Somehow we skipped the meat. We spent almost three weeks Buenos Aires and Bariloche and never once set foot into a classic parrilla, or grill house, to sample Argentinan asado. Perhaps it was because we were so enthralled with empanadas and street food like choripan, as well as the puerta cerradas in Buenos Aires, and maybe we were a little intimidated by the imagined luxury of going out for steaks and wine. (We’re budget travelers, right?) When we returned to Argentina last week after a few weeks in Chile, we committed to trying as much steak as possible and accompanied by the fine wines of Mendoza.
There are many restaurants and many parrillas to choose from in Mendoza, and during our tour de carne we tried three very different spots.
Cordillera Vinos y Fuegos
Cordillera Vinos y Fuegos had great reviews for being one of Mendoza’s best kept secrets, with praise from both foreigners and Argentinians. The dining room was very modern, with floor-to-ceiling windows and stylish leather upholstery and tables with real cow-hide inlays. We hadn’t felt so classy in a long time. Thank goodness we had done our laundry.
Cordillera’s menu is very simple, perfect for our first parrilla experience. Just one page of some appetizers, main dishes, beef and sides. Instead of a wine list, the waiter lead Peter, whose Spanish surpasses mine, to a cellar to pick our bottle. He came back with a bottle of Doña Paula Malbec. For dinner, Peter chose the bife de lomo (tenderloin) with a side salad and I went for the fattier ojo de bife (rib eye) with roasted potatoes.
As we waited for our steaks, the waiter surprised us with an amuse bouche – a piece of roasted pork medallion in an onion sauce. The steaks came with a side of chimichurri, an Argentinian condiment of herbs, vinegar and oil (as all steaks in all of the world should). The beef was amazing, served on wooden planks, if not slightly overcooked considering we ordered them medium (Peter) and medium rare (me). We split the sides; the red leaf salad and the roasted potatoes were a refreshing change from the usual ensalada mixtas and papas fritas. The spicy Malbec was dry but fruity enough to complement the steaks.
The service at Cordillera really stood out. We were one of only two occupied tables, which may have had something to do with the attention we received, but either way were were happy to be greeted and treated warmly. We spent about 480 pesos (USD47 at the Dolar Blue rate) for mains, sides, mineral water, and wine. The bread and accompaniments were free, which is unusual.
We were attracted to La Barra because it looked very cozy from the outside: small, wooden floors and rustic, unfinished wooden tables and chairs, and old photos, wine jugs, and other kitsch decorating the walls. It’s was like grandma’s house compared to the sleek, modern feel of Cordillera.
At La Barra you can order from an a la carte menu or a list of main dishes which offered steaks with sides of salad or fries. Not knowing the difference, we ordered dishes with the sides because they were cheaper and La Barra, as it turned out, was much more expensive than Cordillera. Peter went for the bife de chorizo (sirloin) and I tried the brocheta de lomo (tenderloin on a skewer).
Unfortunately the cheaper menu was not the way to go. The portions of meat were small and the side salads were abysmal. I munched on my surprisingly tough lomo and gazed longingly as the waitress brought our table neighbors big, thick, juicy cuts of meat on large wooden boards with large, green salads. Peter’s bife de chorizo was cooked nicely but the cut was tough and with more gristle than a typical sirloin. However, our wine, Alta Vista’s Premium Malbec, was a winner. The aged red with a strong oak aroma and full berry body made up for our weird and dissatisfying cuts of meat.
La Barra redeemed themselves slightly with their almost perfect tiramisu, which we washed down with the remainder of our wine. The service was also friendly and attentive. We spend 550 pesos (USD54 at the Dolar Blue rate) for our steaks with side salads, bread, wine, and a dessert to share. It was the most expensive parrilla we ate at, and our least favorite.
La Lucia Grill Bar
We heard La Lucia was one of the best parrillas in town, so we took a cab out to the Aristides nightclub district after a day of wine tasting. It wasn’t busy when we arrived and we did notice more tourists than locals, but it could have been a little too early for the Argentinians. Decor-wise they seem to be going for a Hollywood theme with photos of movie starts and film posters plastered everywhere, as well as big screen TVs. It’s all a little cheesy for a fine dining restaurant, but easy to shut out and focus on what you came for: the beef.
I liked my ojo de bife so much at Cordillera, I decided to try La Lucia’s version. Peter went for the lomo, and we both again ordered them cooked medium rare.
With Peter’s lomo, La Lucia hit steak perfection. It was juicy, tender and bright pink in all the right places without being raw. In the thick parts, my ojo was a little too rare, perfect for someone who likes a really, really rare steak. I could have sent it back to be cooked a little more, but I was hungry and didn’t want to wait, so I decided to just enjoy the rareness.
For the wine we chose Alta Vista’s Premium Cabernet. It was the exact kind of big, punchy cab you want with grilled steaks. We shared an order of papas fritas (nice, but we didn’t need them) and a caprese salad (average, I wouldn’t order it again). Skip the dessert at La Lucia, or at least skip the chocolate mousse, which more like a hyper-sweet, milk chocolate pudding/icing. We spent 550 pesos (USD54 at the Dolar Blue rate) for two steaks, two sides, bread, a bottle of wine, mineral water, and one dessert.
Some general tips for dining at Mendoza parrillas (and parrillas elsewhere in Argentina
- Lonely Planet has a good beginner’s guide for understanding Argentinian steak. Menus are usually extensive and include all of the cow parts.
- We know nothing about wine and we never had a bad bottle, even when we ordered the cheapest house wines. The reds on a parrilla’s wine list are picked to go well with beef. If you ask for a recommendation from the waitperson, he/she will likely choose the most expensive bottle. Perhaps because it’s the best.
- Jugoso (juicy) means medium rare in some places, and rare in others. If you like pink beef, a punto (medium) is a safe bet, but we’ve learned to ask. Sometimes you have to be specific, and know that it’s not rude to ask them to cook it a little more. We saw several guests ask for a little more time on the grill.
- At most Argentinian restaurants, the waiter will serve you a bread basket with dips or other accompaniments and, whether you want it or not, they will charge you between 10 – 20 pesos for it. I asked an Argentinian about this and he explained that it’s almost like the restaurant’s cover charge. Asking them to not bring the bread, or to remove the charge, is not really polite (according to him). You should just pay it, unless you want to be an ugly tourist.
- Costs include between 7-10% tip. Supposedly most Argentinians don’t tip, or they just round up the bill and give a small amount. We had great service in Mendoza, so we tipped.
If you’re a meat lover, don’t be a fool like us and leave the country steak-less. If you’re a vegetarian, you’re probably not reading this post.