Bright white cotton ball lights drape from a large tree and onto the humble facade of a small restaurant in the distance. You can see them swaying in the breeze from a block away. As you get closer, the sounds and smells of meat sizzling over a grill become palpable. A small sign that reads latin food lets you know that they belong to something more exciting than the local dives that dot this otherwise unremarkable corner of Recoleta. It is a good thing that Panachef leads the way, if not you might skip right past and that would be a terrible injustice.
The spectacle inside is just as captivating. On an otherwise quiet Monday night on this nondescript street, a small gang of French exchange students loudly practice their Spanish while a Colombian couple curiously question each item on the menu. Behind the bar, the smiley new kitchen assistant Leonardo carefully rolls fresh masa into a ball before flipping it from one palm to the other to flatten it into a perfectly symmetrical doughy discus. He is commanded by the watchful eye of owner and chef David Flores, whose veteran arepa stuffing skills easily lap the novice trainee. All the while neighbors, friends, and complete strangers pop past to chat — Flores knows them all, and if he doesn’t, it sure appears to be the case.
Flores is commanded by the even more watchful eye of his fiancee Fabiana Ramírez, who tends to the guests and finds order amongst all the chaos. “I’m the cook. I’m loud and emotional. She is the logical one that plants my feet back down on Earth and the reason Panachef is here,” he explains while she knowingly grins. The pair is expecting their first child, Isabella, in a few months.
And when he says he is a cook, he means it. His grandmothers, both professional chefs, tell stories of when he was still crawling around banging on pots and pans. By 8 he made his first arepa, at 9 his first rice; these small sources of pride make Ramírez giggle, “Can’t you see? We had to open a restaurant.” His father had aspirations of an accountant or an engineer and thought sending him to work at McDonalds would be enough of a determent, “His plan backfired. He created a monster instead.”
They made the move to Buenos Aires 5.5 years ago upon the encouragement of his friend and colleague Juan Manuel León Marquina (who would later open Monzú Pizzeria). Together they worked in some of Venezuela’s top kitchens but were feeling burnt out by the small food community. “There was no one left to cook for in Caracas. We had cooked for them all.” Ready to start back from the bottom and wash dishes in Buenos Aires, Flores landed a job as the assistant head chef at Casa Coupage and went on to work at both Osaka and Paru. “I learned incredible discipline there, but the work began to wear me down and I wanted my own project where I could interact with people,” and thus Pana (Venezuelan slang for friend, similar to pibe) was born.
Panachef opened just a year and a half ago with little more than a makeshift bar, an electric grill and a single portable stove top to occupy this slender storefront. “We got through the beginning by the skin of our teeth.” Their inauguration to the scene is a tree ring on a slowly growing fascination with street food that has begun to explode over the last few months. What was once satiated by a quick slice of pizza or an empanada, or a bus ride to Barrio Chino, Once or your nearest Costanera, is now a small but diverse set of offerings. Malaysian roti with yellow curry, half a dozen versions of bao, gourmet hot dogs, gyoza, Israeli style falafel, Mongolian noodles and what feels like a burger spot on every single street corner between Scalabrini and Juan B. Justo.
But Buenos Aires skipped a step. The high cost of imported ingredients, constrictive health code and a general lack of street food culture have forced cooks to go above ground and open up shop in formal and often upscale sit-down restaurants. Amongst a new wave of culinary pioneers, Panachef is one of few to remain true to the street food spirit — a small space with just the bare necessities, direct contact between cook and guest, and an abundance of deliciously fatty and flavorful choices.
“The concept is simple,” explains Ramírez, “We want people to come hang out and get to know one another by sharing a meal.” Guests can sit at a slim bar inside or two tables on the sidewalk, both of which encourage interaction. The divide between client and chef is a small wood bar; the food is prepared on a long rectangular grill in plain view. Come in once, and on your second visit they are likely to welcome you back like an old friend.
Although often described as a Venezuelan restaurant, Flores fiercely defends Panachef as a wider reaching Latin eatery. The distinct minty huacatay leaf typically found in Peruvian salsas is the focal point of their signature hot sauce — a citrusy green salsa made with ginger, cilantro, lemon and whatever chile peppers they can get their hands on. Spice itself is an appeal to the flavors of Peru and Bolivia, and abundant plates of food pay homage to the abuelas north of Ecuador that stack your plate high and expect you to eat it all. Fried plantains recall the palate of the Caribbean coast, as do the black beans and avocado slices. Dishes shared amongst various cultures — the arepa or pañuelo, grilled corn and hamburgers the size of your head — tie it all together.
The arepa here is something special, and the key is in the dough. Each one is made fresh to order with flour imported from Venezuela. The dough is toasted on the outside before being stuffed with spoonfuls of shredded chicken, beef or pork and bathed in salsa. Queso fresco is made specially for them by a local cheese producer. The cost is high, but Flores insists that, “it is the only way to do it.”
What Panachef lacks in physical size, it more than makes up for it in personality. And although this little storefront takes a little bit of searching, it is a food find worth hunting for, just look for the lights and listen for the sizzles.
Sanchez de Bustamante 1470, Recoleta
Mon-Fri: 12:00-3:30, 6:30-10:30; Sat: noon-midnight
011 4961 3782