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Uncovering Jewish Buenos Aires, the Only Way I Know How

Through food, obvio.

By | [email protected] | July 4, 2019 8:00am

WhatsApp Image 2019-05-27 at 1.53.37 PMCourtesy of Hola Jacoba.
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Jewish food is having a moment. Whether it’s Zahav in Philadelphia, Mazel Tov in Budapest, or Federal Delicatessen in Auckland, the cuisine of my people has become trendy on a global scale. Buenos Aires, hip city that it is, is now home to many different restaurants that dish out comida Judía. This seems natural, given that Argentina is home to the largest population of Jews in Latin America, and the majority of them live in BA. The community was established all the way back in 1862; so it’s not that Jewish food is exactly new to the city. Rather, it’s no longer only Jewish people who are enjoying Jewish food.

I set out to explore the two different styles of Jewish restaurants that exist in Buenos Aires. First, the trendy restaurants that are not kosher, those that are introducing non-Jewish people to a new type of ethnic food. Second, the restaurants that are kosher and serve the religious community. I found that they all share a few key elements: roots firmly planted in tradition, with a particular eye on their family’s history, a nod to Argentine cuisine, and above all, a love of great food.

But first, a crash course in Jewish food is in order. It’s a bit difficult to define, mostly because the Jewish people have been around for so long, and the diaspora is scattered all across the globe. So when we talk about Jewish food we may be talking about pastrami, matzoh ball soup, bagels, or gefilte fish, which is the food of Ashkenazim, Jews from Eastern and Central Europe. Jewish food also encompasses kibbeh, sabich, and sambusak (more on what all that actually is further down), which we have Sephardim and Mizrahim, Jews from Spain, Portugal, the Middle East, and North Africa, to thank for. 

Let’s get noshing, shall we?

Hola Jacoba

Courtesy of Hola Jacoba.

The story behind the food: Hola Jacoba is a culinary homage to the grandparents of two friends-turned-business partners, Andrea Armoza and Cynthia Helueni. Andrea’s and Cynthia’s grandmothers were both restaurant owners who passed on their love of traditional Jewish cooking to their granddaughters. The grandmothers remain a huge influence on Hola Jacoba, so much so that prior to opening, they came into the restaurant to teach the chefs a few tricks and sample the food. “That’s the spirit of the restaurant. We want the customers to feel that they are eating their bubbe’s [Yiddish for grandmother] food,” explained Andrea.

Kosher? Nope!

Ellas son las abuelas de Andrea. Vienen a supervisar nuestros platos para seguir manteniendo la tradición de cada sabor #holajacoba #jewishfood #cocinajudia

Gepostet von Hola Jacoba – Jewish Food am Samstag, 8. Juni 2019

Why it’s special: When Hola Jacoba opened five years ago, it was the first restaurant in Palermo to openly identify its menu as cocina Judía. Prior to this, restaurants serving Jewish food were mostly found in the historically Jewish barrio of Once. However, these restaurants were kosher and frequented only by religious Jews. Andrea and Cynthia envisioned a new type of restaurant, one that celebrated the gastronomy of Judaism, without the religious aspects. “We wanted everyone to come and try Jewish food. Our dream is to be an open community,” Andrea said. According to her, a Palermo restaurant had never openly identified itself as serving Jewish food “because [being Jewish] was taboo and people were scared. We were scared.” But the women have seen the community embrace their vision. In the restaurant’s first year, 70 percent of the customers were Jewish people. Now, it’s half and half. 

What’s on the menu: Andrea has one Sephardic grandmother and one Ashkenazi grandmother, which is reflected in the menu that draws equally from both traditions. You’ll be welcomed with warm pita and a sweet, mini challah (challah is a traditionally savory bread, this version is ideal for Argentines who are notorious for their sweet tooth). As you peruse the menu, you’ll find the familiar: falafel, tabbouleh, potato latkes. There’s also the less familiar: knishes, which are portable potato pies; sambusak, Sephardim’s answer to empanada de tres quesos; and kibbeh, beef croquettes studded with nuts.

