I was halfway through a chicken-filled emparedado (a bit larger than an empanada, with a flakier crust) when I began to understand vegetarianism in Buenos Aires. Walking into a Belgrano bakery, I had asked the older woman behind the counter for one of the delicious looking empanada-like things on the first shelf. “Sin carne,” I told her. “Soy vegetariano.”
“Dale,” she responded, and handed me one with chicken.
Like many things in our city of contrasts, a vegetarian in Buenos Aires will feel at one moment alienated and another welcomed, overwhelmed with culinary options and stranded in a sea of beef and choripan. Ours is a proud city, and for many here that pride includes the beef. The most common reaction I received when I told friends of my vegetarianism was a startled “Why?!” as if I had personally accosted them with my dietary choice, or told them I was moving to Puerto Madero. Even Clarín weighed in, letting me know how shitty my life was going to be without the wonder of meat. On my last night con carne, over burgers at Burger Joint, a friend told me he could never give up meat in Buenos Aires. “I mean, here? With all this?” he went on, going in for another bite. “I could never.”
Fortunately for me, the other side of this contrast is a thriving vegetarian niche of equally proud meat-free eaters. The exclamation point to the herbivore lifestyle in Buenos Aires is without a doubt the vegan/vegetarian food fairs that pop up in various parks throughout the city each weekend, all announced online. I started my vegetarian endeavor at one such fair in parque Rivadavia, which not only proved that vegetarianism is in Buenos Aires to stay, but also settled the argument about so-called “bland” vegan food. Spiced hummus-filled falafels, bursting quinoa-based burritos, and dairy-free pastries were just a sample of the fare I filled myself with that Sunday. Even my meat-loving-Burger-Joint friend couldn’t deny the deliciousness – proof enough that eating vegetarian doesn’t require a sacrifice of taste.
It may require a sacrifice of cash, however. Capitalism has caught wind of the healthy, green-eating movement, leading to a swath of trendy chain vegetarian restaurants with names as blunt as “Green Eat” (three locations in Recoleta). What my vegetarianism found was not that Buenos Aires was lacking in options, but that it was my bank account that had trouble keeping up. “59 pesos for a salad?” I found myself thinking, as Vampire Weekend blared over the wheatgrass accenting each table. Too many weeknights than I care to admit, I begrudgingly doled out the rest of my day’s cash for a to-go dinner (and fresh-pressed juice, of course).
This family of the pricey and hip vegetarian stops are everywhere throughout the more urban sectors of the city, and with names full of words like “natural” and “green” calling out to you, they are the over-dressed doormen of the Buenos Aires vegetarian world.
Then there are the restaurants you find when you Google “Buenos Aires vegetarian”: mostly travel blogs and New York Times reviews that offer anecdotes such as “my five course meal began with a botanical lesson…” and other delightfully unhelpful recommendations, geared primarily towards those on a tourist’s budget.
But don’t be fooled – those who stick it out will find vegetarianism in the city of asados not only possible and affordable, but revelatory to a diverse culinary world often overlooked by the carne-centric mind.
I went on search of this world, and, keeping my budget in mind, began crafting my how-to guide that I like to call how to eat green even when you don’t have any:
The first step to mastering the green-game in Buenos Aires is to know your neighborhoods. Palermo is the obvious choice, offering all things trendy, including the vegetarian movement. But don’t dismiss the hipster foodie scene too soon – though Palermo may be home to many over-priced vegetables, there are plenty of tasty options that won’t break the bank. For example, Bio in Palermo Hollywood (Humboldt and Guatemala) offers a tasty slate of quinoa and tofu based lunch and dinners that have no shortage of flavor, and it stays open until 1 AM Tuesdays through Sundays. But my favorite meat-free meal in Palermo didn’t actually come from a vegetarian restaurant – La Fábrica del Taco, a block from Plaza Serrano (Gorriti 5062). A simple taco-stand style restaurant, La Fábrica offers a mean vegetarian taco – it’s location and hours are perfect for post-bar munchies and convincing your meat-eating friends to try something other than Burger Joint.
Since the Palermo Soho business model seems to be ‘stay cool or die,’ La Fábrica is not alone in it’s vegetarian offering – many restaurants throughout the neighborhood have begun offering vegetarian options even if their menu mainstays are full of carne and pollo. As long as we vegans and vegetarians manage to stay in vogue, it seems our food will stay in Palermo.
But when you tire of the young Palermo bourgeoisie, the vegetarian will always find a home in San Telmo. From the corner of Defensa and Chile, you’ll find distinct vegetarian restaurants in each direction, no further than you can throw a patchouli burger. If you can handle the swarms of tourists, weekends sweeten the deal, with 10 peso vegan pastries for sale on the street and promos at numerous vegetarian favorites.
From Indian to Argentine, Italian to organic and raw, the vegetarian cuisine is so diverse and established in San Telmo that it’s difficult to pick a favorite. Of course, I did, but we’ll get to that later.
The downtown neighborhoods of San Nicolás and Balvanera are the vegetarian’s para llevar capital. Perhaps all the important business people and bureaucrats are trying to eat healthier, but it’s provided a boon of restaurants for the busy vegetarian, who wants a cheap meal on the go. And don’t expect them all to be Asian rotisseries either; the trend is popular enough that more than just entrepreneurial Asian families are getting in on the deal.
