Dad, Argentina, and the Best Steak I Ever Had

 

Growing up, I couldn’t wait for Sunday night. That’s when my father would cook dinner. My mother was an extraordinary person –a Master’s degree from USC, a member of the Red Cross team that followed Patton’s Third Army through Europe during World War II – but the woman could barely boil rice. Our weekly menu usually revolved around Swanson’s Salisbury steak frozen dinners and canned chop suey. But on Sundays, everything changed. Dad would don his grease-stained apron, flash his special set of stainless-steel tongs, and throw a couple of thick porterhouse steaks on the backyard grill. Oh, how this man loved a great steak. And his steaks were the best steaks I ever had in my life.

That is … until I went to Argentina.

I had arrived in Buenos Aires several years ago with moderate jet lag and a major appetite. I purposely hadn’t eaten in almost 24 hours so I would be significantly hungry and might actually finish an early dinner – something I don’t do very well the older I get. I asked around and chose the nearest parilla with the best reputation: Los Remolinos on Calle Sulpacha in Retiro. “Great steaks – what’s more …” But I stopped everyone right there. The other reasons didn’t matter. I knew steaks were legend in this corner of the planet and that’s what I wanted. A steak. A great steak.

And it was. Sorry, Dad. Your master grilling will always hold a cherished place in my memory, but you’ve been dethroned. This was the best steak I’ve ever had in my life. Oh my.

First, the big question. Why? I believe there are five reasons why my steak … why almost all Argentinian steaks … are that good. No, six. I just thought of a sixth reason. Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. The cows. In Argentina they feed on luscious grass in the humid Pampas region and they roam free. In America, our cows often stand next to one another in cramped feedlots eating pellets from aluminum plates. Who do you think is happier?
  2. The cut. Many a parilla chef butchers his own meat and separates it by texture and shape. Your steak has an individualized identity.
  3. The seasoning. Just salt. Sea salt, to be exact. Full stop.
  4. The grilling. It’s slower than our prep, with more emphasis on smoking the beef than sealing it with a char. And you won’t find any propane in Argentina; only wood or new briquettes.
  5. The serving. No Worcestershire, no jus, no A1. No leafy decoration either. Just the steak, usually accompanied by a crisp, green salad. Thank you.
  6. The eating. You are expected to slooooow doooown. Smell it. Savor it. Relish it. Like you have somewhere to go? Somewhere better than eating the best steak you’ve ever had in your life? Please.

My entire dining experience took well over two hours but I never once looked at a clock. Because I elected to eat off-hours, the restaurant was not crowded, the way it would become after the sun set. I felt like a celebrity. So I began my meal with a glass of wine and an empanada – a light pastry stuffed with hot, spiced meat. This is the traditional appetizer.

Okay, a word about my wine. I know it’s white and it’s virtually a mortal sin to pair white wine with steak. But red wine usually gives me a headache and the chardonnay from the high-altitude vineyards in Argentina’s Mendoza province is among the best in the world, so that’s what I ordered. (But even my attentive server asked, “Uh, are you sure, senora?” “Si,” I answered. “Blanco.”)

Next, I ordered my steak. There was a roster of cuts, from lomo (tenderloin) to entrana (skirt steak). I chose the chorizo, what we know as the ribeye. I had watched the head chef, Juan, butcher the meat when I first came in, so I knew my steak would have a personal signature on it. I love the fact that chefs like to butcher their own meat here; they’re able to customize every cut.

I ordered my steak medium-rare. I have drifted into medium-well-land with my advancing years but I knew this cut demanded a subtler grill. It was served with a crazy-fresh salad and the lightest vinaigrette I’ve ever tasted. (I wasn’t even asked about a dressing choice. Ranch?! And that would be … what, exactly?)

I could have ordered any assortment of sides, but why? My “individual” salad could have fed a family of four and my steak was a half portion. HALF portion. It took me over an hour to slowly, purposely, cut and eat each delicious mouthful. However, I was also determined to leave room for dessert. What else could it be but flan, the Latin-inspired baked custard they top with dulce de leche. Translated as “milk jam,” this is a close cousin to toffee but lighter. I couldn’t imagine finishing my meal any other way.

