Since Argentines – porteños in particular – have late dinners, they need something in the afternoon to keep them going through the evening. Enter the merienda, which is basically a daily excuse to have coffee/tea and baked goods. Say no more – I’m all in. The late nights in Buenos Aires might not have worked for me, but meriendas were the one part of the schedule I had no problem embracing. Although lighter pastries, toast, and sandwiches are typical for meriendas, I opted for cakes and pies.
To enjoy as many meriendas as possible, I visited a bunch of cafés in Buenos Aires. These cafés were the standouts among the ones I visited (this is where I should disclose that my coffee preferences aren’t sophisticated, and I’ll be happy as long as the coffee wakes me up and doesn’t taste scorched):
- Vive Café in Palermo and Negro Cueva de Café in San Nicolás had the best, smooth lattes with thick foam.
- Full City Coffee House in Palermo served a great, creamy flat white.
- I enjoyed an apple crumble and chai at Estilo Barista in Retiro. I didn’t have coffee since I went there at around 7:00 PM and didn’t want to stay up all night, but I overheard an Australian couple telling the barista the coffee was fantastic. I assume all Australians are coffee experts, so I trusted their opinion.
- Cocu was my go-to for brunch in Palermo, and I also had dessert there a couple of times. A chicken sandwich on the menu was the main reason why I kept returning. After eating too many ham sandwiches on treks in southern Argentina, I was overly excited to find a good chicken option. The sandwich at Cocu was a giant, but I didn’t feel like I was going to burst after finishing it. The coffee wasn’t amazing (in fact, it was burnt), but the food was everything.
I also became a regular at a few café chains during my stay in Argentina. Below are my rankings, in order of preference.
- Café Martinez. My favorite due to its extensive menu and food quality-to-price ratio. It was a comfortable, everyday option; Panera is the best American equivalent I can think of. The portions were just the right size for me. The coffee wasn’t mind-blowing, but it served its purpose of waking me up.
- Tea Connection. Good food served in big portions but pricey. I didn’t think the food-quality-to-price ratio beat Café Martinez.
- Le Blé (locations only in Buenos Aires). I had yogurt and granola for breakfast here a couple of times, which I enjoyed. The dessert was less impressive. The café con leche was a little burnt, but it came in a huge mug that rivaled a bowl. I can’t be too picky about coffee served in a mug that big, even if the coffee itself wasn’t memorable. (What’s that quote about wanting bigger portions of lackluster food?)
- Starbucks. It’s Starbucks: you know what you’re getting every time you visit. I know, global chains are evil, and local cafés offer a more authentic glimpse into what a city is like. I do prefer local cafés; of course, I do. But sometimes – after you’ve sweat through your tshirt while spending 30 minutes trying to find Eva Perón’s grave in the Buenos Aires heat – you’re just too drained to walk a mile to the cute and quirky café with glowing reviews, and you need a tall iced nonfat caramel macchiato from the Starbucks at the corner, stat.
- Bonafide. The cheapest out of the café chains I tried. I was pleased when I visited a location in Córdoba for tea/coffee and dessert: the apple crumble and lemon pie were big and satisfied my sweet tooth. However, I was sorely disappointed with a Bonafide in Mendoza, where I ordered an apple crumble that arrived at my table in a paper wrapper. I wouldn’t have minded the wrapper if the crumble was decent, but it…definitely wasn’t. This was the only merienda I couldn’t finish. Not worth it, even at the cheaper price.
I was realll healthy in Buenos Aires (#whole30). In addition to a merienda, I would have ice cream almost every day. With the summer heat in the city I was grateful for the ice cream shops on every block. These were the shops I visited multiple times:
- Rapanui. The flagship store (which I’ve already raved about) is in Bariloche, and Buenos Aires has several locations, including one in Recoleta that I visited a few times. A small cup was 60 ARS (~$3), and I loved all the flavors I tried (marroc de maní, pistachio, tiramisu, frambuesa nevada, chocolate, lemon, raspberry). The Recoleta location had fewer flavors – and was perhaps a little less consistent – than the flagship. I got the tiramisu a couple of times in Recoleta, and one serving was so cold that it contained chunks of ice. This was just a minor issue and didn’t change how I felt about Rapanui; it was my favorite ice cream place in Buenos Aires, by far.
- Cadore. This was the cheapest ice cream place I visited (60 ARS/~$3 for a medium cup), but portions were small. The pistachio was decent, and the dulce de leche was creamy but a little too sweet (I don’t know what else I was expecting). The tiramisu was icy – clearly, tiramisu doesn’t love me as much as I love it.
