Why you should care
Because eating barbecue in Argentina isn’t supposed to be pretentious.
Pulling up a chair to the bar at La Leyenda, I hear, “You can’t sit there. That’s for takeout. Sit over there. Now, you want wine or what?” Wine, I say. “You wanna glass or a bottle or part of a bottle? Make up your mind, eh? Here. You’re getting a glass!” barks gray-and-curly-haired chef Claudio. He slams a glass of red down on my table. Spilling out onto Güemes Street in Buenos Aires’ Palermo neighborhood, this dimly lit parrilla — what the Argentines call a steakhouse — might strike some passers-by as merely a no-go hole-in-the-wall.
According to Argentine restaurateur Pablo Rivero, who runs the highly esteemed Don Julio in Buenos Aires, places like Claudio’s joint are the way asado — or Argentine barbecue — is supposed to work: Rustic. Anti-pretentious. Downright delicious. “It’s more of a national ritual,” Rivero says. Grilling meat over open fire is a continuation of what went down over a century ago in Argentina’s western plains. In the late 1800s, there was a proliferation of cattle, and so a bunch of cowboys grabbed their guns and went out into las pampas and started gunning them down, Rivero explains. That led to the origin of an export business, first with England, and then the rest of the world. “This is about the rural side of Argentina,” says Rivero. “A land of animals and fire.”
It’s hard to tell where seating ends and kitchen begins.
Indeed, upon entering the restaurant, one of the first things patrons see is a bed of hot coals cradling a dozen chorizos sizzling on two grills separated by something of a chimney. It’s hard to tell where seating ends and kitchen begins. Chef Claudio runs around frantically, grabbing slabs of meat, topping off glasses of wine and periodically shooting out onto the street, where every other passer-by gets either a kiss or an endearing Che, ¿qué tal?
My $20 plate of steak comes with grilled bread, chimichurri and hand-cut fries. In the middle of the cook, Claudio shows me an unlabeled wine bottle filled with liquid. “Salt and water.” He empties it on my steak. After smoking in the pit for what seems like an hour, my steak is finally served. Claudio points and says, “Tell me if that one piece is too rare — and if it is, we’ll toss it back on the fire.”
It is way too rare.…
“Just toss it back on!” he growls. So I become chef of my own barbecue while Claudio disappears into the mazelike bowels of La Leyenda.
Some might claim this Argentine ritual is getting a little too overdone. A 2016 documentary Todo Sobre el Asado — a must-watch for anyone intrigued by this country’s meat obsession — depicts just how fanatical Argentina is when it comes to beef. Vegetarian in Argentina? Sure, you’ll find a falafel joint here or there in Buenos Aires. But prepare yourself for cowcalypse.
Claudio’s bifocals are burning a stare into me again. I’m halfway through my meal when he starts lecturing me on something to do with beating inflation using “ancient Egyptian mathematics … and blues, of course!” Whipping around, he settles one arm on a wood carving that displays his mantra: Nothing but Blues. Sounds weep out of a speaker somewhere in the back of the kitchen.
“Is that Muddy Waters?” I ask. Claudio grins and I know I’m off.
“B.B. King, hermano. Another glass of red?”