Our annual list of the best things we ate and drank in the previous year is usually embarrassingly long. This year, with restaurants closed and our ability to eat out limited because of the pandemic, our list is shorter–but no less delicious. Welcome to part 3 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 202o series–our guide to the Best Food and Beverages of 2020 including legit Indian food (yes!), a chef with the Midas touch, a well-earned happy hour, and way too many desserts. Part 1 covers our top travel adventures of 2020 and part 2 covers the best hotels of the year.
Best food and beverages of 2020
Best salad: When Chef Adrian Baggio started working at Restaurante Gaia, part of the Domaine Bousquet organic winery in the Uco Valley near Mendoza, Argentina, he created a large organic kitchen garden. He crafts the Gaia salad using the best ingredients from that garden including mixed greens, grilled sweet tender pumpkin cubes, radishes, and edible flowers. Oranges, local almonds, and a lively vinaigrette made with orange juice, vinegar, and their own olive oil, round out this bright and satisfying dish that we could happily eat every day–especially when paired with the Domaine Bousquet 2019 Sauvignon Blanc Premium which really presented its notes of lime peel and tender spice when sipped with this salad.
Best dressed up empanadas: Chef Adrian Baggio, of Restaurante Gaia at Domaine Bousquet winery, scored again with his delicious reimagination of the empanada. His version comes filled with osso buco that’s been slow-cooked for 8-12 hours and it’s served under a glass dome full of smoke that’s lifted tableside to great dramatic and olfactory effect. The meat is succulent, the dough is silky, and the smoky essence lingers. To cap it off, the empanadas come with a homemade spicy tomato sauce which he made extra spicy just for us. Turns out Chef Baggio learned his way around hot peppers while working in Mexico. Chef Baggio told us that the smoke of this dish takes him back to the Sunday asados his grandfather used to make which always featured wood smoke and always featured empanadas. We think his grandfather would approve of his grandson’s empanadas as well.
Best magic dessert: The La Folie restaurant at Huentala Wines in the Gualtallary area of the Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina, is all about producing dishes that are accessible to everyone including those who are gluten-free, vegan, or vegetarian. Chef Pablo Marigliano and Chef Santiago Orozco Russo do that by harnessing their considerable talents and a wide range of unexpected ingredients including a lot of fermented and probiotic foods. The lunch that Chef Marigliano prepared for us was excellent from the start, but it was the dessert that stunned us. He calls it “Paradise Without Chocolate” and it’s a vegan brownie with acorn squash mousse, grapefruit and torrontés syrup, and sunflower seed praline. Basically, it’s a fake chocolate cake that looks and smells exactly like a perfect brownie with a dark, rich, crusty outer layer and a gooey inner sanctum. We simply could not believe that there’s no chocolate or gluten in this dish. Chef Marigliano says the secret ingredients are carob tree fruit flour, grape flour, two types of raisin paste, fermented carrots, vanilla bean, and fermented orange.
Best tasting menu: As the winemaker for the Catena Zapata wine dynasty, Alejandro Vigil was already Argentinean winemaking royalty when he opened Casa Vigil restaurant in the Maipú area on the outskirts of the city of Mendoza, Argentina. Surrounded by vines and whimsical yard art and quite close to Vigil’s house (hence the name), the restaurant offers three-course, seven-course, and nine-course tasting menus. Our lunch was playful and delicious from the smoky eggplant spread to the silky squash soup with sheep cheese foam to the shredded lamb on mashed potatoes to the dessert garden of crumbled chocolate “dirt” over a yogurt sauce with bitter chocolate “twigs” and 2 “mushrooms” made out of meringue. But the best part of an epic meal here is the chance to try so many wines from Catena Zapata and from Vigil’s own excellent El Enemigo line paired with each dish and poured by knowledgeable staff. More courses mean more pairings!
Best happy hour: Between 3 pm and 9 pm La Vineria in El Chalten, Argentina offers two-for-one pricing on wine and craft beer. Add in good burgers, sandwiches, and elegant meat and cheese sampling plates including deer, boar, and other local delicacies and it’s no wonder this place is usually packed. After a hard day (or few days) of exploring the mountains around this self-proclaimed “Hiking Capital of Argentina,” you’ll have earned it. Our thanks to Ale for the tip!
