Lots of wine, great vegetarian food in Argentina (really), Patagonian whisky, and much more. It’s all on the menu in part 3 of our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2019 series. This is our guide to the Best Food & Beverages of the year in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. Part 1 covers our Top Travel Adventures of 2019, part 2 covers the Best Hotels of the year, and part 4 tells you all about our Top Travel Gear of the year.
Use this list to plan your own great eats at bars, cafes, and restaurants in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia.
Best Food & Beverages of 2019
Best Friday night reservation: Mishiguene in Buenos Aires, which sits at #20 on the 2019 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, is chef Tomas Kalika’s elegant ode to Jewish cuisine. Get a late reservation on a Friday night and their famous baba ghanoush, light pirogis, fork-tender pastrami, and so much more comes with a lively klezmer band in the dining room to celebrate Shabbat. If we lived in Buenos Aires we’d be here every Friday night.
Best whisky: Nestor and Lila Serenelli love single malt whisky. A lot. So much so that, in 2011, they created the first whisky distillery in Argentina. At their small, bucolic facility in El Bolson in the Patagonia region of the country, they continue to craft La Alazana Whisky, producing about 4,500 bottles per year. But don’t expect to find their artisanal single malt for sale. They’re holding on to most of it with the goal of amassing a stock of 10-year-old whisky and growing from there. “In Patagonia, we have water of unsurpassed quality for mashing and fermentation and a mild mountain climate for maturation,” says Lila. The result is worth a trip to the distillery where you can see the process, meet the makers, and taste and buy the golden results.
Best offal: Sweetbreads are neither sweet nor bread. They are an organ (aka, offal) called the thymus which looks a bit like an oblong brain. Sweetbreads (called mollejas in Spanish) are big in Argentina and we’ve eaten them across the country. At La Carniceria in Buenos Aires, sweetbreads are fried and glazed with honey and served on a slab of rich cornbread that’s full of pieces of roasted corn along with a schmear of tangy yogurt on the side. Served whole, these winning sweetbreads are crispy, glistening, and caramelized on the outside and perfectly creamy and rich on the inside.
Best way to eat your vegetables: Argentinean chef, TV personality, and author Narda Lepes opened Narda Comedor in Buenos Aires in 2017 with pragmatic yet passionate advocacy for eating less meat. To be clear, she’s not pushing for everyone to become vegetarian and the menu at Narda Comedor, which is #50 on the 2019 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, includes some wonderful meat dishes. Narda’s approach is focused on proving that a meat-free dish can be just as indulgent and satisfying. Case in point: her crunchy, light tempura eggplant dish which perfectly mimics the texture and shape of shrimp. Narda Comedor also offers wonderful set lunch meals on weekdays and it’s one of the few restaurants at this level in Buenos Aires that’s open all day long from breakfast through dinner with no afternoon break.
Second best way to eat your vegetables: The swiss chard pakoras at Gran Dabbang (#46 on the 2019 list of Latin Americas 50 Best Restaurants) are topped with sweet carrot chutney and drizzled with sriracha and house-made yogurt. The chard still has body (it’s not just a squishy mess) and the batter is as light as tempura so it doesn’t smother the leaves. The result is a spicy, chewy, hot, crunchy, and rich all-veg winner. You’ll also be happy about the very reasonable price for this dish and all of the inventive, Asian-influenced dishes being turned out at Gran Dabbang by chef Mariano Roman.
