“Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.
– Abby Hoffman, Activist
Buenos Aires – The subject of finding a good hamburger in town came up several times recently on the internet – a travel forum and a couple of expat forums. It was an instant blood in the water with circling sharks fest, as some touted various locales and others trashed the whole idea as an anathema to the spirit of being here. If the questioners had just been tourists, I might have agreed with the latter viewpoint, but they weren’t, they’re expats, as are numerous others on the forums. It’s a valid question, as a change of pace. In general, I haven’t been enamored of the burgers I’ve tried here – Argentine beef tends to be so lean that you just don’t get a juicy burger, and that’s key. So I put the word out among local friends, both Argentines and expats, and decided to take the list of recommendations and try some of them out.
Like many things, this exploration turns out subject to cultural differences. It shouldn’t really surprise me – the most common reaction from locals in regard to hamburguesas is – if you’re going to eat crap like that, why don’t you just go to McDonald’s? They may be right, too, in regard to the average local burger, which often resembles a piece of shoe leather. In fact, there’s a large industry in Argentina supplying neighborhood cafes with premade, frozen burgers, much like a fast food chain uses. And, bluntly, and I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this, most Argentines seem clueless when it comes to a good burger. Let’s face it, a real, proper, juicy, thick hamburger, regardless of its origins or availability anywhere else in the world, is the core of “cuisine” of the heartland of the U.S. – the midwest – my homeland. You may find the occasional great burger elsewhere, but you’ll never find them ubiquitous. It’s a cultural thing, really. Just as I’d bow to the judgment of many a porteño on where to get a great matambre, empanada, or dulce de leche – because, simply, it’s part of their heritage, and not mine; I can blithely say, when it comes to hamburgers, they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Shoeless Joe’s “Remember El Alamo” (downstairs bar), Uruguay 1175, Recoleta. A reasonably good recreation of an old style pub, lots of dark wood wainscotting, simple tables, mirrored bar. Quilmes beer available on tap. Various promotions depending on the evening. Kind of known as “the American expat bar” in town – and a large percentage of the clientele are. Staff are bilingual in Castellano and English, in fact, the manager (owner?) directs the staff in loud voice in English. Several TVs scattered around the bar, the night I was there most were tuned to a local news station, a couple to a music video channel. Strange mix of music playing loudly, from folk rock to heavy metal. Staff friendly and efficient, service quite quick. A minor annoyance, when food is ready, the kitchen rings a doorbell – one of those loud hi-lo’s that rings repeatedly for a few seconds. As it got busier, it became more and more annoying.
The menu offers two burgers, one with bacon, cheese, and tomato; the other with ham, cheese, and onion. I decided on the former as my “benchmark” burger, since this was the first place to get checked out. Ordered the burger medium rare, with a side of fries. Squeeze bottles of ketchup and mayo (both Hellman’s) arrived swiftly, I asked for mustard and got a basket of mixed packets of ketchup, mustard (Savora), mayo, and salsa golf. The burger – good sized, probably half a pound, reasonably tasty, cooked well done, the meat ground, or pureed, so finely that it was more like a block of meatloaf, still, well seasoned. The bun, excellent – a real, proper hamburger bun. The bacon – thick cut, more or less what I think of as English style bacon – “streaky bacon” – and just warmed rather than cooked, so it hung limply and fattily on the burger. Tomatoes fine, especially given the winter season. Fries – way overcooked – crunchy and hard. Menu price for the burger, 12 pesos, including the fries, but the bar’s computer only charges 11… go figure.
La Biela, Quintana 596, on the side of the Recoleta Cemetery, is a huge cafe, noted as a hangout of various artists, actors, luminaries, and a huge number of tourists hoping to spot them. It’s a nicely appointed room, lots of antiques, furniture that has a vaguely drawing room look, semi-efficient waiters who’ve been there for years, and a clientele that ranges from middle aged to just this side of shuffling off the mortal coil. It’s pricey, even for the neighborhood, and especially for a cafe ambiance, and is in my view, made worse, by the fact that every single menu item is upcharged if you choose to sit outside on their patio – anywhere from one to five pesos per item!
The menu offers three burgers – a beef burger, a chicken burger, and a hamburguesa completa, the last as close as I was going to come to my benchmark bacon cheeseburger, this one a ham and cheeseburger. A plate full of condiments arrived immediately – squeeze bottle of ketchup, packets of all the others, and a large can of extra virgin olive oil for salads (they couldn’t put it in a cruet?). The burger is offered with the options of pan francés, pan arabe, pan pebete – respectively what we might call a Pullman loaf, or pain de mie in French, a pita, and a large dinner roll. I opted for the toasted pan francés, more or less a dense, crustless white bread. Note that the burger isn’t in sight – at probably about 5 ounces, it more or less disappeared underneath a couple of slices of lunchmeat ham and some melted quasi-swiss cheese. The burger, when found, cooked correctly at medium rare, and about as flavorless as possible – no seasoning – none. The fries, also cooked perfectly, strangely all very short, not much longer than tater-tots, but tasty. Menu price, 17 pesos for the burger and an additional 5 for the fries – 20 and 6 if you eat them at an outdoor table. You could get a better burger and fries for the same price in any coffee shop in New York.
