Just a few days ago, I wrote about Latin America’s “Top 50” restaurants, as much from curiosity as commitment - I don’t take such surveys too literally, and I found it amusing to think that I had eaten at so many of the region’s “best.” Though I’ve enjoyed all of them, to greater or lesser degrees, they’re not places at which I can afford to eat with any frequency.
This came to the fore when I received an email from a Buenos Aires friend, who is also a chef and a food writer, who offered some useful observations and corrections. I will preserve his anonymity here, but he has also eaten at most if not all the places in the list, at least those in the Argentine capital, and points out several shortcomings in the survey, not the least of which is that it's a corporate-sponsored list by Pellegrino water, which chooses the voters with no clear criteria to evaluate their expertise: "Each of those...submitted a list of their favorites…but there's no vetting to see if they've been there or not, it's just simply a tally of their votes, honor system...Chefs tend to vote for their friends/acquaintances, the public voters have a tendency to vote for the restaurants where either they happen to have been and had a good time, with no comparison against the other places, or, the places they think they're supposed to vote for because they've got the best press."
As far as corrections, my friend informs me that Astrid y Gastón, whose Buenos Aires branch near my apartment had recently closed, reopened a few weeks ago in a different Palermo location, and there’s news that Gastón Acurio will also open a branch of La Mar in the city. He also tells me that Oviedo, the traditional Spanish restaurant where I have not eaten for several years now, has undergone a major transformation to a more sophisticated international cuisine without, apparently, totally abandoning its roots.
The real downside of such lists, though, is that they imply you need to spend tons of money to eat well in Buenos Aires (or elsewhere). Here, by contrast, I provide a selective list of BA bargains that are either cheap, at the very least, provide excellent value for money. Following the name is the barrio to which it belongs.
1. Status, Monserrat: In the Congreso district, just two blocks from Argentina’s notoriously dysfunctional legislature, Status is a fine no-frills Peruvian restaurant that, in a time of raging inflation, has kept prices modest for classics such as ají de gallina (pictured above).
2. Pizzería Güerrin, Microcentro (San Nicolás): In the heart of the city’s theater district, Güerrín is the place to try a slice or so of fugazzeta, the savory onion and cheese pizza that’s a Buenos Aires special.
3. Laurak Bat, Monserrat: Dating from 1927, this unfashionable Basque restaurant (within the community's cultural center, pictured above) serves traditional fish dishes at moderate prices, such as that pictured below.
4. Bar El Federal, San Telmo: Dating from 1864, El Federal’s timeless interior (pictured below) deserves a visit for its ravioli specialty and, on a hot day, its refreshing hard cider on tap.
5. Tancat, Retiro: At midday, businessmen sit elbow-to-elbow at the bar of this Spanish tasca (pictured below), which has only a handful of tables. Moderately priced lunches and, unusual in Buenos Aires, a good selection of wines by the glass.
6. Club Danés, Retiro: Open for lunch only, this Scandinavian outpost offers inexpensive open-faced smørrebrød and other Nordic items, along with tenth-floor panoramas of Puerto Madero.
7. Grappa Cantina, Palermo: By Palermo Hollywood standards, this is an affordable contemporary take on the traditional bodegón that fed comfort food like beef, pasta and pizza to the city’s working class for many decades.
8. Bella Italia Café Bar, Palermo: Pictured above, a block from my Botánico apartment, this is my default choice for a light lunch at a moderate price. The ravioli and the spinach gnocchi (pictured below) are to die for, and the desserts excellent.
9. La Salamandra, Palermo: More than once, I’ve proclaimed my dislike for the sickly sweet caramel dessert that Argentines devour but, when in Palermo Soho, I overlook the specialty at this self-proclaimed dulce de leche bar (pictured below) for its sandwiches (usually on focaccia), salads and fresh juices.Cadore, Microcentro: Leave some room for dessert at what, in my opinion, is the capital's best ice cream, and that's saying a lot. I've been going here for more than three decades, and still devour the chocolate amargo (bittersweet chocolate) and mousse de limón (lemon mousse). Fortunately for my diet, I no longer live within easy walking distance of this great temptation but, when I'm downtown, I often make a detour. The photo below dates from 1985 and, though it's since modernized, it's been in the same location since 1957 (note the outline map of Italy which, sadly, no longer graces the storefront).