Beef and malbec may be Argentina’s most well-known food and drink, but there is more to the country’s food and drink scene than perfectly grilled steak and red wine.
Due in part to the immigration of millions of Europeans to Argentina at the turn of the 20th century, the country’s cuisine is an eclectic mix of European traditions with a distinct South American twist: Italian-style ice cream, empanadas from Spain, wine from vineyards planted by the French, German-style sausages and cheese, and yerba mate a herbal tea that is native to South America. And in a country as large as Argentina, it’s no surprise that each region has its own specialties. Here’s our list of the top food and drink to try in Argentina.
The asado is a way of life in Argentina © Tempura / Getty Images
Experience an authentic asado at an estancia
Argentinians are the biggest consumers of beef in the world. Grilling beef is a tradition rooted in the mythologized gauchos who roamed the pampas grasslands tending to cattle and slow-roasting meat over an open flame, a custom ritualized in the form of the asado. One of the best places to experience a traditional asado is at an estancia (ranch), which can be visited on a day trip (día del campo) or an overnight stay.
Where to try it: A visit toEl Ombú de Areco or nearby La Bamba de Areco, in Buenos Aires province, offers an insight into traditional gaucho life, including a typical asado. In Patagonia, Nibepo Aike in El Calafate is a sheep farm where the nightly asado features the local specialty, Patagonian lamb.
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Stop for afternoon tea in an elegant Buenos Aires cafe
In Argentina, it’s usual to eat the main meal of the day after 9pm, and perhaps as late as 11pm, which can be challenging for people used to dining earlier. To stop your stomach rumbling, be sure to pause for la merienda (afternoon tea) sometime between 4pm and 6pm. A classic merienda consists of a milky coffee and some medialunas (croissants).
Late afternoon is the perfect time to visit one of Buenos Aires’ traditional bares notables, a group of beautiful old cafes where sandwiches de miga (crustless sandwiches) and facturas (pastries) are served with considerable pomp by bowtied waiters.
Where to try it: With magnificent stained-glass windows,Las Violetas has been serving afternoon tea to the residents of Buenos Aires’ Almagro neighborhood since 1884. A traditional Argentinian bar that’s popular with a young crowd and newspaper-reading septuagenarians alike, Los Galgos is the perfect choice if your ideal merienda includes an early evening cocktail. For the most luxurious afternoon tea in the city, head to L’Orangerie at the Alvear Palace Hotel.
Empanadas aren’t just great for lunch, but make good bus snacks too © iStockphoto/Getty Images
Embrace empanadas, Argentina’s favorite snack
Empanadas – oven-baked pastries with various fillings – are a staple of the traditional Argentine diet and the equivalent of a lunchtime sandwich (a mealtime portion is usually three). Though empanadas are popular throughout Argentina, there are regional variations in how they are made: look out for spicy ground-beef empanadas in Salta and Jujuy, deep-fried empanadas from Tucumán, and lamb-filled empanadas in Patagonia.
Where to try it: In Bariloche, try the creative flavors on offer at Oveja Negra. Salta is reputed to be home to Argentina’s best empanadas; try them at La Salteñería.. In Buenos Aires, head to La Morada.
Cool off with ice cream in a traditional heladería
One of the legacies of Italian immigration to Argentina is the country’s excellent gelato. It’s common for city center heladerías (ice cream parlors) to stay open until 1am or 2am; a late-night stop for ice cream makes for a romantic and refreshing excursion. Local food and drink to try include sambayón, made with egg yolks, Marsala wine and sometimes whisky, and dulce de leche, made with the popular milk caramel.
Where to try it: For an ice cream near the beach in Mar del Plata, head to Helados Italia, known for its ‘cannolis’ (long wafer tubes filled with ice cream and dipped in chocolate and nuts). Cadore makes ice cream the traditional Italian way on Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires’ theater district. The family recipes used at Heladería Fili in Salta are a closely guarded secret.
Rosarinos (people from Rosario) insist their city’s ice cream is Argentina’s best; head to Gianduia, Marbet or Touche de Creme to see if you agree.
