You know what’s coming. A head to head of the best steak in Buenos Aires. Let’s narrow it down further. The best steak in Palermo, the city’s most traversed neighbourhood. And today’s challengers, ladies and gentlemen, are two of the most popular spots in town. If you want beef, then you’ve come to the right places. In the blue corner, family-run enterprise Don Julio. In the red, cash-cow La Cabrera. Let the battle of the cattle begin.
On a quiet Soho corner that has largely remained residential lies Don Julio. A family-owned enterprise run by sommelier son Pablo, a vast indoor grill greets you. Spread across the ground floor and a more private back-room dining space as well as a mezzanine, grab a balcony table for a bird’s eye view of the busy asador duo manning the grill as well as hundreds of signed empty wine bottles perching throughout the 1900-built premises.
On a quiet Soho corner that has largely remained residential but jostles for position with fancy interior stores and mechanics lies La Cabrera (the goatherder). The darling of guidebooks, La Cabrera now occupies two premises, such is its popularity, with one hosting the daily happy hour that slashes 40 percent of the bill between 7pm and 8pm – once the doors shut, there’s no more room at the inn for the next 60 minutes. The former general store is a tighter squeeze than the newer La Cabrera Norte, which has a delightful terrace and private dining room.
The Don Julio waistcoated staff have studied at wine school and cover the age spectrum, including waiters. Knowledgeable and respectful, their English might not be necessarily top-notch, but communication isn’t often a problem. A waiter joked jollily about his “English so-so” to gales of laughter from the table.
La Cabrera’s staff are decked out in pastel pink shirts, Malbec-colour ties and boina-style berets, a nod to local gaucho culture. Large name tags adorn navy blue aprons. Efficient and fast-moving, they move even more rapidly during happy hour, dishing up steaks and pouring wine like there’s no tomorrow. There’s little flexibility to the 60 minutes in happy hour, so that is a rushed experience, which can also cross over to full-price tables from 8pm.
If you arrive at Don Julio at 8.30pm, you’ll get a table no problem, however, the joint is packed by 9.15pm. An order-of-arrival list then kicks into action. The latest reservation can be made for 9pm, other than that it’s pot luck. Over at La Cabrera, start queuing at 6.45pm for happy hour. After 8pm it’s first come first served, backed up by a glass of sparkling wine to appease the wait. Try not to let death stares from those in line put you off if you’re eating outside.
AT THE TABLE
It’s much of a muchness while waiting for the main attraction. Don Julio’s mise en place provides a choice of Arauco and Arebequina olive oils as well as butter for warm bread rolls, although you have to spread it with a serrated knife. When it comes to course changeover, the fork stays with you, an Argentine custom that still bothers me after seven years. La Cabrera’s bread accompaniments vary between cream cheese and red pepper, while napkins are stiffer, larger and more luxurious than DJ’s. Lengthy blades for slicing up cow slabs of which a gaucho would surely be proud adorn both tables.
Me, the semi-pro eater and drinker. At La Cabrera, it was an embassy-strong crowd led by Miss Sassy herself, Malene, and a US-Italian couple who fell in love while brandishing Uzis in battle-scarred Iraq. Ninety percent of diners were foreign, some in large groups, others alone, with plenty of Brazilians.
At Don Julio, further romance was in the air with newly enamoured MBA students from Colorado in town for research, one of whom hasn’t eaten beef in 17 years. From single Argentine men – be on alert, ladies – bantering with staff to a trio of female English speakers with a barely a word of Spanish between them, the mix was balanced.
This is a comparison about a classic steak and it’s all about the rib-eye (ojo de bife). The 600 grammer at La Cabrera costs 165 pesos and is designed for sharing. Unless you’ve been fasting for two days. An immense slab of meat served on a wooden board, it goes above and beyond the wildest fantasies of tourists fresh off the bus, seeking out the ultimate beef experience. About three inches thick, brandish your weapon and cut into the perfectly seared steak. Succulent, tender, bordering on the rare side of medium-rare, it’s fabulous, the stuff of photos, an art-attack on a plate. Accompanied by delectable little pots of mash, dressed beans and pumpkin, there’s no need to order sides.
Don Julio’s rib-eye measures up at 400 grams of meat, is also perfectly seared and hot off the coals. At 74 pesos, it’s succulent and dreamy, though not as physically statuesque as its rival. Again, buttery, juicy, tender – in the mouth. Add on some fries and a simple salad to share – forget veg, which are often over done.
AND THE WINNER IS…
Don Julio, for a more genuine, all-round experience. The steak is fantastic, the service impeccable, and there’s a balanced mix of tourists and locals, making the encounter more authentic. This also pips it to the post: some years ago I turned up alone, single lady, Sunday night, and was treated like royalty. Last Tuesday, a lady, table for one please, clasping an iPad, sat down at a space for four, and was treated like royalty. No table splitting, no need to feel self-conscious, simply a great place for a fab Argentine dining experience. Don’t forget to sign your empty bottle(s).
Guatemala 4699 Tel: 4832-6058
Cabrera 5099 Tel: 4831 7002
Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on May 19, 2013
La Cabrera photo by Mary Rose