This is a burger the way it’s supposed to be. A freshly baked bun, meat cooked to a juicy medium rare, cheese that sticks to the paper before gluing itself to your face, and a handful of fresh and simple ingredients that leave you ready for an afternoon nap.
At Dellepiane, a cavernous little bar on a Recoleta side street of the same name, the magic to this magnificent food coma waiting to happen is that it’s made on the spot. Meat is rolled, flattened and grilled for a steady stream of diners. On a Friday afternoon at 4pm, a mixed bag of sleeve tattoos and pastel colored button-ups rub elbows at what appears to be an after office that started early. Slightly later on the following Tuesday and the room was filled with people replacing a midday merienda with hamburgers and fries. This is, in and of itself, enough of an accomplishment.
For years, Buenos Aires chefs and diners failed to see the value of a good hamburger. I point the finger at poor marketing. With the only frame of reference being Burger King, McDonalds or a street paty outside the cancha, who can blame them for not seeing the greasy light at the end of the tunnel? Barfy, the aptly named frozen hamburger, is the perfect summation of what one could expect with very few exceptions.
The first glimpse of hope came with the wild success of Burger Joint in 2013. After years of frequenting the original Burger Joint in New York City, owner Pierre Chacra returned to Buenos Aires to open the restaurant that would launch a thousand copycat versions. The city is plagued, and it feels like you can’t walk more than a hundred meters through Soho or Hollywood without seeing the promise of burgers, fries and craft beer in bright neon lights. Few are worth their weight in ground beef. During a recent conversation with a young burger shop owner who spent more time pointing out the usb chargers on the wall (I didn’t ask) rather than the philosophy behind the food (I did ask, twice), it was all too evident that this is a bubble that’s about to burst.
Dellepiane seems poised to survive the blow out. Owner Tomas Agostino rescued the space from closure about two years ago. The previous incarnation was an art bar with a poor reputation that served arepas. When the owner took off, Agostino stepped in and converted the kitchen to start serving hamburgers — which he’d fallen in love with over the course of many trips to the United States. But rather than copying Burger Joint’s penchant for flashy condiment combos and mile high burgers, Agostino’s menu is a restrained selection that values straightforward traditional flavors.
The clásica is a standard mix of cheddar, lettuce, tomato, pickles and their closely guarded special sauce. As a California boy on a permanent mission for an In-N-Out replacement, this is damn near close. The dellepiane is the house favorite, and is an even simpler with bacon, cheddar, grilled onion and pickles and a light but flavorful spoon of barbecue rounding out the condiments. The simplicity allows each flavor to come in and out with each bite, rather than a single strong note taking over the whole experience. Their house made Scottish beer, slightly sweet and not too hoppy, is an excellent food pairing; the IPA is great for those that feel like sticking around after. Ingredients are obviously fresh — the lettuce is extra crispy and the fresh bread is spongy and light.
“I love a good fusion style burger,” explains general manager Maxi Zapata, “but here we put more emphasis on the quality of the meat than the stuff that goes on top.” Their restraint extends to the patty itself. While most places brag about fat burgers pushing two hundred grams, Dellepiane refuses to push past 160. “If someone wants more burger, add an extra patty,” explains Agostino, “Otherwise, it’ll all fall apart.”
Closer to the epicenter of burger bars is one of the newest editions, Big Sur, and is demonstrative of how far the trend has come in three years. Mauro Colagreco’s mostly organic Carne in La Plata (and soon, Olivos) pushed the burger trend to farm-to-table territory and Big Sur has brought it to Capital Federal. Owner and head chef Maxi Rossi worked in high end kitchens across Europe and Buenos Aires before deciding to open Big Sur earlier this year with the challenge of using mostly organic products from small, independent farms.
The menu is packed with standard street food — hot dogs, burgers, fried chicken sandwiches — all made in-house. The star of the show was the burger. Meat is ground on site and dry aged for two days to give it a deep flavor. The patty was extremely juicy but the aging process cut out the wateriness that drenches buns into a sopping mess. Toppings aired on the simple yet innovative flavors like the Mission — caramelized onions, caper aioli and gourmet cheese. All the other burger options follow the same pattern of cheese, sauce, vegetable because according to Rossi anything else would the equivalent of “a samba in your mouth”. The burger comes with fries, but you can’t leave without ordering a side of pakora drenched in sriracha. Beer by local producer Bierhaus features the deeply flavored IPA that had a smooth mouth and dry bitter finish.
La Birra Bar
Across town at the Boedo restaurant and cafe La Birra Bar, the philosophy is the same: simple burgers in a bar that feels like part of the fabric of the neighborhood. I live just 10 blocks from La Birra and passed it dozens of times before noticing it on a cold mid-winter afternoon when a stream of people flooded out its doors and blocked my path. At the bar on the windowsill, two schoolgirls were chowing down on enormous hamburgers.
I returned on an overcast Monday afternoon and grabbed the last seat in the cramped skinny diner. Leon Bridges played faintly over the stereo and was barely audible over the sound of a ladies merienda and steam that fiercely erupted from the coffee maker. It’s an odd amalgamation of different food: coffee that competes with the city’s best, traditional minutas and pastas, craft beer and a small selection of burgers and pulled pork sandwiches. La Birra is a family run business that’s been in the neighborhood for more than fifteen years — father Daniel Cocchia mans the kitchen while his son Renzo runs the front.
Although the concept is an unusual mixture, the explanation is simple. They make coffee because they like good coffee, “I could never go back to what I used to drink,” explains Daniel before launching into a passionate academic discussion of coffee culture in Buenos Aires. And they make burgers alongside milanesas because they like burgers even though they had already made a reputation in the neighborhood for traditional porteño fare.
Renzo recommended the premium — bacon, caramelized onion, cheddar cheese and tomato. The bread is spongy with a texture that tastes like the love child of a steamed bao bun and buttery brioche — it comes toasted. The bacon was cooked to a nice crispiness and had a slight smokey taste and the cheese was melty without taking on the sticky goopy consistency of your standard Danbo. The caramelized onions added a nice sweetness but wasn’t overbearing. Daniel recommended the criolla—provoleta and salsa criolla—and was the clear winner. The cheese had a nice balance of chewy and melty and paired wonderful with the vinegary criolla and medium rare patty.
When I ask how far he thinks the trend will go, Daniel shrugs his shoulders and reveals the tell to a good burger joint. “We aren’t trying to jump on to some trend. We just do what we like and we are proud to be where we’re from.”