Three cooks, a handyman, a gardener and a biologist open a restaurant. I wish I had a joke there. Nope, this is the magic potion behind a new fast food counter on the border of Microcentro and San Telmo where the paint is as fresh as the ideas on the menu. The philosophy is two-fold: explore the possibilities of everything that can be eaten with your hands and kill your midday hunger in the process. Hence the restaurant’s name, Matambre, an old play on words coined by the gauchos who named their favorite cut of meat ‘el mata hambre’, or the hunger killer, for its dense chew.
All I needed to see was a photo of their ‘choriburger’ of the week. It is exactly what it sounds like: ground beef and chorizo mixed together into one glorious patty, grilled up and topped ‘al caballo’, or with a fried egg that spills out with bright yellow yolk as soon as you grab a hold of it.
While Palermo has seen a slow dinner revolution in the last few years, Microcentro has been picking up the slack on the city’s tepid lunch game. Beginning with Dogg and Burger 180 in the northern end of downtown it spread south with the openings of Perez-H, Latino Sandwich and Del Toro Burger. Most projects are firmly rooted in fast food traditions. The opening of Fresco last December brought the love to the Monserrat side with an aggressively healthy restaurant that touts an organic menu with seasonal ingredients from small national vendors and food made fresh from scratch daily. Matambre is a mixture of the two ideas, a menu that changes based on the availability of the freshest ingredients ordered from trustworthy vendors and chosen meticulously before being interpreted as street food.
“We started out by thinking, what can we put between two pieces of bread?” begins Clara Inés, co-owner and one of the three cooks. The burgers and sandwiches were natural fits. “But we wanted to create plates people might not expect. People have this idea of what a taco ‘has’ to be. Half the time here [in Buenos Aires] you find that those ideas have nothing in common with how tacos are made in Mexico.” She’s right, you won’t find stir-fried chicken and bell peppers thrown into a tortilla and served in the streets of Mexico City. So they’ve broken it down, “the taco starts at the tortilla and the rest is up to the imagination.”
The varied team of six is partially responsible for this line of free thinking. Before opening Matambre, Inés was the head cook at the now defunct Chochan. She also runs the independent poetry publishing house Elemento Disruptivo. “I can’t sit still,” she explains. Her partners in the kitchen are Jorgelina Mandarina, who is also an actress. The two began cooking together at a clandestine cultural center that frequently had no electricity and was “so secret that instead of clapping we snapped our fingers so the neighbors wouldn’t hear”. Micaela Gamallo joins them in the kitchen and works the garden upstairs. Luciano Vigevano is the handyman who built all the restaurant’s tables and chairs and acts as the unofficial waiter, and Simón Ignouville and Sonia Cabrera, gardener and biologist respectively, work together to compost all the restaurant’s organic waste.
The other half could have to do with the fact that none of the three women manning the deep fryers and gas griddles studied the culinary arts. “It’s not that we don’t believe in culinary school, it isn’t that at all. It’s that we do believe in studying your trade by actually doing it,” explains Inés, and adds, “I studied food in my own way. I consume cookbooks like a complete nerd.”
The restaurant is an immediately friendly space. Plywood tables decorated with bright green plants are set up bar style with a large communal table and a few smaller ones, a lovely trend that I hope continues. Music comes out of the loudspeakers and the cooks occasionally send requests, “Put on that new Miley Cyrus!” yells Mandarina from the back, “I love that punk!” giggles Inés with approval. Luckily her country inspired Backyard Sessions rang over the speakers. Food is often brought out by one of the cooks themselves.
The menu is divided into three sections: hamburgers, sandwiches and tacos. Each section is further broken down so that a meat eater, vegetarian or vegan can sit around the table as equals. The tacos are also gluten free for the celiacs in the room. Every two weeks they throw an event called ‘Corazones Calientes’, interpretations of food around a particular theme or cuisine. Last week they ‘interpreted’ Peru with a three course menu that included anticuchos, aji de gallina and a tres leches ice cream. Guests pay a fixed price and eat as much as they can.
With her previous work at Chochán, it is no surprise that pork takes up such an important role on the menu. The dense smokey flavor of the choriburger is a match made in heaven for the buttery egg yolk that seeps into the crusty fresh bread. A taco is stuffed with bitesize squares of panceta that has been cured and marinated in vinegar and pears before being grilled to give it a nice crunchy exterior. It comes topped with pickled cabbage and charred green onion. Although I would have preferred for the onion to have been chopped for a cleaner bite it added a wonderful acidity. The pulled pork sandwich swaps out the traditional sweet barbecue for a subtle Bloody Mary sauce.
There is also a hamburger which has been mixed with tabasco and comes topped with smoked cheese and red onion. They will gladly cook it for you medium rare. The roast beef is marinated overnight in a vinegar and soy sauce mix to cut down on the chewiness before being grilled and topped with crispy provoleta and a sweet salsa criolla. The salsa is a “fake marmalade” prepared with sugar. The affect is a taste and texture that feels more like an over ripened pear than onion. You know that these ladies take their sandwiches seriously because their homemade buns vary depending on which sandwich you order. To drink, you can choose from a tall can of beer or soda, fingers crossed a good craft beer is in their future. The best part though, free cucumber water, and as much as you want of it.
Matambre is a friendly space with a strong sense of collectivism and community. Although it’s amongst the first to venture to that side of downtown, it will hopefully become the flagship of more projects like this to come, both in food and spirit.
Piedras 672, Monserrat
Monday through Wednesday noon to 7:00pm, Thursday through Saturday noon to 9:00pm