This may sound overwhelming and, in a way, it is. So Hola Jacoba offers a picada, which allows you to sample five different things at once. We were glad we did. The hummus comes artfully streaked with bright olive oil and paprika, the description “deep fried” does not do the crispness of the latkes justice, and I discovered a new favorite dish, lachamagine (lahamayin in Spanish) which are Arabic meat pies, filled with tangy carne and salsa. As we sampled different bites, my dining companion observed, “It’s like many different forms of carb-y envelopes wrapped around meaty things.”

Courtesy of Hola Jacoba.

The Argentine Jew: The menu is largely traditional, but does take into account the Argentine palate for a few choice dishes. Notably, there is a pastrami empanada⁠—the sort of thing my mother would fly to Buenos Aires just to get a taste of—and she might have to, because Andrea is pretty sure they’re the only ones in the world making it. The dessert portion of the menu also fuses Ashkenazi and Argentine food through dulce de leche blintzes, a thin pancake that is traditionally filled with cheese.

Fun, Jewish features: Hola Jacoba holds annual, special dinners at the restaurant for people celebrating the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Passover. These are festive affairs that turn into lengthy feasts.

And finally, what about that name? Jacobo is a popular Jewish name in Argentina, but because this a female-run business, Andrea and Cynthia decided to feminize it with the letter a. Originally, they considered giving the restaurant a Hebrew name, but, Andrea said, “Then it wouldn’t be open to everyone.”

Hola Jacoba | Thames 1801 – Palermo Soho | Tuesday – Friday 7 PM – 12 AM;  Saturday – Sunday 12 PM – 4 PM, 8 PM – 12 AM | Instagram

Benaim

Courtesy of Benaim.

The story behind the food: Benaim is co-owned by cousins Nicolás and Juan, who are carrying on their family tradition of being restaurateurs. They’re partially descended from Sephardim who left Spain 500 years ago to seek refuge in Morocco, later moving to Argentina where they opened a Morrocan-influenced restaurant. Nicolás grew up in the restaurant, which was called Branch and located in downtown Buenos Aires. It was a family business. “All the matriarchs of the family were cooking in it,” he explained.

Kosher? Nope!

Why it’s special: The menu utilizes the family recipes of Nicolás’s wife, which lends each dish a personal touch. It’s also part counter service restaurant, part beer garden, and one of the most atmospheric places in Palermo to knock back a few drinks and a falafel sandwich. Choose from indoor or outdoor seating, string lights or no string lights, next to funky art or not next to funky art.

Courtesy of Benaim.

What’s on the menu: Benaim makes a great sabich, an Iraqi Jewish sandwich of roasted eggplant sandwich, hard-boiled egg, tomato, cucumber, and tahini. This, and the always dependable falafel sandwich, come encased in spongy, wood-fired pita bread. There is also a thick pastrami sandwich served on a pletzel (Jewish flatbread). All sandwiches are accompanied with freshly fried papas fritas. The menu is rounded out with other traditional foods such as kibbeh, knishes, and lachamagine (remember—my new favorite food). As for the beer garden, choose from a selection of different Argentine brews and take advantage of the extensive outdoor seating while you wait for your buzzer to light up.

Courtesy of Benaim.

The Argentine Jew:  The menu sticks pretty closely to Jewish tradition, with few deviations. However, Argentines are infamous for their aversion to spicy food, and much of Sephardic cuisine comes with a kick. But Nicolás says this hasn’t proven to be an obstacle.  “[Argentines] are very open to eating it. It was surprising to me, also.”

Fun, Jewish features: Twice a month, Benaim hosts noche de la kosher, a night in which all of the food served is certified kosher. Regular customers come and often don’t notice the difference, but Nicolás says that you’re likely to see more customers wearing kippahs. Additionally, the restaurant hosts special celebrations for Jewish holidays, such as Hanukkah.

