Argentines as a nation would appear to be prone to cultishness. From Eva Perón to soccer to psychoanalysis, their reverence towards their idols quickly takes on religious overtones, as evidenced by the "Gardel Lives" and "Maradona is God" inscriptions still visible on some walls in Buenos Aires.
Gastronomically, their supreme object of worship is one and one only: beef. And with good reason. Argentina's steaks are notoriously succulent and flavorful, much to the despair of dieters everywhere. Given this veneration of el bife, it's not surprising to see diners in Buenos Aires thronging the city's five-star parrillas night after night, pouring money into the city's $20-billion-a-year restaurant industry as they continue their quest for The Perfect Cut.
However, you don't have to be a member of the expense-account set to join the cult of the steak. Buenos Aires also abounds in restaurantes populares, cheap neighborhood emporia where for more or less what you'd pay for fast food in the States, even those on a budget can render homage to the Almighty Beef. Many of these eateries actually trump their glitzier brethren from the tourist guidebooks. The secret is knowing where to look.
To accompany you on your forays into shoestring porteño dining, here's a list of mom-and-pop establishments offering outstanding values. Many are off the tourist track. All are well known to locals. And in nearly every case, you'd be hard pressed to spend more than $10 on an entree. ¡Buen provecho!
Defensa 855 (San Telmo) 4300-9081
Raucous, fast-paced, and super-friendly, this neighborhood parrilla sports an intimidatingly vast menu and gut-busting portions—and for prices that are a steal. Atmosphere is a big part of the attraction. The old-timey saloon is located along a cobblestoned street in San Telmo, the quaintest, most historic neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and the interior has charm to match—think open kitchen, lots of wine bottles, nostalgic black-and-white photos lining the walls, and big communal tables with families laughing and celebrating. The bife de chorizo is scrumptious, but take advantage of the vast menu to try other, less-obvious options: Patagonian lamb, or the beef tips in spring-onion sauce. And go during a soccer match for the full effect. Very highly recommended.
Jorge Luis Borges 1766 (Palermo) 4833-5151
Being the beef capital that it is, it makes sense that the hamburgers in Buenos Aires are a force to be reckoned with. This hipster hole in the wall serves what are probably the city's best. They're thick and juicy, covered with imaginative toppings, and the staff honors special requests. Try the Tevez, which comes with salsa chimichurri, or the Mexican, which has jalapenos and salsa picante. The fries are worthy companions to the beef. Bohemians will relish the décor (the place is plastered floor to ceiling with pages torn out of magazines) as well as the selection of artisanal beers. Nota bene: because of the restaurant's proximity to the popular Plaza Serrano, if you go late, the lines can be long.
Balcarce 873 (San Telmo) 4361-1707
Mexican food in Argentina? The answer of the swarms of porteños who frequent this cozy café in a romantic side street is a resounding "¡Por supuesto! (Of course!)" International food can be hard to come by in Buenos Aires, and Che Taco offers a welcome alternative to the city's endless parrillas. Added to which, the beef used in the tacos and burritos here is pure Argentina, offering hungry visitors the best of both worlds. Try the shredded-beef tacos or the pozole (traditional Mexican corn-and-beef soup), with agua jamaica or a spicy beer to wash it down. The two Quevedo brothers who own the place are friendliness personified.
Rodriguez Peña 682 (Almagro) 4371-5643
This no-frills, unpretentious parrilla has steaks, chicken, pasta, omelets, and little else. The décor consists of wine bottles on the wall, there are no reservations, and the management accepts only cash. It's also closed on Sunday. Despite this only-the-basics approach, however, porteños flock to eat there, especially late at night. The reason? Simple: the meat is outstanding. Try the colita de cuadríl (rump steak) and the papas fritas a la provenzal (French fries with garlic and parsley). The neighborhood steakhouse at its best.
Carlos Pellegrini 1535 (Recoleta) 4326-0462
This spot in Recoleta bills itself as a parrilla, but it's more. The quiet underground setting (the cavernous dining room was once an orphanage), the candlelit ambiance, and the ample menu, complete with all-you-can-eat salad bar, make it more like an intimate bistro—though of course all the usual steak-and-fries classics are available. Try the beef or pork brisket, or the breaded hake in mushroom sauce. Also, be sure to talk to Juana herself, who comes around to attend to the diners personally. Prices here are a bit higher than at some parrillas, but well worth the extra.
Mike Gasparovic is a freelance writer, editor, and translator who devotes his free time to studying the history, art, and literature of the Spanish-speaking world and learning about its people. He currently lives in Lima and wrote this article on behalf of South American Vacations, providers of tours to Argentina and throughout all of South America.