Buenos Aires has a lot to offer. From its stunning architecture to its bustling arts and culture scene, there’s a plethora of reasons to love this city. But once you’ve set up camp in the city for a while and the honeymoon period fades away as you start acclimating to your surroundings, there’s a specific complaint that becomes and more and more common. It pops up most commonly in conversations among expats, but might also be expressed in front of befuddled locals. And when it does, oh boy, is it ever met with indignation.
So we’ll just come right out and say it. The food in this city can sometimes be… kind of… bland?
Look, it’s not that we don’t love asado. We adore asado! Maybe to a fault! And who could ever deny the wholesome goodness of a nice milanesa con puré, or the warm, comforting embrace of an empanada? We adore traditional Argentine food and we are grateful every day that we get to partake in it (well, except for pionono de atún, maybe – a sweet pastry stuffed with tuna and slathered in mayonnaise? Who the heck thought that was a good idea? And how did it become a traditional holiday meal?!). But those of us from certain other countries are accustomed to a little more zest, and often, a little more heat.
Ah, yes – the level of heat. One of the most controversial topics that can come up when you’re hosting a get-together for locals. Because the Argentine palate is so accustomed to mild flavors, even a tiny bit of capsaicin can usually trigger a choir of “¡está re picante, boludo!”, even when you went out of your way not to apply that extra pinch of red pepper flakes. I’ve been to dinner parties where a fraction of the guests have had to stop eating what the host was serving and literally order a pizza from the nearest Mi Matute because they just couldn’t withstand the scorching heat of… a completely average lasagna that none of the non-locals had any problem with.
And look, we’re not telling anybody that they should like the heat. People like what they like, and far be it from us to tell anyone that they’re wrong for having a low threshold for spice. If we had been born here, we’d likely be the same way. But for those of us who do enjoy the extra kick of spicy food, there are a few ways to find that endorphin rush that we get after a good blast of fuego. And though it’s all common sense stuff, we thought we’d give some pointers for those folks who routinely spam expat groups on Facebook with the query “where can I find spicy food in Buenos Aires?” as well as any adventurous porteño who is looking to expand their horizons.
You have three options, presented in order of descending effort:
Go Buy Some Produce
The first option is to head out there and look for the raw materials you’re going to need to make your own hot dishes. We’re talking both fresh and dried peppers. We’re talking Chinese chilies and peppercorns. Exotic powders from faraway places! Strange-looking pastes! Things you can chop up and ground up and mash up and play around with to make your own spicy meals. Believe it or not, it’s actually all out there waiting for you.
“But wait,” I hear you start to protest, “I can’t find any of those things at my local Coto or Disco or Carrefour. I can’t even find them at my local verdulería!” These are solid points. If you want quality materials, Buenos Aires makes it a bit hard for you; you have to go out and look for them. Barrio Chino in Belgrano is a good place to start your journey, as the neighborhood hosts a labyrinthian maze of supermarkets stocked full of strange, often unidentifiable ingredients that will start you on a culinary adventure.
As far as peppers go, you definitely want to explore the Once and Abasto areas, where you will find a number of Peruvian veg shops carrying all sorts of fresh and dried ajíes, such as rocoto and panca peppers. These hold the key to an exciting new world of spiciness. But like the best things in life, you’ll have to work for it.
Go Buy Some Hot Sauce
If you’re anything like me, the idea of chopping up peppers sounds super appealing *in theory* but you’re barely ever in the mood for it. There’s a word for people like us: lazy. Thankfully, the world understands our plight, and some absolute genius decided a long time ago that he would create sauces, bottle them, and sell them to other people for consumption. History books are fuzzy on who exactly did it, but for the purposes of this piece we’re going to call him… Mr. Sauceman.
Hot sauce is all the rage these days. From the ascent of shows such as First We Feast’s massively popular YouTube show Hot Ones to the growing specialty hot sauce market, it seems like everyone’s preferred method of spicing up their meal is through one of these brightly-colored, increasingly-ludicrously-titled hot sauce bottles. And with good reason; the world seems to have woken up to the fact that hot sauce doesn’t have to just consist of peppers and vinegar, and that the heat provides an excellent backdrop for some bold and creative flavor combinations, such as the pineapple habanero sauce I’m sampling as I write this piece. It feels like everyone loves hot sauce, and new, exciting products are popping up every day.