As I left Los Remolinos, the sun was just setting. I still had a full hour to casually stroll around the Retiro barrio and remember … and savor … and relish my steak. Oh my.

It really was the best steak I have ever had in my life, you know. I only wish I could have shared the meal with my father. He always loved a great steak.

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  1. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    Sounds truly delightful. I really appreciate your special attention and dedication to slowly savoring your steak, since that is one of my greatest downfalls when eating. 

    • #1
  2. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    I’ve never been to Argentina, but have heard the steaks are great. Have you been to Brazil as well? Would enjoy hearing a contrast if you have. 

    I have spent time in Brazil and Brazilian steakhouses are great. They bring different types and cuts of delicious meat as well as grilled pineapple with cinnamon. The trick is to hold off until they bring the pecaña at the end. 

    Sorry to hear your reaction to red wine. You’re missing a great treat.

    • #2
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    It sounds like it was wonderful!! My mouth watered all the way through reading your post, which was great fun! Thanks!

    • #3
  4. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    Hang On (View Comment):

    I’ve never been to Argentina, but have heard the steaks are great. Have you been to Brazil as well? Would enjoy hearing a contrast if you have.

    I have spent time in Brazil and Brazilian steakhouses are great. They bring different types and cuts of delicious meat as well as grilled pineapple with cinnamon. The trick is to hold off until they bring the pecaña at the end.

    Sorry to hear your reaction to red wine. You’re missing a great treat.

    Unfortunately, my trip to Brazil was canceled last year along with most international travel. I am keeping my fingers crossed for next spring. I also would love to compare the steaks. The meal you describe sounds fantastic. Pineapple! Leave it to Brazil.

    And you are not the first person to point out what I am missing by not enjoying red wine with a great steak. I actually like red wine – it’s just that red wine doesn’t like me. Maybe my advancing years will help solve that dilemma. Believe me, I know what I am missing.

    • #4
  5. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    I. M. Fine (View Comment):

    Hang On (View Comment):

    I’ve never been to Argentina, but have heard the steaks are great. Have you been to Brazil as well? Would enjoy hearing a contrast if you have.

    I have spent time in Brazil and Brazilian steakhouses are great. They bring different types and cuts of delicious meat as well as grilled pineapple with cinnamon. The trick is to hold off until they bring the pecaña at the end.

    Sorry to hear your reaction to red wine. You’re missing a great treat.

    And you are not the first person to point out what I am missing by not enjoying red wine with a great steak. I actually like red wine – it’s just that red wine doesn’t like me. Maybe my advancing years will help solve that dilemma. Believe me, I know what I am missing.

    Try a Rioja from the Tempranillo region of Spain.  This is the only red Mrs Doc Robert can drink, and it likes her—nay, they like each other—very much.

     

    • #5
  6. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    I can’t speak to the subject of  Argentinian beef, but I can talk about my mom’s cooking.

    Every dinner in my family was very formal.  The four of us kids took turns setting the table, clearing the table, washing the dishes, and drying the dishes.  And we all sat down to dinner together, which seems rarer nowadays.  Everyone waited for my mother to begin eating before we were allowed to touch any food.  And during the meal my father expected each of us to thank my mother for cooking.

    Well, you know how siblings are.  Every meal all the kids tried to thank my mom with a better compliment than the others.  It was a bit of an art, you couldn’t be too obvious and it had to sound sincere.  With all those compliments everyday, you can imagine we brainwashed ourselves into thinking our mom was a good cook.  I certainly thought she was.  

    And then I joined the Marines and learned how good food could be.  

    • #6
  7. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Don’t fry for me, Argentina.

    • #7
  8. navyjag Coolidge
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    Daughter did a business school exchange week in Buenos Aires. She was not a big meat eater but went nuts over her first Argentine steak. Sent us a picture of it.  Covered her whole plate. And cost about $10.  Ate about half and feasted on the rest for a week. And she loves to travel back to Buenos Aires. 