- Tufic. While Tufic served the priciest ice cream (70 ARS/~$3.60 for small cup), it offered the largest portion sizes. Most of the flavors I tried were good and creamy (chocolate rocher, dulce de leche, and raspberry Nutella mousse), but the pistachio was a miss. The pistachio flavor was so intense that it came off as artificial, kind of like how watermelon candy is a lot stronger than the actual fruit.
Believe it or not, I ate things other than dessert in Buenos Aires. I checked out a couple of local staples:
- I ate empanadas everywhere in South America (such a perfect snack!), and El Sanjuanino in Recoleta had some of the best. I ordered carne suave, carne picante (which didn’t end up being spicy), and chicken empanadas. All the empanadas were great, but the beef ones were clearly better than the chicken. The carne picante was my favorite, even without any detectable heat.
- I was excited to have choripán at Nuestra Parrilla in San Telmo. As long as it’s not a ham sandwich, it’s hard for me to complain about meat on bread. I think my expectations were too high, though: it was just aight. The chorizo was flavorful, but the tough, stale bread broke my carb-loving heart.
- Since I don’t really care for red meat, I didn’t have steak at any restaurants in Buenos Aires (or Argentina, for that matter). People were bewildered – and sometimes downright outraged – when I told them I didn’t go to a steakhouse, even though I had no dietary restrictions. If it helps my case, I had grilled meat one night in Buenos Aires, when a Brazilian traveler prepared some ribs and filet at my hostel in Palermo. With just salt, the Brazilian was able to highlight the meat’s tenderness and flavor. Brazilians certainly give Argentines a run for their money in grilling meat, and I ate enough to make up for skipping steakhouses. (When I said I don’t usually crave red meat, the Brazilian responded, “Uh, really? Then why are you eating so much?”). I washed down the meat with some Argentinean wine and whiskey and Coke, and this ended up being my latest night “out” in Buenos Aires. I went to bed at 3:30 AM – just when many porteños were getting their night started.
From what I understand, pizza is supposed to be a big deal in Buenos Aires. My NY narrow-mindedness is rearing its ugly head, but I didn’t love most of the pizza I tried. I like to think that I’m not an insufferable pizza snob. I even like doughy pizza, as long as there’s some flavor and/or contrast in texture. I’ll – happily! gladly! – devour Domino’s, Little Caesars, and Sbarro. (Not you, Pizza Hut. Your breadsticks are tremendous, but your pizza is trash. That cheese. Ugh.) My sample size in Buenos Aires was just three pizzas, so it’s also possible that I went to the wrong places:
- Pedro Telmo in San Telmo. Meh. That sums up my feelings about both the pizza and the service. Goopy cheese and an indifferent waiter. I know that restaurant service in Buenos Aires is slower paced, but I was convinced I did something wrong. I observed the other patrons, but even when I copied them by flagging the waiter, he ignored me and attended to other tables. A chef finally took pity on me and took my order.
- The mozzarella pizza I had at De Rosa in Palermo was underbaked. I love pizza crust – nothing is better than a puffy crust bubble with a little char and a brush of tomato sauce. The dough on my pizza at De Rosa, however, was flavorless and soft. On the positive size, the pizza was the perfect portion. I finished the topped part of the pizza but left the crust on my plate…and I never do that.
- Cosi Mi Piace in Palermo was easily my favorite pizza place in Argentina, and I’d return there on my next visit to Buenos Aires. It had a wood-fired oven, and I had a seat at the counter, where I got to watch the staff build pizzas. I ordered a mushroom pizza, which had lots of garlic and a super-thin, crispy crust. I wasn’t hungry when I visited the restaurant, but the pizza was light enough to finish. The staff was sweet, and my waiter asked for my opinions on the pizza. That might not sound like much, but I thought it was touching. (OK, I also thought my waiter was pretty cute.)
I visited a couple of other restaurants multiple times during my stay in Buenos Aires:
- The falafel sandwich at El Banco Rojo in San Telmo was messy and wonderful. I was lucky that it was just a five-minute walk from my hostel in San Telmo. When I switched to an apartment in Recoleta, I took a 30-minute walk just to eat here again.
- I am fanatical about arepas, and Kombinaciones in Palermo (unfortunately, it looks like it’s permanently closed now) had a great one with braised beef and avocado(!). I put spicy sauce on my arepa but couldn’t detect any heat; spiciness didn’t seem to be a thing in Buenos Aires. Even without spice, the meat was packed with plenty of flavor.