Buenos Aires is not short on good food. Parillas (grills) serving giant, juicy steaks. Fresh empanadas on every street corner. And according to some, Buenos Aires has the world’s best ice cream. But it turns out some of the best restaurant dining in the city takes place in private living rooms and back-yard patios. Closed-door restaurants—or puertas cerradas—have become a popular trend in Buenos Aires. They’re run out of private homes, only available by reservation, and offer a set menu, which is generally very reasonably priced for the quality of the experience. While illegal in places like the US, Canada, and Europe, they seem to operate without much harassment in Argentina.
During our two-week stay, we tried two very different restaurants: NOLA Buenos Aires and Casa Felix.
NOLA Buenos Aires
NOLA attracted our attention not because of its closed-door status (it was only after booking that we started to understand the trend) but because of their Thursday Beer Night, a weekly food and beer event. NOLA is an abbreviation of New Orleans, Louisiana, chef Liza Puglia’s hometown, and the meal on Beer Night couldn’t have been more southern: spicy, crispy fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and blueberry pie. After traveling outside the United States for nine months, our hearts were beaming (if not running a little sluggish).
Brothers Marco and Francisco Terren operate Bröeders Artesanal, a small brewing company, and for Beer Night they pair three craft beers with Liza’s southern specialties. The total for three pints and dinner was 200 ARS per person, about $20 with the blue rate exchange. While Thursdays are dedicated to home-style cooking that pairs well with beer, Liza fuses Mexican and Creole flavors in her weekend menus.
They have a few private tables, but we enjoyed mingling with other guests at their large communal table. We sat with a group of American expats and a Canadian couple, Alex and Tom, sharing tips about Buenos Aires and travel stories. It was such an enjoyable evening, we invited Alex and Tom to join us for dinner at another private restaurant, Casa Felix.
We planned on visiting Casa Felix thanks to recommendations from our Portland friend Mandee and her brother Nick, who are both friends of the chefs. Turns out Casa Felix’s reputation holds its own: it’s rated one of the top puertas cerradas in the city. Here we thought we were cool and in the know with a personal recommendation, but Alex and Tom already knew all about it.
The 5-course dinner at Casa Felix is pescatarian (fish), so don’t show up expecting an Argentinian asado. But expect a meal you would typically find at a high-end establishment: courses crafted with seasonal herbs, texture, color, and visual presentation in mind. The evening began in the back garden, among the herbs grown for the kitchen, with a welcome cocktail of herbs, tequila, and orange, and small amuse bouche of fontina cheese wrapped with a marinated squash leaf to tease the palate.
After sitting for dinner, the stream of courses begins. Fragrant Bori Bori, a Paraguayan dumpling soup with chamomile broth. An appetizer of mbeyu (small, chewy corn puffs), pickled beet and a tangy vinaigrette. Beautiful, but taste-wise not my favorite plate of the evening. A mint and melon granita cleansed our palates before the main dish: Patagonian sand perch crusted in pecans and herbs, cauliflower puree, mushrooms and root vegetables. It was light, delicious and the color of autumn.
We polished off a second bottle of wine as we enjoyed the pear upside-down cake and light lemon verbena ice cream for dessert. Our dinner at Casa Felix was 280 ARS per person and wine was additional.
At NOLA Buenos Aires and Casa Felix, we enjoyed two vastly different meals, but the cozy feeling of dining among friends, enjoying meals cooked by people who truly love food, was the spirit of both experiences.