… until you take a look at what’s available at the average Argentine supermarket and you realize that your options are the blander-than-bland Benidorm Ají Picante (yes, this thing) or a morbidly overpriced 3-oz bottle of Tabasco. Despair not, fellow heat-seekers, for there are a few other venues for you that won’t involve ordering stuff off of Amazon to have it arrive at the US and be snuck in like contraband by a friend or relative.
A good first option is to once again hit up trusty old Barrio Chino, where the aforementioned supermarkets also include a pretty healthy selection of hot sauces (often sriracha-style sauces of various brands, though you can also find the classic rooster sauce by Huy Fong Foods thanks to distributors such as Sriracha Argentina). If you’re still in the Once or Abasto area from our previous tip, you can also hit up Peruvian kioscos and buy their imported Peruvian hot sauces. And here’s another little-known fact: if you go to the many wonderful Peruvian restaurants Buenos Aires has to offer, most of them will actually sell you their home-made sauces for pretty cheap.
There are a few other options, such as the wonderful Salsas Portela, and celebrated chef Narda Lepes’s Que Lo Parió sauce. There are also a few small-scale distributors, such as blogger El Holandés Picante’s online store, which carries recognized brands such as Dave’s, Blair’s, and Marie Sharp’s. You can also scour MercadoLibre to find other sellers, but because these products are imported, the mark-up tends to be huge. Thanks a lot, Mr. Sauceman.
Last but not least, Locos X El Picante sells various chili seeds, hot sauces both locally made and imported and various other spicy products. They have an online store and are delivering during Covid.
Go to a Restaurant
Yep! Even though the Argentine palate hasn’t quite warmed up to the heat, there are several places all over town where you can buy dishes that are hot, flavorful, and Instagrammable. We’ll give you a few quick suggestions.
Since the Palermo neighborhood has the highest concentration of restaurants in the city, that’s a good place to start; you’ve likely already heard of it, but the restaurant Chicken Bros (Thames 1795) is a must-visit destination for hot wings fanatics who are feeling a bit nostalgic (check out their weekly all-you-can-eat chicken wing nights, featuring hot sauces ranging from mild to blazing hot). Chimu Nikkei (El Salvador 5600) is one of my favorite Peruvian places in the city, and their homemade sauces are to die for.
Also NOLA (Gorriti 4389), an amazing place that brings the cajun tradition to gaucho country, including its deliciously hot homemade sauces. Roam around Gorriti and you’ll run into fast-food joint Dogg (5751), where you can also find an impressive shelf filled with various hot sauces from all over the world. Fukuru Noodle Bar (Costa Rica 5514) has many delectable creations including its excellent spicy ramen, and Chilaca (Carranza 1601) is a Mexican place priding itself in their homemade hot sauces. There’s also SE Asian outposts such as Sunae Asian Cantina (Humboldt 1626) and Sudestada (Guatemala 5602), both of which deliver blistering levels of heat along with their delicious cuisine.
Venture out of Palermo and you’ll find places such as the fiery Indian restaurant Delhi Mahal (Av. Córdoba 1147) and the new Korean joint Fa Song Song (Esmeralda 993; make sure to try their chili paste). Speaking of Korean food, be sure to check out the various restaurants all along the Korean neighborhood in Flores, such as the renowned Una Cancion Coreana (Carabobo 1549). And the aforementioned Abasto area continues to be a treasure trove of wonderful flavors by featuring a huge variety of Peruvian restaurants.
We know that this is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are good places to start. There is a lot of spice in Buenos Aires, you just have to dig a little to find it. But there may be winds of change in the horizon; during our investigation, we spoke to one of the chefs at Chilaca who told us he’s being seeing a huge increase locals warming up to spicy food, trying out new things. Many of them even like it! (Though they surely talk about this suffering in therapy each week.)
As more and more people from around the world set roots in Buenos Aires, the city’s cuisine will expand to incorporate those influences, and hopefully at some point it won’t be quite that much of an ordeal to get a decent hot sauce at a regular supermarket. Stay spicy, everyone.