Eating Out in Argentina

A restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina (photo credit: Marcelo Salup)

Why eat out?  Here are some good reasons

While these are seemingly universal reasons for eating out, sometimes local factors come into play.  For example, what if you live in a place with very few decent restaurants?  Where can you go?  Therefore, other things being equal, a cosmopolitan urban center would be more favorable to eating out.  Eating out is also a cultural habit that will differ across nations, religions, cultures, classes and peoples.

For this article, the subject is the habit of eating out in Argentina.  This is a highly urbanized and Europeanized country, with about 40% of the population living in the great city of Buenos Aires.  By virtue of the European cultural habits and the high population density, most people have plenty of nearby restaurants to eat in.

What are the main attractions of food in Argentina?  We quote from Jason Wilson's Buenos Aires:

A porteño is ... a product of what he or she eats.  Meat-eating is a sign of belonging --- at one time the average meat eaten per capita was 78 kilos (172 pounds) a year --- as is the male belly or panza (Perón once called Argentines panzistas, perhaps derived from Sancho Panza).  The cake and pastry shops --- confiterías --- with the media luna and sandwich de miga (thin wafers of white bread sliced from giant loaves with numerous fillings) or the empanadas (pasties best filled with meat or cheese and onions and which the poet P.J. Kavanagh called "the most delicious snacks in the world") are an intrinsic part of city life.  So too are the pizzas and especially the dulce de leche (once translated as milk-jam).  But to me Buenos Aires is the capital of pasta; there are fresh pasta factories in nearly every block.  There is even a porteño tradition of eating a plateful of ñoquis on the 29th of every month.  But if pasta is the Italian inheritance, the Spanish colonial one thrives with maize-based dishes like humita, locro and the baked carbornada.  Germinal Nogués claims that revuelto gramajo (scrambled eggs, ham and potato sticks, my daughters' preferred porteño dish) is unique to the city.

In the Insight Guide to Argentina, Dereck Foster wrote with great humor:

There are two ways to eat in BA: eat Argentine or go international.  The former is simple but requires a lifetime of rigorous training.  It is not easy for the unsuspecting visitor, reared on a wide variety of foods, to plunge headlong into a diet of broiled beef day after day.  More than one tourist has been known to break down and threaten suicide if offered just one more portion of asado.  This tantrum may be combined with pleas for a piece of fruit or some vegetables.

Turning to international cuisine is usually not the answer.  There are excellent restaurants by local standards, but these standards do not have much in common with those of New York, San Francisco, Brussels or Lyon.  It must be understood that, by and large, French cooking in BA is Argentine French cooking --- very tasty, perhaps, but quite different in most cases from the sort of fare one gets in France.  The same goes for Italian, Spanish, Chinese and most other ethnic foods prepared here.  If you are willing to accept the porteño idea of a Béarnaise sauce and not complain that the tarragon used on your chicken is Russian tarragon, not the real McCoy, then you will get on well ...

However, you are in Argentina, so first you wish to try what Argentines normally eat.  This comes down, basically, to beef: grilled, broiled, fried or boiled, but beef nevertheless.  Beef is easy to find here, almost every city block has at least one restaurant, and the betting is ten to one that it will contain a parrilla (grill).  Off the parrilla one can opt for a rib steak, a rump steak, a strip rib, or a number of other variations.  There will also be a complete and extensive variety of sausages and offal, some of which are rarely if ever seen on a respectable US or European menu.  Do not be put off.  Much of it is delicious, all of it is palatable, and some of it is truly exciting.

A brief rundown of some of the terms you will encounter: a bife is a steak, but it can come in many shapes.  The most common are the bife de costilla and the bife de chorizo, the former is a T-bone, and the other has nothing to do with the spicy local sausage, but rather is a largish, thick steak cut from the underside of the rib roast.  Asado is the general term meaning roast, but it is frequently used in the sense of an outdoor barbecue.  Tira de asado is a thick strip of rib roast if prepared on the grill, but is much thicker, with more bone, when done on the asador (vertical split).

Chorizo is a spicy sausage, salchicha is a long, thin, slightly less spicy sausage and morcilla is a blood sausage.  A parrillada mixta is a mixed grill which, in addition to most or all of the above, will probably contain riñones (kidneys), mollejas (sweetbread), chinchulin (the lower intestine, truly delicious when well crisped), ubre (udder) and higado (liver).  Chicken is frequently included as well.  A parrillada mixta will usually serve two Argentines or four to five innocent tourists.

We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Argentina study.  This is a survey of 5,946 persons between the ages of 12 and 75 years old who were interviewed in 2001.  According to the survey, 21.6% of the people said that they had eaten out in a restaurant (note: not a fast food restaurant)  in the past 3 months.

In the next table, we show the demographic breakdown of eating out incidences.  The age/sex distribution would suggest that eating out is more common among young to middle-aged men and women, possibly being an important venue for the mating game (especially for newly separated or divorced well-educated people).  

Demographic Characteristic % Ate out in a restaurant 
in past 3 months
     Male 12-19
     Male 20-24
     Male 25-34
     Male 35-44
     Male 45-54
     Male 55-64
     Male 65-75

     Female 12-19
     Female 20-24
     Female 25-34
     Female 35-44
     Female 45-54
     Female 55-64
     Female 65-75


Socio-economic Level

Educational Level
     University completed
     University incomplete
     Tertiary completed
     Tertiary incomplete
     Secondary/commercial completed
     Secondary/commercial incomplete
     Primary completed
     Primary incomplete
     Did not attend school

Marital Status
     Union with mate

TOTAL 21.6%

Eating is an essential basic need, but where and what one chooses to eat is discretionary.  Since it costs more to eat out than at home, the incidence of eating out is likely to be correlated with the current financial situation.  In the above table, we certainly see that socio-economic level is highly correlated with eating out incidences.  

In the next table, we show the incidence of eating out as a function of consumer confidence.  People who feel that they have become economically better off are more likely to eat out, and vice versa.  This matches the common knowledge that the restaurant industry has its fortunes tied in with the state of the general economy.  However, we need to point out the relative and absolute natures of economic situations --- if one was barely able to survive before, then a small improvement does not mean that one can go out and splurge; conversely, if one was super-rich before, then a small financial setback does not mean a bread-and-water diet.

Consumer Confidence % Ate out in a restaurant 
in past 3 months
Better than 1 year ago
Worse than 1 year ago
Same as 1 year ago
TOTAL 21.6%

(posted by Roland Soong, 10/10/2001)

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