Not to knock our entrepreneurial Asian friends – in fact, my next piece of advice for the frugal vegetarian is to make friends with you’re local Asian rotisserie. They’ll be your savior when you find yourself insatiably hungry but on a McDonald’s budget, and there are even a few that serve exclusively vegetarian fare – my favorites being Happiness Hous on Rodriguez Peña, between Santa Fe and Marcelo T. de Alvear or Los Sabios on Corrientes 3733, mostly for their quinoa milonesas, and of course, low price-to-quantity ratio for food.
While you’re at it, you might as well befriend your local Ugi’s Pizza. It doesn’t matter if you like pizza or not (except to me, who will forever think you are a psychopath), you’re most definitely going to eat there once or twice when it’s 2am and all your friends have headed to fill their bellies with chorizo and choripan. The late night food scene is hard for a vegetarian – most of the restaurants of the early morning hours only serve some form of cheap greasy meat (maybe to heighten the next-morning regret) and, unless you’re in Palermo Soho, pizza places are often your only choice. I choose Ugi’s for their slightly lower prices and slightly later hours.
After a few weeks into the green life, you should start to find the real guys – the restaurants that don’t believe good vegetarian food has to be served with a side of
smugness, and you don’t need to eat it with Ingrid Michelson singing in your ear. Places that serve food, cooked well, and happens to have to no meat. In that order. Places like Abuela Pan (Chile 518).
With the throngs of tourists and meat-lovers crowding outside La Poesía, it can be easy to miss Abuela Pan, only a few steps away. But this quiet lunch and dinnertime spot, with porteño patrons too old for vegetarian pretense, and different options each day that never climb above 48 pesos, is worth the trip to San Telmo. Named after the grandmother of the first owner, Abuela Pan is what Italian food would be like if the Italians had never discovered meat. Sautéed vegetable plates smothered in olive oil and hefty portions of vegetarian lasagna are only two of the dozens of hearty meals offered throughout the week, all served with phenomenally rich homemade bread. Anyone who fears vegetarianism will leave them hungry hasn’t been to Abuela Pan, which has warm and classic meals that will leave you feeling stuffed and satisfied – and wishing you could have a vegetarian cook for a grandmother.
Another place I found myself frequenting was Vita, only a stones throw from Plaza de Mayo, on Yrigoyen and Perú. Of all the breakfast and lunch hour cafes I visited, Vita was the cheapest and the most legitimate. Nine peso muffins for breakfast and 38 peso salads for lunch fit my budget, especially when I saw the size of the salad – a hulking bowl full of sesame, avocados, arugula and sprouts. Almost everything on the menu is vegan and everyone who works there is either vegan or vegetarian – making it an easy place to feel welcome and relax with a sandwich or freshly made juice.
It’s also where I met Barbara Mantero, a young Argentine who’s been living without meat for seven years – the last four of those as a vegan. In any city, she’d be considered hardcore, but what did she think about veganism in Buenos Aires?
“I’ve never have much trouble,” she told me, over a lentil burger and potatoes. “There’s a lot for a vegan to eat in the city.”
Barbara said she went vegan mostly for her health, but there are lots of reasons to give up the beef. She was kind and energetic, with a bird and flower tattooed on her left shoulder. A few months ago, she got a job at Vita, which opened it’s doors around 2009.
She told me that was about the same time the vegetarian movement really started to take off in Buenos Aires, thanks in part to younger generations like hers.
“It’s much easier now than before, there’s a movement, a change – I think younger people had an influence, they wanted a change, more choices, something more healthy.”
But it’s no longer the domain of the young, a growth Barbara credits to information and the Internet.
“Now there’s pamphlets, documentaries, and books on veganism – how food is made and what is healthy,” Barbara explained. “I think technology makes it easy – you can find recipes online and find sites by vegan nutritionists.”
For Barbara, Buenos Aires is an accommodating city for a green eater, and she would be quick to recommend a vegetarian lifestyle to any curious porteño. As for the most difficult challenge she faces as an Argentine vegan?
“When I’m with my family for asado, I can’t eat a single thing.”
Barbara ‘s favorite vegan restaurant in the city was Sattva, at Montevideo 446, open all day Tuesday through Sunday until 1am (plus they deliver!). I visited Sattva and found a den for the young vegan – tasty and cheap dishes in a no-frills restaurant that serves organic wine and makes room for live music on weekends. Vegetarian or not, it’s a place I’d like to visit again on a Friday evening.
Barbara also provided me with my final tip for the vegetarian porteño – learn a few recipes of your own. Barbara stressed this to me – that like any diet, you’ll never be able to afford the green life if you are always leaving your house to be fed. She was right about the online recipes, too, and though I’ve never been wise in the kitchen, I managed to whip up a lentil stew for a fraction of what I’d pay even in a cheap restaurant. So if you’re serious about joining the ranks of Buenos Aires’ vegans and vegetarians, learn how to cook it for yourself – maybe you’ll get good enough to host a dinner party and win over some converts.
As for me, I’m back to eating meat – but I find myself eating less of it after finding so many vegetarian options. My green-eating was only a research endeavor, but what began as a two-week experiment quickly turned into a month, as I found the vegetarian world of Buenos Aires too dense and too delicious to be understood in 14 days. Meat eater or not, I’m still keeping my foot in the door to the vegetarian world – a culinary niche I refuse to leave, and not only because of the taste. Being vegetarian in our city, like most things, is eccentric and exciting – it shows you new ways of being and different types of thinking, as well as a diverse world of vegetarians – from young tattooed vegans to older porteños who are no-frill and meat-free – and, from time to time, the vegetarian emparedado that is, in fact, filled with chicken.