When I think of Buenos Aires, several things come to mind: penguinos—the ceramic penguins that you can order filled with wine at local bars—and the purple jacaranda trees that bloom every spring. But without a doubt, the very first thing I think about is the ubiquitous smell of food cooked a la parrilla, or “on the grill.”
The smell can hit you anywhere. Of course, if you go to a restaurant, you’re almost sure to encounter it. Most of the city’s prominent eating establishments incorporate grilling or cooking over an open-fire in some way: Proper and Catalino are just two of the many places that apply creative grilling techniques to their food. The country’s most famous chef, Frances Mallman, has made grilling an art. It makes sense to me that the smell of smoke and fire is synonymous with steak, which is what most people recommend you try when you spend any time in Argentina.
Sometimes, the smell will hit you as you walk casually down the street. There are entire areas devoted to the glories of a hot parrilla. Just wander down to the Costanera, a pedestrian walkway that runs along the banks of the Rio de la Plata–it’s lined with food stands that smoke and sizzle all day. You’ll find sandwiches piled high with all kinds of meats, from pork shoulder to the country’s signature choripán.
But these places are all stationary businesses, and that’s not the only type of grilling people do in this country. There’s a certain passion for regular people grilling meats on the fly that is particularly impressive. They have a special dedication to bringing flame-grilled cooking with them everywhere. Go to a professional football game, and the stadium will appear to be on fire from the outside due to all the smoke. Go to a football game played between friends in one of the many parks in Buenos Aires and you’re likely to see plenty of parrilla pre-or post-game celebrations.
My friend Martin is one of these people: he is intensely devoted to the grill. “Qué linda Buenos Aires,” he told me once, pointing at groups of people cooking over open fires in a park by his house and deeply inhaling the spring air (although, now that I think about it, perhaps he was inhaling the scent of hot choripán).
That day, I wasn’t able to stick around very long, but Martin told me he would have loved to make an asado, his go-to for when guests are over. In fact, I was so certain that his confidence equaled a skill for the grill, that I very seriously considered missing my return flight just to try his cooking. These days, he sends me photos of his grilling endeavors and he likes to talk theory. How much heat can certain cuts handle? How can he build a grill to cook meat more quickly and efficiently?
He is a DIY grill guy, and not just in fields or parking lots, but also at home in his apartment. He showed me a grill he built on his rooftop to tide him over until he could afford to buy a brand new one.
I greatly admire this. I consider myself a food person, but the only time I have ever shown this level of commitment was when I lugged a huge molcajete from a tiny Oaxacan market to my Brooklyn apartment, and even that was merely in the hopes that it would salvage my relationship, as opposed to ever actually using it (spoiler alert: I didn’t, but I assume he still does).
But it’s not just how Martin feels about the grills themselves, or the food that they produce. It’s that it seems inextricably linked to his passion for his country, and Buenos Aires in particular. He loves his city in spite of many things, and when he’s grilling, he seems the most connected to it; taking part in what could be considered a national pastime, one that can happen wherever the urge strikes you. One day, I hope I will get to experience this. it could only make me love Buenos Aires even more.
Have you ever tried some of Argentina’s delicious grilling? Tell us where in the comments!
Header photo by Mike Kotsch.