It’s the last thing I would expect to be placed in front of me at a parrilla as Pedro Peña, co-owner and head asador of La Carniceria, feeds more wood to a blazing fire just a foot in front of my seat at the bar. The wood crackles and the thunderous sear of six steaks cooking over the heat fills my ears. To my left, a young couple quietly fawns over a tall plate of sweetbreads. On my right, a pair of Spaniards loudly devours a sirloin steak. Both of my anonymous dining companions side-eye my choice: neatly arranged strips of thinly sliced round steak over a bed of thick aji amarillo salsa and leche de tigre that has dripped off the beef and formed a small translucent pool of lime and rocoto. The cirtus smell immediately attacks the nostrils and the aji amarillo makes its way to stay on the back of the tongue. Sprinkles of maíz cancha, celery and calabaza add three different colors and crunches; the cool and sweet calabaza brings the flavors back down.
Everything about the scenario runs counter to the norms of a parrilla. Firstly, round steak (or nalga) is more commonly used for a milanesa; sliced paper thin and breaded before being baked or fried. Secondly, it’s served raw—technically, the meat is cooked by the citric acids of the leche de tigre but its presentation would lead you to believe otherwise. Lastly, the dish leans heavily away from the conservative Argentine flavor palate towards the boisterous tastes of Peru.
Over the last few years, Buenos Aires has been host to a complete food evolution that has touched nearly every style of cooking and introduced a whole host of new ones. But one has remained nearly untouched: the asado. It makes sense that the holier than thou cultural tradition has stuck to its roots, and it’s no surprise that places like La Carniceria have faced serious haters from die-hard asado aficionados who refuse to recognize it as a ‘parrilla’. But despite the inventiveness of the menu, Peña and his other half, La Pampa native German Sitz, have never lost focus of the essence of the asado which at its most stripped down is a celebration of meat. And the nalga dish, although I am curious to see it be transformed by more local flavors, is just that—and in purer form than any other steakhouse in the city. “We will always consider ourselves a parrilla,” asserts Sitz, “Our goal has always been to unite a classic parrilla with new flavors and cooking techniques, and always with the best quality meat.”
Of course, Peña and Sitz and their talented crew of young cooks couldn’t get away with any of this unless the rest of the menu was on point. The best way to enjoy La Carniceria is in a group of at least four so that a handful of appetizers can be split before the main entree. The chorizo is an infallible favorite. Pork is sourced locally and the sausages are made by hand in-house. With the exception of Chorix (also owned by the Carniceria family) this is one of the best chorizos in the city—I’d go so far to say that it is the best, so sharpen your pitchforks. Meat is carefully chosen for just the right amount of fat—this is a solid sausage completely absent of those giant chunks of hard fat and very little grease. The flavor is full with a mixture of savory salt and a smokey cured twinge is reminiscent of a country ham.
The mollejas are glazed in a honey that makes the outer layer sticky and sweet but never overpowering. Mollejas are often sliced thin and thrown on the grill. When they are cooked well they melt across the tongue. When it’s done badly the sweetbreads are gritty and blackened. Here they are served whole with a meatier texture over the preferred fatty consistency. It is accompanied with homemade yogurt and sweet corn bread. The provoleta has a flakey layer on the top—the Spaniards double checked that it wasn’t a crisp piece of pancetta—to reveal the rich chewy cheese underneath. The rich cream flavor is offset by pear preserves and a light chimichurri. For the main event, the corte parrillada is my first choice. Peña simply sprinkles the sirloin steak with salt before cooking it low and slow over quebracho wood. Steaks are thick and cooked to a buttery medium rare. The Patagonian lamb is a relatively new addition. Three racks of lamb covered in a rock salt that brings out a slight gaminess from the tender pink meat that comes right off the bone.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Parrilla Peña. Whereas the low lit Carniceria is outfitted with wall paper and meat hooks that transform the space into the inside of a meat locker, Parrilla Peña’s filled from floor to ceiling with wine bottles. Florescent lights brighten up the space, which if your lucky to grab a seat downstairs features a full view of an open kitchen. Old school waiters dressed in all white get-ups race back and forth caring impossibly large orders of steak and pasta.
By day, it feels like an extension of Tribunales and is filled with hungry suits and ties. By night, the restaurant that is no longer a well-kept secret is filled with a mixture of locals and big eyed tourists. During my last visit, I giggled to myself as a couple behind me went wild over their empanada before I realized I was the butt of someone elses joke. I caught the eye of a girl who commented loudly to her boyfriend, “It’s like he’s never seen a steak before,” as I furiously shot photographs.
Although Peña’s menu features an extensive list (and a handy map) of different cuts of meat, la posta is the bife de chorizo with a side order of steak fries and ensalada mixta. Although the grill utilizes coals, the meat tastes like it has been chargrilled over a deeply flavored wood complemented by a grill that carries the taste of grease and meat from years of asado-ing. The complimentary empanada that comes at the beginning of the meal is amongst the city’s greatest: a flakey buttery shell that reveals a juicy meat filling. To top the meal off, a towering budín de pan with saccharine sweet dulce de leche and cream.
On the other side of town at La Boca favorite El Obrero, the philosophy is much the same: excellent steaks, traditional porteño dishes and a no-frills atmosphere and service. I have been to El Obrero countless times, and it is a place where where all walks of life rub elbows. On my last visit, tables of regulars were sprinkled between a nameless French clothing designer and his entourage of 12, a small group of enormous Brazilian bodybuilders and a group of Spaniards filming the whole experience on a steadicam. El Obrero was founded in 1954 by two brothers. Today the business is run by their children. The only thing that has changed is the clientele, which has changed from the men who came over from the port to a loyal following of locals, tourists and celebrities (whose photos are pinned from floor to ceiling) but according to co-owner Juan Carlos Castro, “Here everybody is the same.”
This is part of the charm of El Obrero. The waiters, dressed in simple red smocks, are friendly and attentive throwing jokes at diners whether they understand Spanish or not. Many have been around for decades. The French designer and me? We get the exact same smile (although he got a photo). At a lot of bodegones that balance between pasta and roasted dishes and grilled meats, the asado often suffers a lack of consistency. This has never been the case at Obrero where the quality of ingredients and the asador is as good as its Palermo colleagues, “If you buy quality, you serve quality,” Castro sums up simply. The difference is the ‘workers’ prices.
The bife de chorizo is wildly different from the ones at both Peña and Carniceria. The meat is cut with a thick layer of fat on the side that transforms into soft buttery morsels. It is quickly grilled to a tender medium rare that tears apart with the slightest movement of a knife. For the adventurous steak eaters, rare often comes out slightly blue. It should be eaten with the crispy steak fries and salad; the arugula and parmesan is a noble choice. I’ve only ever had bites of other dishes (the milanesa napolitana is a magnificent mess of cheese and tomato sauce and breaded meat) because once you’ve ordered the bife it’s hard to order anything else. It also happens to be what every single waiter recommends without a second thought, for good reason.
Sometimes it feels like there are more parrillas in this city than there are people. Lots get it wrong. I’m talking about you lazy grillers that leave your meat on the grill all day until it’s a grey leathery ghost of a steak. A lot do it right. More do it right than there is space to fill an article with a small enough word count to get you to the “Final Thoughts” section. These happen to be my favorites, time tested and fat-kid approved, so don’t roast me too hard in the comments.