Benaim | Gorriti 4015 – Palermo | Monday – Thursday 6 PM – 12 AM;  Friday 6 PM – 2 AM; Saturday 12 PM – 2 AM;  Sunday 12 PM – 12 AM | Instagram

El Paisano Kosher House

Courtesy of El Paisano Kosher House.

The story behind the food: El Paisano Kosher House, a kosher parrillla in Belgrano, doesn’t serve traditionally Jewish food to Argentines, but rather Argentine food to religious Jews. The restaurant is housed in a former beit chabad, a type of Jewish community center that usually functions as a synagogue, a classroom, and the home of the rabbi. It’s co-owned by husband-and-wife duo Shmuel and Jaia, plus Shmuel’s brother Mendi. Shmuel and Mendi’s father used to oversee the beit chabad as Rabbi. Now, the three of them use the space to run their restaurant. 

Kosher? Yes!

What makes it special: El Paisano is truly a do-it-yourself operation. At its inception, it was a synagogue that already had tables and cutlery in it: the building blocks for a restaurant. It began operating only one night a week, which has now grown to five nights. None of the owners have formal training in cooking, but they felt their informal experience would suffice. “When you work in a chabad, there is always food,” explained Jaia. “And the wife of the rabbi always cooks.” Shmuel and Jaia still do the bulk of the food prep: Jaia bakes the desserts, and regularly dreams up new concepts to add to the menu. Shmuel oversees the asado, with the help of a hired parrillero. The space itself is also striking, and while it has the feeling of a storied, grand library, I also felt like I was having dinner at a friend’s house.

What’s on the menu: Asado, but make it kosher. You’ll find all the usual cuts of carne and sides of papas, plus hamburgers, a few interesting salads, and a wide-ranging dessert menu. The secret is in the prep. Beginning around 5 PM every night, Shmuel sets up a wood fire in the backyard of the restaurant and begins smoking the meat. This long-term thinking shows. I have had a lot of kosher meat in my lifetime, but I had never had any that tastes like El Paisano’s: impossibly rich and marbled with all the smokiness of the fire. And while a lot of the menu is traditional, you’ll find some unlikely dishes—as Shmuel explained, they like to experiment with the menu. One of the standouts is the arepa burger: three perfect sliders perched atop mini, griddled arepas.

Courtesy of El Paisano Kosher House.

The Argentine Jew: The menu is Argentine to its core. The only thing that makes it truly “Jewish” is the fact that it’s certified kosher. Of course, being a religious Jew and being Argentine aren’t mutually exclusive, and this is a place where these two identities coalesce. 

Fun, Jewish features: From what I can tell, pretty much everything in here is a fun, Jewish feature. Jewish art adorns the walls, and display cases exhibit different forms of Judaica, objects used for religious purposes. But it’s also the intangibles of the restaurant, formed by the customers that are clearly regulars, the owners who sit down with the regulars, and the music reminiscent of a Jewish wedding playing over the speakers.

El Paisano Kosher House | O’Higgins 2358 – Belgrano | Monday – Thursday 8 PM – 12 AM;  Saturday 9:30 PM – 1 AM;  Sunday 12 PM – 4 PM, 7 PM – 11 PM | Instagram

This, of course, is not an exhaustive guide to Jewish eating in Buenos Aires, but rather a starting point of understanding the history behind the city’s many eateries. Other restaurants that should be on the Jewish food enthusiasts’ radar are included but not limited to: Mishiguene, the high-end and award-winning restaurant that puts an experimental twist on Jewish food; La Crespo, a traditional Jewish deli in Villa Crespo; Al Galope, the OG kosher parrilla; the authentic New York bagels and expat hub that is Sheikob’s Bagels; and the charming kiosko Florentin, an oasis of tasty and cheap food adjacent to the touristy Recoleta Cemetery.

Are all of these restaurants also based on the culinary legacy of a larger-than-life grandparent? You’ll have to go and find out for yourself.