I didn’t grow up eating milanesas or the nearly identical North American ‘chicken fried steak’ but there is something nostalgic about eating one. Maybe it has to do with my childhood struggle of trying to convince my mother to buy me chicken nuggets from McDonalds everyday that makes a simple suprema con fritas so guiltily satisfying. Or my grandfather’s insistence on frying everything and serving each meal with warm mashed potatoes that makes a napo con puré impossible to pass up.
It is, maybe, the only dish for which I will break my dining out rule—choose places to eat that make food I can’t (or don’t want to) prepare at home. And the milanesa, which I’d argue is Buenos Aires’ quintessential dish (far ahead of pizza or empanadas), is amongst the simplest of meals to prepare for a lazy night in. For these three, I’ll make an exception.
La Pulperia del Cotorro | Pepirí 400, Parque Patricios
On any afternoon of the week, La Pulperia del Cotorro is completely full of what feels like an impromptu reunion. Everyone knows everyone. Patrons don’t just greet ‘el Cotorro’ as they come in, they stop to say hello to half the room. Dark blue string lights weave around the restaurant and pull your attention to the antique knick knacks that clutter every inch of wall, shelf and counter space. A photo of Mercedes Sosa mid-song sits happily next to an iconic image of Bob Marley. A bird cage that houses a matador figurine hangs over my table by the entrance. Antique doll heads, rotary phones, retired cooking tools and a wooden robot make the room feel like a quirky antiques dealer disappeared in the middle of the night and the cooks moved right in.
The waitress glides over to the table with a handmade ceramic platter which temporarily houses a delicate carne al cuchillo ‘empanalga’. ‘La Pulperia del Cotorro’ is written with affectionate cursive lettering on the platter. The little air bubbles that squeaked up to the surface of the dough still glitter with grease and let you know that it was been freshly popped into the deep fryer. Steam crawls skyward after the first bite and shines transparent white with what little winter light creeps through the windows of this cavernous restaurant. It feels like the scene of a still life painting.
Comfort dishes with an emphasis on the Argentine Northwest, Spanish influenced cantina-style dishes and gluttonous interpretations of time tested classics make up Cotorro’s menu. Words of pre-caution (or encouragement) are sprinkled in after each food description, “Order this and you’ll leave a different person.”
The restaurant’s eccentricity bleeds over into the selection of milanesas with the porteño staple being re-vamped with simple edits. Like a napolitana served with bolognese sauce or the escondida which is stuffed and baked into a dough similar to a calzone. I like the nuclear, described as “Astronaut food. Eat this and you’ll fly awy”. Breaded steak is topped with thin slices of longaniza sausage, slightly crisped by a quick bake in the oven. The meat was tender and the flavor was heightened by the savory-sweet touch of longaniza. A gooey layer of queso cremoso (I’d prefer a nicer cheese than a dull cheap white cheese) is dusted with crushed red pepper flakes, a sort of homage to a calabresa pizza. French fries should always be ordered when a runny fried egg is thrown on top. Be sure to paint them fries with generous brushstrokes of the buttery yolk.
Freud&Fahler | José Antonio Cabrera 5300, Palermo Soho
Air’s “Alone in Kyoto” plays low from a speaker hidden out of view. It’s fitting for this subdued little restaurant, which has quietly lived on this Palermo Soho corner since 2013. It’s an unassuming spot inside and out. The simple white facade doesn’t necessarily attract your attention; the restaurant initials painted in thin letters on the window doesn’t tell us much, either. Large windows frame a relaxed and airy bistro with pretty marble counters and tables covered in thick white cloths. There is an open kitchen that flanks the back corner where a small staff leisurely preps meals.
It is no surprise that their plate of milanesa is a dish that hides a purposefully orchestrated and clear flavor palate hidden behind a subtle, almost bare, aesthetic. The traditional starch sides are tossed out and replaced with a green salad or, as per the house recommendation, a tangle of spaghetti tossed in butter and sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Go for the latter. The breading has an excellent crisp that tastes like it has also been cooked in butter with a light hand of savory herbs. In the middle, a thin layer of tenderloin tears apart gently and should be eaten with the delicate thin spaghetti in the same bite. The butter makes the noodles stick together and takes on a flavor similar to a light and comforting macaroni and cheese. You’d expect none of this from the outside looking in, making it all the better.
Los Orientales | Avenida Rivadavia 3981, Almagro
A line of nearly a dozen people waiting outside in the middle of winter is always a tall-tale sign of something good. At Los Orientales, a little bodegon run by the Saavedra family on the southern edges of Almagro, there is always a line. And when their isn’t, you’d be sure to pass right by this objectionably ugly greasy spoon. Tables are jammed closely together to maximize space. The room is surrounded with old wood paneling. Dozens of pieces of paper advertise innumerable specials in black and red sharpie and are taped with scotch on the front door and all around the salon.
The restaurant holds true to the bodegon creed of an encyclopedic menu that offers a dozen completely unnecessary variations of the same dish. Steaks, pizza, omelettes, tartas, pastas, salads, seafood, raviolis and gramajos make up an endless set of choices. But besides the baked empanada that comes alongside the bread and butter bowl, the milanesas are the only option here. They are carried out in either arm, stacked on impossibly high mountains of french fries, topped with all the classic choices. It’s okay to avert your eyes from the Suprema Maryland, which comes with creamed corn, peas and a fried banana.
Chicken milanesas are particularly good—the suprema offers a whole breast with drumstick intact tossed with a flakey bread crumb mixture and baked to a deep golden brown. The breast is cut extra thick allowing the breading to get crispy without the meat drying out. It is worth eating alone as a suprema clásica, wetted down with your condiment of choice, or drenched in a fugazzeta-style cheese and onion combo. The latter is a greasy meal that demands an immediate nap; cheese spills over a milanesa and onions caramelize underneath the cheese’s oil. My favorite is the milanesa napolitana with mashed potato. Rump steak is pounded thin and tenderized and topped with a savory tomato sauce and molten mozzarella that become one in the oven. This is a perfect execution of a classic milanesa.
Although amongst the simplest of dishes, these three stay fresh in my head long after I’ve left the restaurant (and eaten the leftovers). That’s comfort food at its finest.