“Bite into it, then slap on some of that hot sauce — I say that loosely because it’s as hot as you’re going to get in Argentina,” says Horseman Hugh, pointing at a lurid pink dip which stands out among the salsa criolla, the white beans, black beans and even the coleslaw starter dips on the table at La monumental.
Of course, Horseman Hugh, known by day as the owner of guided horseback tour company MacDermott’s Argentina, is referring to slathering a beef empanada with hot sauce and I am in Salta capital, birth place of said meaty snack which runs an ongoing dispute with neighbouring province Tucumán over who makes the best one.
The fight is so ferocious that neither province will give in and each insists on holding an annual empanada festival and refuses to budge on the issue, such is the pride and importance they hold in this savoury pastry delight. I must say, they are half the size of your average porteña-size empanada here up north…
So what makes the Salta empanada so special? Lucas, a born-and-bred Salta man who jokes he is of both Inca and Spanish royalty because of his parents’ surnames (respectively Zapana and Alba) puts it down to the ingredients. “We use chopped beef and not mince, onion, and of course potato and chilli,” he says. “In Tucumán, they put lemon in their empanadas,” he adds, pulling a face.
Even the medialunas are slightly different in the north-Eastern capital. After whizzing round the MAAM museum to see which Inca child mummy is on display for this six-month period, I hurried across the 9 de Julio square to the MAC museum of contemporary art, home to the infamous pig lady paintings, and a coffee break.
A grumpy waiter — I think the mummified Lightning Girl over at the MAAM was more cheerful — served up a nine-peso cortado. But instead of glistening in that tempting way that means medialunas often con you into buying a round dozen rather than just a half, they had a rather matt, French look to them. Eating a couple immediately became a less guilty experience.
Back at La monumental Tuesday evening, I put myself in the capable hands of Horseman Hugh, who has lived in Argentina for eight years, menu wise. One look at the larger-than-life griller and I saw the reason why this is one of his all-time favourite watering holes. Hugh selected a churrasco de fillet, which I swear I have never even heard of, and can only translate as a boneless beef steak. Shaped like thin skirt or entraña it was lighter in colour than skirt and not as earthy, but its texture was text-book Argentine steak: butter won’t melt, flavourful, and can be easily devoured until the cows come home. Or not. A note on coleslaw. I loathe the stuff, but have never before seen it in Argentina. A double first for Salta.
A la francesa
Which brings me onto the third first, and French pizza. Dante and his Gaelic wife run La Bohème with the aim of providing a Celtic space in this north-Eastern city. The pizzeria’s jasmine- and magnolia- adorned patio overlooks the San Martín park, which looks a bit dry and bedraggled at the moment but I am assured will return to lush greenery with a month, is pleasant and peaceful. A vine canopy is a new addition to La Bohème in the past week, according to Horseman Hugh, who is a regular diner and lives in the neighbourhood.
Dante’s menu consists of a dozen pizzas and although he also specializes in Breton crêpes, we dug into a really tasty pizza with the thinnest of bases slathered in chilli and Spanish sausage. A real spicy treat. Pizza number two looked great on paper, all mushrooms and muzzarella, but it came out after the fiery first one and tasted quite bland in comparison. Accompanied by two Salta brand lagers, which seem to lose their fizz by the bottom of the glass thereby demanding an immediate top-up, three of us were fed and watered with 10 pesos change from 100. “I love spicy food,” said Lucas dreamily. I must say, although it’s not necessarily refreshing on the palate, I agree.
- La monumental, Entre Rios 200
- MAC, Zuviria 90
- La Bohème, San Martín 339
All located in Salta capital