Best pizza: It was a very good year for pizza with three places in three countries doing things right. In La Paz, Bolivia Efimera Pizza offers a wide range of toppings on a great crust. Don’t miss the chance to get a taste of Bolivia on the pizza topped with charqui (dried and shredded llama) and huacataya (a bold herb). In Argentina, most pizzas are a goopy, sloppy, cheesy mess – like fondue on crust. But at Siamo Nel Forno in Buenos Aires, they serve up truly Napolitano pizza with a thin, chewy, and salty crust and minimal traditional toppings including fresh tomato sauce, real mozzarella, anchovies, arugula, sliced meats, and more (pictured above left). Wine, beer, a few salads, calzones, and desserts are also on the menu. In Curicó, Chile we were delighted with our pizza at Barolo Ristorante. All pizzas are baked in a beautiful red-tiled wood-burning pizza oven from Naples. The thin-crust pizzas run the gamut from traditional toppings to unexpected nods to the Chilean palette like the El Campesino pizza which is, essentially, a Napolitano with onions and Chilean peppers (pictured above right). Another variation is topped with beloved paleatada which is slow-cooked shredded meat which is similar to brisket.
Best place to drink wine in Buenos Aires: It is surprisingly hard to find a wine bar in Buenos Aires, perhaps because so much real estate is taken up by an ever-expanding selection of craft beer places… So, we were thrilled to find Vico Wine Bar. The name is a contraction of “vino” (Spanish for “wine”) and “por copa” (Spanish for “by the glass”) and both locations offer dozens of Argentinean wines by the glass, all stored and served from fancy European machines that extract the air from the bottle to ensure freshness. Staff members are knowledgeable and helpful and pours come in three sizes from a small taste to a full glass. Bonus: the food is good too and there are plans to open more locations.
Best wine decanter: At one point during our elegant yet relaxed tasting menu lunch at Espacio, the restaurant at the Trapiche winery near Mendoza, Argentina, a waiter showed up carrying a wine decanter that looked like a life-size coiled cobra made out of glass. With considerable flair, he swirled the wine around inside the spiral form, then tipped it to measure out a precise pour before delivering it into each glass via a very, very, very long neck. We almost applauded.
Best chef’s table table: The goal of Tres Peces in Valparaiso, Chile is to give diners top-quality seafood sourced from artisanal fishermen. This supports the local fishing community, protects the ocean, and pleases customers. The table upon which the restaurant’s chef’s table meal is served is another expression of those sustainability goals. It was made by placing a recycled bathtub on legs, filling it with water and live fish, then topping it with glass.
Best mystery course: There is no ala carte menu at Chila in Buenos Aires where two tasting menus are offered featuring some of the most playful and well-formed dishes we’ve had (that’s why Chila is #29 on the 2019 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants and part of Relais & Chateaux). Diners who (wisely) choose the full tasting menu are treated to a mystery course during which they receive an unusual item at the discretion of the kitchen staff. We got a “sheriff” which is the rib of a cow that’s had the meat cut off but retains some of the tastiest bits near the bone. Getting to those bits requires special equipment, which is why we were also presented with a selection of gorgeous handmade knives and told to “choose our weapon”. Then we went to work. Fred Flintstone would have been proud.
Best place to try unusual Chilean wine in Santiago: The food offered on the 3-course, 6-course, or 9-course tasting menus at 99 Restaurante in Santiago, Chile is epic from the traditional pantrucas soup made with insanely rich rabbit stock (pictured bottom row far left) to the tender guanaco rib (from the 600 animals that are culled every year from wild herds) served with creamed chestnuts and tart pickled fig, to the dessert orb filled with beet ice cream that sparkled like a cranberry-colored Christmas tree ornament (pictured bottom row far right). But the wine pairings at 99, which holds the #47 spot on the 2019 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, are equally memorable thanks to a devotion to finding and pairing the country’s best natural wines. These wines are thinky and funky and offer a glimpse of Chile’s wine culture beyond the names you already know.
Best practically secret tasting menu: In 2005, chef Mariano Gallego and his wife Florencia D’Amico opened an ambitious restaurant in an unassuming building in Lujan de Cuyo, Argentina (which is basically a suburb of Mendoza). It’s called Brindillas and it’s the place to go for one of the best tasting menu meals in the region. Our 4-course meal included moist corvina in bier blanc sauce balanced with a thin wedge of grilled cabbage and a small sprig of baby spinach (pictured bottom left) and an intensely seafoody rice with peas, French beans, and bits of prawn (pictured bottom middle). Even better is the under-the-radar feeling of the place which was full of locals. We wouldn’t have even known about Brindillas if our friend Gustavo hadn’t taken us there (thanks, Gus).
