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Running the grill at an Argentinian truck-stop steakhouse wasn’t part of the plan.
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but here I am, draped with a heavy apron, standing before coals that have been stoked and burning for hours, squinting through the sweet-smelling smoke at hundreds of pounds of meat sizzling on a mammoth cooking surface. There’s grilling, and then there’s this.
Parrilla El Panorámico is located near Buenos Aires, one of the world’s great steak cities. Its name refers to the parrilla (pronounced par-eeah), the huge steel grills that seem to be in every suburban backyard and restaurant kitchen in the country. In the capital of a nation that may eat more steak per capita than any other, and where the economy hinges on ranching and the cattle industry, the ability to grill is taken extremely seriously. An unabashed carnivore, I’m here on a sort of meaty pilgrimage: in search of the perfect steak.
It’s this desire that has led me to Parrilla El Panorámico, and the unplanned stint in the eatery’s hissing kitchen. As I toil, the good-natured guys lining the bar laugh raucously, their gold teeth flashing as they yell mock encouragement and ostentatiously complicated orders in Spanish. With all the heat and the mounting pressure to deliver, this should probably be a stressful experience. But, tongs in hand and an empty plate waiting back at the bar (beside a good glass of Malbec, already poured), it’s one of the highlights of my trip. And that’s saying something.
My odyssey begins at a more predictable location: La Cabrera, one of the city’s most popular steakhouses. Upscale yet doggedly unpretentious — paper placemats are illustrated with butcher-shop diagrams of a steer divided into various cuts — the place is packed, orders flying out of the kitchen.
“What makes Argentinian steak so good?” I ask chef and kitchen manager Juan Barcos, who was raised in the countryside and worked with his father on a cattle ranch and who clearly knows his stuff. “Here, we have mostly Hereford and Angus, but it’s not just the breed. It’s about the quality of food you give to your cattle,” he says. “And you have to take it slowly — don’t rush the process. You have to do it well.”
A young man with a sleeve of tattoos, Barcos adds that La Cabrera further maintains quality by completely controlling its supply chain. “We know all of our suppliers, and we know the owner of the slaughterhouse, and they know our standard,” he says. “After that, you just have to cook it well.”
When it’s time to eat, Barcos recommends the ojo de bife and a vacio: the former a ribeye and a popular choice here, the latter a flank that’s a bit more unusual. The ojo comes charcoal browned on the outside but pink and tender within. The vacio is heavier and chewier, with a coppery taste. I insist on eating all of both steaks, and by the end I feel a little like a punch-drunk boxer, victoriously raising that last knock-out bite to my mouth.
The next day, even with last night’s steaks still digesting, I decide it’s time for more. I head to Palmero, a traditional neighborhood where some of the streets are cobblestone and most of the buildings date back to the 19th century. Settling into my table at Don Julio, a charming corner restaurant where the walls are lined with wine bottles, I notice that, again, every seat is filled.
Before I can pick up my knife, I’m joined by Pablo Rivero, who along wth his parents founded Don Julio 17 years ago. I ask Rivero to identify the key to the perfect steak. In response, he whisks me off to an old, nondescript brick house just down the block. “This is the key,” he says, pointing at rows of hanging beef, part of the process of dry-aging the meat for set periods, different for each cut.
But there is more: Rivero’s beef comes from Pampa Húmeda, a region of fertile grassland in the southeast of the country. “It’s the best meat in Argentina, I tell you,” he says. “The best in Argentina is the best in the world.”
I taste what he’s talking about soon enough, slicing into another ojo plus a bife de chorizo (strip sirloin) back at my table. They’re both delicious, and before I leave, I have a look at the parrilla, which is open to the restaurant. I wonder at its mysteries, how the meat always comes off it just right — juicy and never, ever overdone. For answers, I head to Puerto Madero, a formerly forgotten docklands area along the broad Rio de la Plata, whose industrial buildings have been reinvented as upscale restaurants and shops.
At La Cabaña, I slice into a wagyu fillet so tender I could almost eat it without a knife. Once a magnet for international celebs — photos of Madonna, Sean Connery, Julio Iglesias and David Hasselhoff adorn the entrance — its dark woods and river views still attract a well-heeled crowd.
I ask to see the parrilla, and they oblige, with chef Diego Moyano even answering a few questions as he goes about his business. “You don’t cook with the fire,” he says, firmly. “You cook with the heat.”
Accordingly, you build the fire early — Moyano is in the kitchen at 8:00 a.m., and the restaurant doesn’t open until 11:30. Get the coals good and hot, and don’t even think about putting that precious meat on the grill until you have the right temperature. But how do you know when it’s right? “I know it because I’m with the grill all day,” Moyano says in imperfect English, placing his hand near the coals to demonstrate his point. “You feel it.”
While Argentine steakhouses are excellent, the most fulfilling carnivorous dining experiences are generally not found in restaurants. Instead, I am told, I need to attend an asado. The equivalent of a backyard barbecue, the asado is a serious Sunday tradition here, one where the person at the grill views the job as a solemn responsibility, even an honor.
The next day, I’m rolling west on a freeway, into the lush countryside just outside the urban sprawl of Buenos Aires. “In Argentina, asado defines you as a man — it’s all very primitive,” says Pablo Rodríguez, a local friend-of-a-friend who has graciously invited me to his home. We’re about to have an asado, he tells me, for real.
Having stopped at a small shop to buy charcoal, we spot Norma Aleandro, an Oscar-nominated South American film icon who appears to be doing the same thing. Next, we pull into the Parrilla El Panorámico truck stop, where, as previously mentioned, I quickly get corralled into running the grill. Afterwards, we share a few appetizers, including a juicy chorizo sausage, hot off the coals. It’s the kind of place, Pablo tells me, where truckers eat alongside world-class polo players. “They play with the Queen one week, and the next week they’re here.”
Soon, we arrive at Pablo’s home, surrounded on all sides by bright green fields. After introducing me to his family, he takes me out back and proudly shows me his stack of cypress wood and his parrilla, which he built himself. While many backyard grills are large, with bricks framing the central pit, the one Rodriguez built is small, made from an air compressor that he cleaved in half, with a space below to stoke the coals. We keep vigil on his back patio, first creating the right temperature with the coals, then grilling the meat, along with local cheese and red peppers.
Sitting down for the meal, surrounded by his family, I understand the key to asado: good food and good friends (even new ones), a universal pleasure. I realize, too, that these may also be the most important ingredients when it comes to making the perfect steak.