I’m clutching a piece of paper scribbled with an address and nothing more. Arriving outside the location, I do a double take. Can this be right? I’m standing in front of an apartment building, not a restaurant. The numbers match, so I press the buzzer and wait.
The door opens and chef Claudia Faigon stands in the hallway, holding a glass of wine, ready to welcome me into her apartment, a.k.a. Casa Loyola. She gives me a little hug, and then we retreat to the garden terrace to get acquainted with the other guests.
This is my first mystery meal with strangers in a secret location. It feels odd, like a scene from Eyes Wide Shut, minus the masks and kinky hookups. But this is Buenos Aires, where underground dining is just one way of exploring the city’s gastronomy.
From underground eateries to gourmet street meat, Buenos Aires has a vibrant, ever-evolving food culture that blends international flavours and traditional porteño (local) cuisine.
A fiesta of flavours
When envisioning Argentine cuisine, most think of steak. It’s certainly not incorrect. You can feast on Argentine asado (barbecue), which involves meats charbroiled on a parilla (grill) or over an open fire. But there are multiple cuts and grilling methods, each with distinct tastes. For ambitious eaters, head to the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt Hotel for an asado platter of assorted steak cuts, cooked with quebracho and eucalyptus wood and served with chimichurri sauce and wood-roasted garlic cream.
Beef is only the beginning. Immigration has flavoured the city’s gastronomic culture, creating surprising fusions and signature “BA” fare. Many porteños (locals) have Italian and Spanish roots, so Mediterranean-inspired dishes are particularly bountiful.
However, don’t expect a taste transplant from the Old World. For instance, although 40 per cent of Argentines have Italian ancestry, Buenos Aires has its own pizza style. Pies are often served masa alta – a bready dough with a crispy edge, lightly dashed with tomato sauce and oozing with stringy mozzarella. And when in Buenos Aires, do like the porteños do: pair a pizza slice with a glass of moscato (dessert wine).
You can’t visit BA without supping at a puerta cerrada – a secret, “closed-door” restaurant where you can dine like a local. As with Casa Loyola, the chef hosts a small group in an intimate space – usually their home – for a specially prepared meal. It blends the experience of a traditional restaurant and a dinner party.
These underground restaurants offer some of the most memorable meals in Buenos Aires, prepared by the city’s top-ranking chefs. Usually, the restaurant’s location is concealed until the last minute and menus aren’t shared in advance. Reservations are necessary, but it’s often an ordeal to book. Much like the dating world, you may exchange a flurry of emails and phone calls before securing a date.
At Casa Loyola, the night unfolds over a multi-course Thai feast. Chef Faigon gives an in-depth description of each dish, Argentine wines and cuisine, and where to buy ingredients. As the malbec and conversation flows, a table of strangers soon become comrades.
“I cook, imagining myself travelling throughout the world and the seasons of the year,” she says. “I make dishes from Greece, Morocco, India, Thailand.”
Chef Faigon has loved cooking since childhood and admits that it’s her real passion in life. Formerly an architect, she studied at the Instituto Argentino de Gastronomía and now hosts suppers from her home several times a week. But Casa Loyola is one of those obscure closed-door restaurants with no website – only a Facebook page – that garners a reputation through word of mouth. I’ve managed to get a seat at her table through a mutual friend at the culinary institute.
It can be a challenge to uncover these coveted puertas cerradas because of their concealed nature. Websites like TripAdvisor can be helpful, but often don’t capture emerging chefs. The best approach is to consult the locals: ask your hotel concierge, tour guide or friend for recommendations. It’s worth the trouble.
“Most tourists can’t get this experience back home,” Chef Faigon says. “Here, guests dine in a quiet, cosy place with music and art. It’s a very special experience.”
Other dishes to try are fugazzeta, a focaccia-like bread stuffed with cheese and baked with layers of sweet onions, and fainá, a chickpea flatbread that porteños throw atop pizza. And you must try Argentine empanadas – moon-shaped pastries baked with savoury fillings, sold in pizzerias and specialty shops (empanaderias).
The feeding frenzy trickles onto the street, too. Outside any stadium, line up with football fanatics for a post-game choripán, a stocky sausage split down the middle and served on a crusty bun. And don’t overlook the markets.
“Porteños love any excuse to go out to eat, so food markets are pretty popular,” says Elisa Coghlan, a local guide from Say Hueque Tours. “The Feria de Mataderos market is held every Sunday and has the most traditional dishes from different regions of Argentina.”
It’s wine o’clock
Mendoza may be the wine capital of Argentina, but in Buenos Aires, you can taste premium wines from across the country, sometimes for as cheap as $3 a bottle, without trekking outside the city.
For a stylish wine bar, there’s the Algodon Mansion – an opulent Relais & Châteaux hotel with a private wine collection produced on its own Mendoza winery. Guests receive complimentary bottles in their rooms, but anyone can sample the award-winning wines from Algodon Wine Estates in the restaurant. The best-kept secret? Head to Algodon’s rooftop bar to enjoy a cocktail (or two) and the sunset over the “old money” neighbourhood of Recoleta.
Whatever you fancy, Buenos Aires can likely satisfy the craving. The city is an endless smorgasbord for the unapologetic foodie.
“Whether you’re a meat lover, light or heavy eater, vegetarian or gluten free, everyone can find their perfect place in this city,” says Coghlan. “It’s just a matter of knowing where to go.”
Images courtesy of Claudia Faigon, Ente de Turismo BA, Algodon Mansion, Duhau Restaurante