Best wine name: Neuquén province, in the northern Patagonian region of Argentina, is known for two things: dinosaurs and a growing list of wineries. Familia Schroeder winery is one of the largest in the region (so far), producing around 2 million bottles of wine per year. They’re also the only winery (so far) that has its own dinosaur. Dinosaur bones were discovered during construction of the winery buildings and work was stopped for two months as paleontologists combed through the area. They ultimately excavated the remains of a prehistoric creature that was dubbed a Panamericansaurus schroederi. The find inspired the winery owners to name a line of wine Saurus and visitors see a replica of the dinosaur found here during guided winery tours (the original bones are in a museum). Now that’s putting the terror in terroir!
Best hotel restaurant: We were not expecting to be wowed by the food at Remota Patagonia Lodge in Puerto Natales in the Patagonia region of Chile. People come to this part of the world for the scenery, not the cuisine. However, our dinner in the hotel’s restaurant proved that guests can expect outstanding nature and outstanding nourishment. The appetizer salad of roasted beets and pickled zucchini (the chef includes a lot of pickled items and uses elements of vinegar, sourness, and acidity well) was bright and delicious. Tortellini stuffed with crab was perfectly al dente and bursting with filler-free king crab in a whipped saffron sauce. The blackened octopus (pictured above) was tender and smoky and beef ribs slow cooked for 48 hours on a bacon sauce with cloud-light mushroom gnocchi was hearty but not heavy.
Best cheesecake: All of the food we had during our stay at the Awasi Patagonia lodge on the edge of Torres del Paine National Park in Argentinean Patagonia was wonderful. It’s a Relais & Chateaux hotel for a reason. But the lemon cheesecake was a standout among standouts: rich yet light as a cloud, citrusy yet smooth, sweet but never cloying, and with a buttery crust. Eric doesn’t eat cheesecake, but Karen gladly made up for that.
Best idea for reducing hotel kitchen waste: Have you ever asked yourself how a hotel restaurant manages to offer a wide range of dishes, each requiring a wide range of ingredients, without ending up with a lot of spoiled and uneaten food? We have, so our ears perked up during our stay at Lodge Deseado, in the Tierra del Fuego region of Chile, when we were told about their innovative solution to food waste. Each of the dishes offered at this remote lakeside lodge is pre-portioned and pre-made in a kitchen in Punta Arenas. Dishes are then flash-frozen before being transported to the lodge. Guests are asked to order their meals ahead of time so the on-site kitchen staff can naturally thaw just the specific dishes ordered which are finished and plated right before serving.
Best Indian food: Mumbai Masala in Mendoza, Argentina is run by a gregarious man from Gujarat state in India and the kitchen is run by a talented chef from Nepal. All of the classic Indian dishes are on the menu including vegetarian options, fish dishes, and meat dishes. We’ve tried many of them and each has been a hit with us as is the fluffy basmati rice, the garlicky nan, and the tender and flaky samosas. Then we discovered that there’s a sort of secret menu at Mumbai Masala as well including the spicy and flavorful chili chicken (pictured above) which is a bit like a South Asian version of General Tso’s chicken. This place consistently serves up the most authentic Indian food we’ve had in years and it’s a welcome (if unexpected) culinary change during our time in Mendoza as we ride out the pandemic.
Best flan: Flan is served all over Latin America and ranges from bland, overly-sweet, instant versions to dense, rich, goopy, homemade versions. At Restaurante Club Tapiz, part of a large winery and small hotel of the same name just outside central Mendoza, Argentina, we had the best flan we’ve had to date. They call it Nogalito and it’s made with the rich walnuts that are grown in the area. A base of brittle-like walnuts is topped with vaguely nutty flan. The texture was perfect (not runny, not dense) and it wasn’t overly sweet either, perhaps thanks to the addition of the walnuts. A topping of unsweetened whipped cream and homemade dulce de leche balanced the whole delightful package.
Here’s more about travel in Argentina
Here’s more about travel in Chile