Sweets and desserts
Almost all sweets have a high sugar content. Dulce de leche, a light brown toffee-like paste is the basis of many Argentinian cakes and pastries. It's also the most popular sandwich spread.
The most "Argentine" pastry is the alfajor. This is a round multilayer cookie filled with dulce de leche. The factory-made variants are available in any supermarket and kiosk, and those usually are covered with chocolate or sugar. There are also a great number of "home made" variants, the most famous are alfajores cordobeses from Córdoba covered with ground coconuts.
Facturas are a common accompaniment to the breakfast of afternoon coffee; these are glazed cookies filled with dulce de leche or with a yellow cream made of egg and milk. Medialunas (lit. halfmoons) are croissants, but they are smaller than their French counterparts, though they are also available as filled.
American cakes and pastries such as lemon pie or brownies are widespread too. Cakes made with two thin dough plates are known as tartas. Some common cake fillings are apples, berries or dulce de membrillo, a quince jelly that is also used as bread and cookie spread or eaten with cheese. During events like birthday parties, cream cakes like the German Black Forest Cake (Selva Negra) are commonly served.