BUENOS AIRES, Sept 14 – Eating meat seems to be ingrained in Argentinian culture, part of their national identity.
And there’s no better way to savour the best of what the land has to offer than grilling the best cuts of beef and lamb, the way the gauchos – the Argentine cowboys, if you will – do it.
You don’t have to journey deep into vast Pampas grasslands to enjoy asado, however.
As the gauchos would roast meat, ribs and other organs over a grill called parrilla over open fires, now most Argentines dine on this national dish in the comfort of barbecue restaurants known as – what else? – parrillas.
Here in Buenos Aires, there is a parrilla around nearly every street corner, so you’d be forgiven if you’re stumped trying to decide which to patronise.
Fortunately we’ve asked around and just about everyone recommends Parrilla Peña in the capital’s Theatre District, not far from Av. Corrientes.
Bottles of Malbec wine line the shelves separating the kitchen and the dining room.
From our table, covered with pristine white linen, we have a great view of the action: the parrillero or grill master flipping steaks expertly on the open-fire grates, the parrilla that gives the restaurant its name.
Our server is quite the character, greeting us with a beaming smile and a ready wink. He tells us this way of cooking meat is the gaucho way.
We can’t help but wonder if that’s stretching the truth too liberally; we are hundreds of miles away from the pampa plains and there isn’t a single weather-beaten gaucho in sight.
As a prelude to our orders arriving, our server brings a small platter of condiments. He advises us to use the chimichurri – a typically Argentinian sauce of chopped parsley, garlic, onion, paprika and oregano mixed with olive oil – on the steaks.
For the offal, he suggests using the salsa criolla instead; the tangy bite of diced tomatoes and onions in vinegar helping to cut through the organ meats’ richness.
He also offers us some empanadas, entirely on the house. These are the fried rather than baked version, which gives it a familiar crunch not unlike our Malaysian karipap.
Instead of curried potatoes and cubed chicken, however, Parrilla Peña’s empanadas are full of ground beef laced with diced onions and green olives.
Savoury and incredibly flavourful for a complimentary appetiser, these tease our taste buds for the main course.
We begin with the achuras or offal: there are mollejas (sweetbreads) and riñones (kidneys); there are chorizo (spicy, pork sausages) and morcilla (blood sausages).
We can’t resist the unbelievably creamy mollejas or sweetbreads, which are the thymus glands of calves.
Cheese lovers would adore provoleta al orégano, a sizzling slab of grilled Provolone cheese redolent of dried herbs.
Then come the various cuts of grilled beef, be it bife de chorizo (rump steak) or entraña (skirt steak).
The char lines of the parrilla beckon us to dive in. The ojo de bife (rib eye) had the best marbling, literally dripping with flavourful fat. These don’t even need to be marinated, only a generous sprinkling of salt. We get the real taste of meat, unembellished by any superfluous seasoning.
There are also pollo entero (whole roasted chicken) for sharing, surprisingly juicy matambrito de cerdo (thin pork fillets) and melt-in-your-mouth churrasquitos de bondiola (braised pork shoulder). We need never fear going hungry here.
Let’s take a moment to pay well deserved homage to papas fritas, the Argentinian take on thick steak fries.
Golden and crispy on the outside yet pale white and pillowy soft once you bite into one, these fries remind of us of the legendary Vlaamse frites of Brussels and Amsterdam, with none of the snaking queues of tourists.
To be honest, there’s nothing quite like snacking on frites while strolling along a beautiful canal, but sometimes you just want to sit down and relish your carbohydrates the way the smartly-dressed porteños devour their papas fritas.
There are desserts, of course, most of Italian origins. Parrilla Peña offers homemade tiramisu, budín de pan (bread pudding) sambayón and the classic flan mixto, an Argentinian crème caramel custard served with a dollop of whipped cream and sweet dulce de leche.
We beg off having any. While the cliché is that there is always room for dessert, there being a separate stomach for sweet treats, the ample portions at Parrilla Peña have ensured even this reserved space has been filled up with smoky grilled meats.
As we pay and leave, we can’t help but reconsider our earlier observation. Perhaps our twinkly-eyed server was right.
There is so much to unpack here: the convivial ambience, the great passion and respect for the food, the decades spent over the hot parrilla to master the art of grilling every cut of meat to perfection, the knowledge of where the meat comes from, the stories of the wandering gauchos...
This, in the end, is grilling the gaucho way after all. We have definitely feasted as well as they have, and that is the experience that matters, no?
Rodríguez Peña 682, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Open Mon-Sat 12pm-4pm & 8pm-12am; Sun closed
Tel: +54 11 4371-5643