Given my intro above, I should have seen this one coming. Períca, at the corner of Libertador and Sanchez de Bustamante in Recoleta, was hands-down the favorite pick in the city of several Argentines who weighed in on the discussion. So when a thin, perfectly round, well-done (hard to do anything else at that thickness), piece of semi-soft shoe leather was packed on a bun and topped with more layers of other stuff than anything else, all I could think was, “of course… this is just a well made Argentine style hamburger”. Only it’s really not – it’s nearly inedible. It’s an obviously frozen patty, the thickness of two CDs piled atop each other, stamped out in a factory, doused in salt, thrown on a griddle and cooked until long dead (and before anyone claims some sort of freshness, the corporation behind Períca is a commercial supplier of frozen fast-food style patties for other cafes, so you can bet they’re using their own product). The toppings of lunchmeat ham, tasteless cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, raw onion, and a fried egg (at least that was done correctly, with yolk still runny, though it made the sandwich a mess to eat), and a mass-produced oversized square bun that was actually sugary… were all nearly as bad as the undercooked soggy frozen french fries (a few of which were still ice cold).
The only thing Períca has going for it is its location – a beautiful spot looking out over Libertador and the park across the street, it’s next to the Design Museum, and it’s a great place to sit and soak up some sunshine. But it’s simply a plain white neighborhood cafe, with harried, barely friendly waiters who couldn’t be less interested in service if they made the effort.
I’ve never set foot in a Hard Rock Cafe before. The one here is located on the upper level of the Buenos Aires Design Center, Pueyrredon 2501, here in Barrio Norte. I’d never seen any reason to go into one – they seem to me to be at the pinnacle (what is the point of an inverted cone called?) of bad theme restaurants. I more or less standby that assessment now having visited one. The decor, not unexpectedly a massive collection of musical paraphenalia and advertisements plastering every square inch of wall space. The noise volume atrocious – music videos blasted at top volume along with televisions mounted throughout the room so as to be visible to anyone “dining” – I’m amazed at the number of rock and pop stars who think that appearing shirtless or ripping their shirt off midway through videos is appealling. I can guess the demographic it appeals to. The staff are stuffed full of condescension. (As an example, now that I’m reasonably fluent in Spanish I tend stick to it – the host greeted me in English, and continued in English regardless of my use of Spanish, right down to dropping an English menu on the table – when I asked for a Spanish one, he looked me up and down, said “no” and walked away.) They’re also about as inefficient as it is possible to be. It took nearly half an hour to get an order placed – my waiter and the others seemed far more interesting in chatting with each other in a corner.
That said, I have to give kudos to the burger itself. I mean, look at that picture – you can actually SEE the burger. It’s a real bun. It’s flavorful, and despite being cooked slightly more than requested (an argument with the waiter – I ordered it medium rare, he insisted on at least medium, asserting to me that less than that was “unhealthy”, and refusing to put my order in that way – I could have sent it back, but it seemed like it would be a waste of time, and it wasn’t like they’d cooked it well done), it was juicy and good. Hard Rock offers several burgers in a “regular” six-ounce size, and this, the “Legendary” burger in a ten-ounce size – for a mere four pesos extra. It’s topped with strips of actual, real, crispy, smoked bacon, a slice of cheddar cheese, and a passable onion ring. A squeeze bottle of mustard and a glass bottle of ketchup were already on the table, both Heinz. The fries, while slightly overdone, are “peel-on”, which I happen to like, and they weren’t so overdone as to be burnt or anything. If it weren’t for the continuous blare of music and the strobe-like effect of a hundred tourists constantly snapping flash photos (and I obviously contributed at least one flash to that number), this might be an interesting place to check out further.
Unlike Hard Rock, above, I’ve previously set foot in a T.G.I. Friday’s, this one on the side of the Alto Palermo mall, Arenales 3360. I haven’t been many times, but enough to know that within the U.S., the menu is essentially (if not completely) identical in each of them, the decor a hodge-podge of kitschy memorabilia. So, not surprisingly, the menu’s essentially the same here – though, rather than as at Hard Rock, with separate English and Spanish menus, TGIF opts to title every dish in English with easily recognizable names for those who speak that, and then puts the descriptions into Spanish, for those who don’t. Slightly odd, but making only one menu necessary. All other signage in the restaurant is in English, which I do find bizarre. On the other hand, when I stopped in for lunch, easily 3/4 of the patrons were English speaking (many of them tourists without a word of Spanish), which made for a continuous series of odd waitstaff encounters, as both American and British tourists, and Argentine waitresses, apparently think that by speaking louder and slower, the other person will instantly apprehend the other’s language. I admit to not helping, I was having too much fun watching and listening. At least they were friendly and attentive – the waitresses, not the tourists.
