Waitresses whizz past at full speed carrying dishes on either arm. The summer sun creeps in through the enormous windows and makes the big white dishes shine brightly. The room feels especially picturesque under the mid-afternoon light. Ham legs and salami hang from the ceiling and hundreds of bottles of wine old and new serve as a backdrop to the old general store style counter.
The waitresses carry soft ciabatta bread stuffed with bright red tomatoes and sandwich meat, a milanesa so big the tips graze the plate’s edges and golden brown tortillas stacked impossibly high. In the corner of the room two young women chat over an enormous picada that occupies the length of their table. Another pair of old men talk loudly in between sips of foamy draft beer. I struggle to match the orders with the menu in front of me — it is easily a few dozen pages — my sole frustration with places like Bar de Cao. Not that the options are too extensive but, as a foreigner, I only understand what about half of them are.
But that’s the fun part. The mini-novella of a menu is a choose your own adventure. Pages and pages are filled with incalculable combinations of pastas and sauces, breads and sandwich fillings and cold dishes to build your own makeshift picada. Regular fries or waffle? With bacon and eggs or a simple provenzal on top? The list of sandwiches (35 house specials) has its own page. Once my panic attack subsides, the endless sense of choice is actually kind of fun.
I send out an S.O.S and Luis, the kind eyed gray haired manager, flips through the menu and points to my lunch without even looking like he’s some kind of magician. “Try out the turkey escabeche,” he instructs me, the legends goes that it was ‘invented’ here. But before he sends in my order he quickly returns with a plate displaying four different kinds of bread.
It’s quickly delivered on one of those shiny white plates. The delicate looking roll is painted in varying degrees of buttery brown color and is sprinkled heavily with white and black sesame seeds. The pillow soft dough is baked fresh daily and is a far cry from the chewy chlorine-flavored baguettes found at your regular neighborhood cantina. It’s lightly stuffed with an orange-tinted shredded meat that looks more like pork carnitas than turkey. The thin strands are laced with a vinegary escabeche that gives just a touch of pickle flavor and adds a soft slightly wet texture to the often dry turkey. Salty handmade potato chips and a mildly flavored red ale are well-chosen companions.
As simple as it is — just bread and turkey — the sandwich sums up Bar de Cao to a tee. The menu is complex for its sheer length but the dishes themselves are comprised of just a handful of ingredients. But when everything is made fresh by hand using quality ingredients, pedestrian dishes feel inspired again.
It is a time-tested cooking ideology. Bar de Cao celebrated its centennial last year. At its founding, when it was part general store part home to the family of the same name, cooking everything from scratch was the only option. The building remains in the family and although they don’t play an active role in the restaurant, the traditions have remained the same. “As always, you can order food at any time, you can have a vermouth at 3 o’clock in the afternoon or just hang out with a coffee,” explains Romina Metti, who has studied the history of a number of the city’s bares notables that she organizes cultural events for.
There are also dreamy pastel yellow sorrentinos, the Argentine bastardization of the Italian ravioli. The over-sized stuffed pasta come drowning underneath your sauce of choice. The house recommendation was a simple mozzarella and arugula stuffing with a pale orange rossé on top. The sauce was creamy and touches of oregano and basil immediately hit the nose. The soft dough gives away to a smoldering chewy mozzarella cheese. Fried raviolis — maybe the only place in town that prepares them this way — are cooked and quickly tossed in a pan of hot oil to give them a crisp outer shell that stand in contrast to the gooey ricotta inside. The bite sized pieces are served on their own although I prefer dipping them in sauce to add an extra layer of flavor that soaks through the flakey dough.
Colossal sized tortillas, the dubiously difficult potato omelettes, are skillfully stacked a few inches tall. You can order them plain (just potato and eggs) or with Spanish chorizo either cooked crispy or runny. My preference is runny so that I can sop up that chorizo with the yolk that spills out onto the plate. Generous picadas are piled with spicy longanizo, salty prosciutto, dense goat cheese and sour roquefort. Craft beer is the obvious pairing, although a light and bubbly cider goes well too. For dessert, a rich dark chocolate mousse is a hedonistic dream. There is also flan accompanied by thick dulce de leche and silky cream.
For someone not familiar with the ins and outs of porteño food vocabulary, it can be an overwhelming experience. Breathe, ask for help, and when all else fails, order a turkey sandwich and a beer.
Bar de Cao
Av. Independencia 2400, San Cristobal
Sunday through Thursday 8:00am to 2:00am
Friday and Saturday 8:00am to 4:00am
Price: $$ (Under AR $300)