Restaurateur Dave Parker's guide to the best places to eat and drink in Argentina

Dulce de leche flan is a favourite with sweet-toothed Argentinians.
Dulce de leche flan is a favourite with sweet-toothed Argentinians. Photo: Rodrigo Ruiz Ciancia

Dave Parker fell in love with Argentina in 2004. As a law student, he had taken time off uni to travel Europe and South America. In Brazil he met an Argentinian girl who invited him home.

"I'd already spent a week in Argentina with a mate and loved it but it was really that second time, coming back and staying with a local, that I got my first proper Argentinian experience."

It must have made an impression. In 2010 he lived there for a year and today the 36-year-old has ditched law and opened seven bar-restaurants in Melbourne, including three Argentinian grills (San Telmo, Palermo and Asado).

Traditional Argentinian asado features whole animals grilled on a cross.
Traditional Argentinian asado features whole animals grilled on a cross. Photo: Shutterstock

"The thing that's great about Argentinian food is how simple it is," Parker says. "They like what they like and they don't mess with it too much." For the record, he's still friends with the Argentinian girl. Here are his tips for wining and dining like a local.

What's Argentinian food all about?

Parrilla (pronounced "per-isha"), which is the name for the grill. Historically, Argentinians have always been by far the largest per capita beef-consuming country in the world, eating more than twice the amount consumed in the majority of Western countries. They really do love meat. It's part of their culture.

The San Telmo market held on Sundays in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The San Telmo market held on Sundays in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Photo: Shutterstock

What do you eat, straight off the plane?

A choripan. It's a half-cut chorizo with chimichurri in a bread roll. If you fly in to Jorge Newbery Airport in Palermo, there are lots of little caravans right outside selling that, bondiola (pork sandwich) or lomito (steak sandwich). Getting one of those pretty soon is imperative. Just get your taxi to pull over by the side of the road – he'll probably get one, too.

For something more substantial?

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Ideally you'd be invited to an asado: a barbecue with friends or family. It is hands down my favourite thing in Argentina – whole animals on a cross, all types of meat from the parrilla. Having said that, there are heaps of great parrilla restaurants. The best are more traditional and the menus are more or less the same at all of them.

Any stand-outs?

Parrilla Pena is really good. It's no frills. There's a bunch of old guys who have been working there for years and they all have a laugh. It's good value as well, although it can be difficult to tell because their currency fluctuates a lot (crazy inflation). Expect to pay a quarter of what you'd pay for a similar thing here. There's also Don Carlos (where Anthony Bourdain ate, next to the La Bombonera stadium, in La Boca), nearby El Obrero (but be careful: La Boca is pretty dodgy – taxi in and taxi out unless with locals), and El Pobre Luis, in Belgrano.

San Telmo's Sunday market in Buenos Aires, Argentina, sells clothes, food and antiques such as soda siphons.
San Telmo's Sunday market in Buenos Aires, Argentina, sells clothes, food and antiques such as soda siphons. Photo: Shutterstock

Something fun to do?

Go to the San Telmo market. It's Sundays only. They shut off the whole street and have all sorts of stalls, from antiques to clothes and other paraphernalia. Go to a store there called El Desnivel, get a choripan, a beer and just wander down the street.

For more upmarket dining?

Ruca Malen winery in Mendoza, Argentina, offers a nice long lunch, great wines and views of the Andes.
Ruca Malen winery in Mendoza, Argentina, offers a nice long lunch, great wines and views of the Andes. Photo: Supplied

Try Don Julio in Palermo. It's funny, I used to live around the corner from it and went there a lot but now it's No. 6 on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list. It's great - very traditional, in a beautiful old building and the service is great - but now there are queues around the block at 5pm.

What about kicking on?

There's a really popular speakeasy cocktail bar called Frank's, which is cool, but if you want to go out dancing, try Terrazas Del Este. It's great but you've got to be in it to win it - don't bother going out before 2am or even 3am.

Get out of Buenos Aires and embrace Argentina's gaucho (cowboy) culture by seeing some of the countryside on horseback.
Get out of Buenos Aires and embrace Argentina's gaucho (cowboy) culture by seeing some of the countryside on horseback. Photo: Supplied

What about wine?

Malbec is the grape variety Argentina is famous for. It's a medium to heavy-bodied red wine originally from France but it couldn't get ripe enough there - it was always really tannic and you had to age it in bottles for 10 years before you could drink it. Whereas in Mendoza [in Argentina] they get altitude and a diurnal temperature range that promotes a really long growing season. The grape gets really ripe, which softens the tannins and the seeds. So you get really soft, smooth, velvety tannins - and that for me is the quintessential idea of malbec. It cuts through the fattiness of the meat but it's smooth and luscious.

Is Mendoza the place to drink it?

Yep. Head past Mendoza city south to Lujan de Cuyo and the Valle de Uco. Once there you can stay at some really nice hotels where you look out the window and it's just vines as far as the eye can see and then snow-covered Andes. It's magical.

Any good lunch spots nearby?

Two of our favourite wineries that we work with are in Mendoza and they each have beautiful restaurants: Bodega Ruca Malen and Bodega La Azul. You can sit indoors or outdoors, there are views of the Andes; it's great for a nice long lunch, great wines, and you can buy them to take home.

Sounds a lot different to the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires.

You wouldn't get the whole Argentina if you only stayed in Buenos Aires. I love it but it's a lot like Melbourne: very European and fast-paced in comparison to the countryside. Argentina has a really strong gaucho (cowboy) influence and you need to get a bit of a feeling for that. If you know how to ride a horse there's nothing better than playing a game of polo with the Andes in the background, followed by a few beers in the sun and then cooking a big asado. That's amazing.

What about something sweet to finish?

Dulce de leche is everything in Argentina. It's a milk reduction that looks like a dense caramel sauce. Imagine condensed milk but even thicker and more dense in flavour. Often at a parrilla restaurant the desserts will be a flan with dulce de leche, creme caramel with dulce de leche, pancakes with dulce de leche and dulce de leche ice-cream. It's super sweet but Argentinians do have a sweet tooth. It's everywhere.

The details

Parrilla Pena, Rodriguez Pena 682, Buenos Aires.

Cantina Don Carlos, Brandsen 699, Buenos Aires.

El Obrero, Agustin R. Caffarena 64, Buenos Aires.

El Pobre Luis, Arribenos 2393, C1428 APE, Buenos Aires.

El Desnivel, Defensa 855, C1065 AAO, Buenos Aires.

Don Julio, Buenos Aires, parrilladonjulio.com.

Ruca Malen, Mendoza,bodegarucamalen.com.

Bodega La Azul, Mendoza, bodegalaazul.com

Frank's Bar, Buenos Aires, franks-bar.com