TGIF offers several versions of their burger, each of which is purported to be 225 grams or 8-ounces. I’m not sure when these burgers were a half-pound, but certainly not by the time they arrive at your table on a bun. Yes, yes, I know that a good burger loses weight as it cooks, as the water content steams out and the fat content drips out. Still, it’s a decent sized burger, and well-seasoned. It’s oddly shaped, looking a bit like a wide mushroom – I’d guess they must pack them into a mold with a bit of an overhang that remains when cooked. The bun is a standard issue hamburger bun, the “famous” burger is topped with real, crispy, bacon, American cheese slices, lettuce, tomato, and strangely one strip of raw onion; despite asking for my usual medium rare, the burger was completely well-done. The fries are clearly formerly frozen, are tasteless, and for that reason, I’m actually thankful that they’re served in what is possibly the skimpiest portion of french fries served with a burger I’ve ever seen in my life. The burger comes accompanied by a small cup of mayo. I had to ask for ketchup and mustard – the latter (squeeze bottle of Heinz) arrived immediately, the ketchup (glass bottle of Heinz) they had to go search for.
You’re probably not familiar with The Hillstone Restaurant Group, though you might be familiar with their most well known chain, Houston’s. It’s a successful venture, taking elements of a common, familiar menu, as does TGIF above, but putting it in a setting that’s more upscale and generally caters to a business crowd. It’s successful enough that Hillstone probably doesn’t know that two of their former managers swiped the company manuals and recreated the concept in Buenos Aires, not once, but twice. Possibly they thought that by calling it something else, no one would notice. But word gets around. I haven’t been to their location in the suburbs, but Kansas, Libertador 4625 in Palermo, is pretty much a dead ringer from the moment you walk in. A vast array of leather clad booths, the smell of bbq sauce in the air, the same waiter uniforms, everything – a touch of elegance, and teeming with people – in fact, numbers-wise, it’s probably one of Buenos Aires’ most successful restaurants, this location alone serves over 1,000 meals a day – mostly locals, especially a businessy crowd, and it’s not cheap! Kansas chooses to use an identical menu to the Houston’s original, but with English names for the dishes and Spanish descriptions. Service ought to be good (and my dining companion assured me it generally is), there are more waiters zooming around than they should need, but I found it slow and inattentive until we finally got exasperated and called attention to the fact, after which we got treated far better. Kansas is the only place in Buenos Aires, actually the only place anywhere, where a manager came running over when I snapped a photo of the food and told me that it wasn’t permitted (too late) – apparently they’re worried someone might swipe “their concept”. Or maybe they’re worried that word will get back to Hillstone…
The burger itself, when if finally arrived, was great. Definite thumbs-up material – juicy, one of two burgers of the entire survey that actually came out cooked rare to medium rare as requested, well seasoned, good-sized, and topped with crispy bacon, melted cheddar cheese, onions, pickle, and tomato. I found it slightly odd that the bun (which is a proper hamburger bun) is already coated with mustard, though just a touch, but I still wanted more – which I had to request, and took some time to get, finally arriving in a small silver cup to match the one that was on the plate with ketchup (for the fries). The fries are of the thin variety and were a bit soggy – my guess, given that that’s hard to do with thin fries, the oil isn’t hot enough. 18 pesos, fries included. Oh yeah, they have decent nachos (ask for chilis if you want it proper), iced tea, well, all the stuff you’d expect on a Houston’s menu. It’s also a pretty cool setting, if you grab a table by the back window you’re looking out over the horse track of the Hipodromo.
Now, there were other places that came recommended, and at some point I may get to them (I purposely didn’t head out to the couple of suggestions in the suburbs, I wanted to, at least for this posting, limit my exploration to the boundaries of the Capital). For the moment, I’m hamburgered-out. I don’t want to eat another one for at least a month. Maybe two. I know that’s strange – given my upbringing they were practically an every weekend affair, at least during warm weather – dads firing up the backyard grill and all that – but that was a long time ago.
In the end, my vote is for the burger at Kansas. The burger and fries themselves were slightly better at Hard Rock Cafe, but their outright refusal to cook it rare or medium rare, their sucky service attitude, and earsplittingly noisy ambiance (unless you’re into that I suppose), more than counteract that. Kansas’ friendly attitude, comfortable and pleasant setting, and their food are probably as close to home as any U.S. expat is going to get here. It’s not the U.S. at it’s finest, shining best, but it’s certainly world’s apart and better than that of the legion of McDonald’s, Burger King, etc.