    • #8
  9. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    So much for my drool-proof keyboard . . .

    • #9
  10. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    You’re right, but they vary.  I had steak every dinner, tried a variety of well recommended restaurants, but the best was a little place we had to eat in as we had something in the neighborhood.  I should be clear, the others were better than here as well, and cheaper even though the Peso was up at the time.  It’s a very long trip just to get a steak.  We went there from Chile visiting our daughter and family, where I regularly had the worst food, especially steak I’ve ever had.

    • #10
  11. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    The first place I ever had chimichurri was Argentina, and it was red, paprika based.  I found a small English cookbook in a book store there that had the recipe.  Made with 10 herbs and spices, vinegar, olive oil and boiling water.  It’s used as a sauce and a marinade.  Different.  All the chimichurri I’ve seen in the States or on the web has been green.

    The formal restaurant was the first floors of at least three buildings and the entrance had windows on either side of the outside entrance hallway from the sidewalk.  On one side behind the glass they had a glowing ember of a single solid tree trunk with various meats and whole animals on steel frames being tilted into or away from the heat.

    We only ate kid, no beef that I recall, and it was mild and succulent.  A whole kid served on a chafing dish, with pot of chimichurri served on the side.  Delicious.

     

    • #11
  12. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    What a great post.  Thank you.  I have four thoughts.

    Like you, I have a bad reaction to red wine.  For me, it’s stomach upset.  It is annoying, isn’t it?

    I’m skeptical of the idea that the happiness of the cow contributes to the flavor.  But it does seem plausible that different fodder, and different environments, may change the flavor of beef.

    It’s possible that your experience was exceptional because you were using the best seasoning.  In my experience, the best seasoning is hunger.  :)  I am inclined to agree that less is more when it comes to steak seasoning.

    In my case, the best steaks I’ve ever eaten were several that I prepared myself, around January of this year.  I think that it was an unexpected result of the Covid pandemic.  A local supermarket chain offered huge rib roasts at a very low price.  The roasts were about 20-25 pounds, packaged in extremely thick plastic.  I bought 2 or 3, and butchered them myself.  I suspect that they were packaged for restaurant use, and made their way into the supermarket because many restaurants were closed.

    • #12
  13. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    The best steak I ever had was at a Brazilian restaurant in Beijing.  The salad was horrible.  

    • #13
  14. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This truly tasty post is part of our September group writing theme: “Best and Worst.” Stop by and sign up today.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #14
  15. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    But it does seem plausible that different fodder, and different environments, may change the flavor of beef.

    This is not only plausible, but reality. 

    “you are what you eat” also applies to “you taste like what you eat”.  

    One of the tastiest meats I ever encountered was in the DR.  The island is naturally covered with oregano.  The goats graze on it for their entire life, until slaughter, and then grilled over their local wood – it is succulent, wonderful, infused with flavor.

    I have friends who have special arrangements with pig farmers.  They pay a premium to have their designated pig fed a special diet of grains and herbs for at least six months before slaughter, so that it will reflect the flavors of the specially ingested diet.  

    In simple deer hunting, the difference in taste between a “mountain deer” whose diet consists mainly of acorns, and a rural deer near corn and soybean fields, is significant.  With the former bitter and gamey, and the latter indistinguishable from fine beef (although drier, less marbled)  

     

    • #15
  16. CurtWilson Lincoln
    CurtWilson
    @CurtWilson

    I agree. The best steak I ever had was on my one trip to Argentina. I’m still trying to justify another trip. (The other thing I want from a second trip to Argentina is to see the jacarandas in bloom — probably November or December in the southern hemisphere.)

    • #16
  17. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    I marinate my steaks by wetting both sides with Lea & Perrins.  Then I sprinkle powdered garlic, coarse ground black pepper, and Kosher salt on both side, rewetting with L&P to keep the spices moist.  The meat can marinade while it heats up to room temperature, which is necessary for great grilling . . .

    • #17