Argentina is large in every sense. It stretches from close to the Antarctic to the Tropic of Capricorn. It’s geographically diverse. Coming in second only to the U.S. in terms of immigrants, it’s home to a wide blend of cultural influences. The cuisines are just as varied as the people, but there’s no dish or style more associated with Argentina than asado (barbecue). And Buenos Aires Restaurant (513 East 6th Street; 212-228-2775) serves an authentic version in NYC.
The tie between beef and Argentine identity started well before Argentina was a country. In the 1500s, the conquistadors brought cattle to the Pampas of South America, the fertile 300,000-square-mile plains that stretch from the coast to the Andes, covering the majority of what has become Argentina. A grassland biome, the ecosystem is like heaven for bovines.
Cattle thrived, and the nomadic gauchos (Argentina’s rendition of a cowboy) who herded them sustained themselves mainly on beef. They are said to have created parrilla, the slow-grilling technique popular throughout the country today.
The country’s population swelled from new immigrants, Buenos Aires became industrialized, and railroads connected the country. As a result, it became easy to transport all those cows to feed the masses. Beef has become deeply entrenched in Argentine culinary identity.
Argentine asado (grill) differs from American cookouts. The cuts of meat are different, and they are generally cooked in huge slabs without removing the fat. They’re cooked low and slow over wood charcoal, with the bone facing the grill. If you can hold your hand over the fire for ten seconds, the grill is ready. The meat is unadorned; there’s no marinade, just a sprinkle of salt one minute before it’s removed from the flame. For safety and cultural reasons, the meat is usually cooked to medium-well or well-done. Chimichurri (a bright blend of parsley and garlic) and salsa criolla (a mix of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and more) are served on the side. Grass-fed beef used to be the mainstay, but, says Buenos Aires owner Ismael Alba, that’s no longer the case. Feedlots have been growing in popularity.
To ensure his product is as close to the real thing as possible, Alba buys all USDA Prime meat and butchers it in-house. Because he can’t use wood, Alba uses ceramic tiles on the grill; it imparts a similar flavor. Although the slow-cooking technique common in his homeland doesn’t work well in an NYC restaurant setting (most Americans, he says, order medium-rare), Alba’s grill lifts, so the meat can be cooked from indirect heat. His sausage — chorizo, chorizo picante, and morcilla (blood sausage) — is ground and stuffed on the premises, as well. “We try to be as authentic to Argentina as possible,” says Alba.
The restaurant offers all the typical Argentine cuts. One of the few Argentina shares with the states is the porterhouse. Here, it’s offered in two massive portions, the 24-ounce for one ($49.95) and the 42-ounce for two ($84.95). Medallón de lomo (filet mignon) is another steak that transcends borders. At Buenos Aires, a 10-ounce piece ($44.95) is served with grilled veggies. Asado de Tira ($28.95) are essentially short ribs, but cut in a different way — they’re longer strips that are cut across the bone. Entraña ($26.95 for 10 ounces, $34.95 for 16) is basically skirt steak. If you’re looking to sample a decent cross-section of the cuts, the restaurant offers a parrillada de Buenos Aires ($50.95), a mixed grill that includes angus short ribs, skirt steak, sausage, blood sausage, and grilled sweetbreads.