Barbecue is popping up all over the place. Slow-cooked ribs doused in dark saccharine sweet sauce can be found on menus both high and low — from the city’s Kansas copycats to exclusive closed door restaurants that often fancify the down home tradition by cooking sous-vide for 18 hours. Tough roast cuts are used in lieu of brisket before being tossed to a similar low and slow cooked fate. Rarely does anyone get it right. And it’s for one singular reason: despite what many cooks in Buenos Aires appear to think, barbecue (and particularly barbecue sauce) isn’t just one thing. If there is any food that is completely unique to the United States, this is it, and it is as regional and varied as the Argentine empanada.
To be fair, it isn’t easy to imitate the cuisine of another culture. Cooking a regional food authentically comes from more than spending a week abroad or buying a bottle of Bull’s Eye BBQ at Carrefour. Cooking barbecue right comes from years of weekend cookouts, watching grandpa work the pit, and spending hours eating until your clothes reek of smoked pork. And this is precisely why the projects that do it right are run by expats that understand its complexities, and why the large majority of imitations are just that. So when I saddled up at Labor and ordered the slow cooked tapa de asado, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.
“The idea was never to try to imitate American-style barbecue, which is definitely a trend we are seeing right now,” begins Hernán Bernardi, the soft spoken head chef who owns the restaurant with longtime friends and fellow chefs Javier Testarelli and Gabriel Goméz. “We are Argentine and we understand Argentine flavor. It would be silly to pretend otherwise.”
The trio met while working together at the Alvear Hotel and wanted to move away from fine dining towards a more straightforward restaurant model. They began by opening Crisol, a small chain of coffee shops (one of which sits just across the street), and after a successful five year run wanted to continue to break the model down even more. And thus, Labor was born.
The challenge was two-fold: explore all the possibilities of three different types of ovens and a grill underneath a rotisería model. They started out just doing take-away and slowly expanded to a larger salon with shared seating and large sidewalk space equipped with tables and a bar on the windowsill. They quickly became a part of the fabric of Colegiales, which alongside its Chacarita neighbors has experienced a mini-food renaissance as of late with innovative projects like Rita, Leikitio and On Tap. “It’s really nice to be in a barrio like Colegiales. Many of our customers live nearby and come frequently, and they want to see a project like this succeed and have been very honest with their praise and criticisms. That has really been fundamental to our growth.”
The house specialty is the smoked tapa de asado, which spends eight hours in the smoker before being finished off in a clay oven. This is where the Argentine vision fits in. Rather than patting it down with a dry rub before smoking, the meat is lightly seasoned with salt and left to let quebracho and espinillo woods build up the bulk of the flavor. Diners have the option of dressing it up in a ciabatta bun with cheese, eggplant escabeche, lettuce and tomato or on its own with a ration of their thick homemade barbecue sauce. Although I enjoyed both, my preference leans towards a simple plate of meat and potatoes. The meat was tender and breaks apart with a simple drag of your fork. The smokiness brought out a rich fatty flavor with a slight saltiness that reminded me more of a deep flavored pork roast. Barbecue sauce is made from scratch with a thick molasses texture; it was evident that it was made with fresh tomatoes rather than ketchup. The meat was enjoyable on its own, and the barbecue worked to heighten its flavor rather than cover it.
The cheeseburger is a generous 180 gram patty stacked with arugula, caramelized onions, mustard relish, panceta and a fried egg on a toasted sesame seed bun. Dig in quickly and shamelessly, as the weight of the ingredients and the juice that slides off the burger makes the bun begin to crumble as you eat. I reveled in the mess but it’s not for the faint of heart. A mixture of relish and cheese quickly covered the corners of my lips and the egg yolk spilled out and oozed over my fingers. The salty panceta is served in abundance and reminded me more of diner style bacon than the nearly raw version normally served in Buenos Aires hamburger joints. “A good burger is a messy burger,” explained cook Juan Morales, and that’s exactly what it is.
The pulled pork is formed into a small patty with a light hand and quickly grilled before being served on a sandwich with sweet pickles and caramelized onions. The flash grilling gives it a charred texture similar to a Mexican style carnitas. The outside had a nice crunch and the slightly sweet sauce grew stronger on my tongue as I dug in. The braised bondiola is cooked in the clay oven with a thick stout sauce and served with pumpkin grilled with honey and thyme. Cooked slightly less than the pulled pork with the portly slice having just the right tenderness.
Guests that decide to eat in can choose from walls of wine and local craft and imported beer “sold at almacen prices”, or a short list of Argentine drinks including an artisan fernet and coke, cynar or yerba mate gin and tonic. For dessert, the classic chocotorta tastes like a half baked cookie dough topped with chocolate flakes and nostalgia inducing rockets.
As the weather begins to lighten up, they plan to open up the closed rooftop terrace to groups of friends that reserve a full barbecue platter. And it is this constant search to innovate that allows Labor to continue to grow and solidify itself as a neighborhood staple. because according to Bernardi “If you think you are doing everything right, you’re destined for failure.”
Freire 1501, Colegiales
Tuesday through Sunday, 12:00 to 3:45 and 7:00 to 11:30
Price: varies from $$ (AR $150-250) to $$$ (AR $250-400)