Two twenty-something men slice into steaks at a sidewalk table, their mugs of beer half empty, their conversation on pause.
Inside, a family of four chatters around a bottle of wine and ignores the basket of rolls growing stale beneath cold blasts of conditioned air.
At the table next door, I finger the edge of a red vinyl place mat and try to attract the attention of two waitresses engrossed in conversation and Coca-Cola.
Graceful and practiced, an asador [grill master] smashes charcoal with the back of a shovel and tosses blood sausage, chorizo, kidneys, intestines, and skirt steak onto his grill.
It’s Saturday at 2 pm in Belgrano R, and I’m about to eat lunch at La Vaca Pampa.
A mirror of the simple elegance of its surrounding neighborhood, the shoe box-sized parrilla [steak house] is somewhere that Óscar, a taxista for 14 years, has eaten many times. His daughter lives in the building next door.
“Order anything you like. It’s all good,” he’d assured me as he drove through the drizzle on Avenida los Incas and dropped me off on Avenida Elcano.
More and more, I’m making peace with the idea that the taxistas I enlist on these food quests are most likely going to take me to a parrilla. We are, after all, living in the Metropolis of Meat.
And the parrilla is, quite simply, the most direct route to the Buenos Aires version of soul food. It’s an institution, a beloved emblem, and a gathering place that can express itself in a myriad of ways.
There’s the date parrilla, with soft lighting, pretty views, and sidewalk tables. At the family parrilla, long menus, huge tables, and cheap prices insure that there’s something for everyone. Meanwhile, at the testosterone-friendly parrilla, you’ll find all soccer all the time, ripped chairs, dirty windows, and wall-mounted beer signs.
People stand and devour as quickly as the asador can sling the meat off the grill at the fast-food parrilla. At the other end of the spectrum, the parrilla for export impresses out of town visitors with cloth napkins, inflated prices, and voluminous wine lists. The wheel-and-deal parrilla, where the food is consistently good and the service at once attentive and hands-off, follows close behind.
Of all these local riffs on the steak house, my favorite by far is the neighborhood parrilla. Small and no-nonsense, it’s a place where regulars make up the vast majority of the clientèle, where the owner is often the one who serves your food, where the asador is known and trusted.
My first bite of entraña [skirt steak] at La Vaca Pampa confirms that it is such a place.
Easy to overcook, and often tough and chewy, their skirt steak is tender enough to cut with a fork. The grilled tomato that accompanies it – slathered in good olive oil, just enough salt and oregano – is still firm and bursting with summer sweetness.
I linger over my lunch, confident that I can camp out at this four-top as long as I like, despite the fact that I am alone.
The owner smiles at me over the cash register, noting my pleasure with satisfaction, knowing he’s won a customer who will return.
The table next door moves from organ meats to bifes of various types and orders another bottle of wine.
The waitresses joke with the asador, who sips orange Fanta from a tall glass and keeps one eye on his grill.
Suddenly, the sky bursts into a torrential summer rain, and there’s no better place for any of us to be.
La Vaca Pampa
Parrilla al carbón de Santiago Negrotto
Av. Elcano 3243 (Belgrano R)
Hours: Lunch and dinner 7 days a week