Drink Fernet with Coke, Argentina’s national party drink
In Argentina, Fernet Branca – a bitter, herbed Italian digestif originally intended as medicine – is usually drunk with ice and cola; the mixture of alcohol, sugar and caffeine help fuel Argentina’s famously late nights out. The combination of Fernet with Coke first became popular in the province of Córdoba, where ’Fernandito’ remains a local favorite.
Where to try it: Most bars and clubs in Argentina serve Fernet. In Buenos Aires, try it in Pulpería Quilapán.
The joy of mate with yerba is that you can carry it with you almost anywhere © Buenaventuramariano / Getty Images
Sip mate, Argentina’s typical drink
Go to any park or plaza and you’ll see people drinking mate, an infusion of yerba (a local, bitter herbal tea) and hot water that is sipped through a special metal straw (a bombilla). The gourd that holds the yerba and water is called a mate, and the act of drinking from it is tomando mate (drinking mate). The water is heated to 70-85°C (160-185°F) but not boiled, and kept warm in a thermos flask.
Where to try it: Mate is not typically served in bars or restaurants, so make friends and join in the mate ritual. A good place to shop for an artisan mate gourd is the Feria de San Telmo (a Sunday street market) in Buenos Aires.
Share a picada, a tasting platter of cheeses and cured meats
Another food to try in Argentina is a picada, a wooden board covered with a range of fiambre (cold cuts) and cheeses, usually accompanied by bread and wine and shared among friends.
Where to try it: The town of Tandil in Buenos Aires province is one of the best places to eat a picada; try Epoca de Quesos. Also in Buenos Aires province, San Antonio de Areco’s Boliche Bessonart serves an excellent picada. The town of Colonia Caroya in the Córdoba hills is known for its salami; try it at Bar 9 de Julio.
Treat yourself to an alfajor, Argentina’s national cookie
Alfajores (round cookies filled with dulce de leche caramel and covered in chocolate or meringue) are Argentina’s must-try sweet treat. Each region has its own version of the alfajor.
Where to try it: Mar del Plata in Buenos Aires province is considered the alfajor capital of Argentina; try the ones at Milagros del Cielo, which were declared the best alfajores in the world by an Argentinian judging panel. The national chain Havanna is a reliable source of alfajores.
Sample Argentina’s famous malbec
Mendoza is Argentina’s premier wine region and known for its robust malbec, but other provinces also produce excellent wines. San Juan is famous for its syrah and Cafayate for its torrontés, a crisp, dry white wine. Meanwhile, the Patagonia region is becoming a well-regarded producer of pinot noir.
Where to try it: Bodega Zuccardi in Valle de Uco, Mendoza, has been named the world’s best winery for three years in a row. In Cafayate, Salta, try the organic wines at Bodega Nanni.
Try choripán from a food cart parrilla
For a hit of meat on the go, stop at a roadside mobile parrilla for choripán, a grilled sausage sandwich, or bodiola, a pork sandwich. These rustic food trucks offer generous helpings of grilled meat in jaw-bustingly thick crusty bread, with self-service tupperware containers of chimichurri, a sauce made from garlic, parsley, oil and vinegar.
Where to try it: In Córdoba, try the choripán at Luisito el Auténtico food cart by Parque Sarmiento. In Buenos Aires, brightly colored food carts line the Costanera Sur in Puerto Madero and the Costanera Norte near Jorge Newbery airport.
Vegetarians and vegans
Until recently vegans and vegetarians had a hard time in Argentina, but things are changing. Vegetarians will be able to find meat and fish-free options on most restaurant menus, often a pasta or gnocchi dish, but most vegetarian dishes will be made with eggs and/or cheese. Vegans should check restaurant menus in advance and search out vegan friendly establishments. In Buenos Aires there is now no shortage of restaurants offering plant-based meals; outside the capital vegan food is less easy – but not impossible – to find.
Where to try it: In Buenos Aires try Mudrá, Hierbabuena or Buenos Aires Verde. In Mendoza,Govinda serves vegan and vegetarian food, while Cocina Poblana has options for vegetarians.