Best amuse bouche: Dishes at Fuente y Fonda in Mendoza, Argentina celebrate grandma’s recipes, but that doesn’t mean they’re simple. Our dinner began with an amuse-bouche of four tiny perfectly al dente capellini filled with rabbit in a rabbit reduction that was simmered for 10 hours. Each bite gave a burst of fat and salt and umami which left us wanting more which is, after all, the job of an amuse-bouche.
Best ravioli: With 11 kinds of ravioli, nine gnocchi dishes, and four types of fettuccine on the menu at Pasta e Vino in Valparaiso, Chile, it was hard to choose a pasta. Our waiter suggested the morcilla (blood sausage) ravioli and we went with it. Now, a blood sausage stuffed ravioli might not have been our first choice but these triangle-shaped pillows in a moderately creamy leek sauce were moist, tender, and rich and the pasta was perfectly al dente.
Best bread: If Eric had to eat one thing for the rest of his life it would be crusty, chewy, homemade bread, but it can be hard to find. So imagine our glee when we met Caterina and Gustavo (pictured above) in the Uco Vally near Mendoza, Argentina. Gustavo had just started baking bread in the couple’s tiny home kitchen oven using masa madre (Spanish for sourdough) starter and the results were amazing: crusty, chewy, sour, and full of the holes and texture that you want in a truly great loaf of bread. Their Uco Bakery is now baking bread for locals (place your order online) and some of the best restaurants, wineries, and hotels in the area are also serving it.
Best salad: Overall, the food at Casa de Uco Vineyards & Wine Resort in the Uco Valley near Mendoza, Argentina was a terrific surprise. However, the balanced, satisfying, and gorgeous endive, grilled radicchio, zucchini, green apple, and cured meat salad was the real stunner. This sweet, crunchy, rich, and fresh salad was so good that we ate it before we had a chance to take a photo. Sorry, not sorry.
Best ice cream: You may be tempted to fill up on the house-aged meat or grilled seafood at Elena restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel in Buenos Aires, but try to save space to top off your meal with some of the amazing ice creams at this restaurant which ranks #45 on the 2019 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. We still dream about the salted and smoked peanut ice cream (pictured above) that we had there.
Best sandwich: The guys grilling up beef, chorizo, and pork in a dusty strip in the middle of Ruta 40 just outside of Mendoza, Argentina on the way into the Uco Valley may not look like chefs and the location certainly lacks ambiance, but the freshly-made sandwiches they make with their succulent freshly grilled meats are huge, satisfying, and cheap. No wonder they’re known as El Rey de Sanduche (Sandwich King).
Best surprise: We did not love the city of Bariloche, Argentina but we did love our meal at Anima Restaurante. Opened in 2018, it’s a labor of love from chef Emanuel Yáñez and his wife Florencia Lafalla (pictured above). They’ve both worked for Francis Mallmann (perhaps Argentina’s most famous chef) and spent time in Michelin-starred kitchens in Spain. Back at home in Argentina, they’ve created a petite (just 20 seats) and welcoming space for their ambitious but approachable food. Enjoy a fluffy and light omelet filled with succulent chunks of local trout in a feather-light sauce (pictured bottom row middle) or Catalan roast pork on mashed potatoes and topped with an elegant cold confit that acts like a gourmet apple sauce foil for the fork-tender pork. A loungy soundtrack (Nina Simone, Billie Holiday) and a small but well-curated Argentinean wine list round it all out. Reservations are a must.
Best new old spirit: If you think of vermouth at all, it’s probably as that oldey-timey stuff you use just a few drops of to make a martini. But in Argentina, vermouth (called vermú in Spanish) is cool. Case in point, La Fuerza started distilling vermouth in 2018 using wine grapes from the Uco Valley and local herbs and plants. La Fuerza claims to be the only vermouth produced the Andes and many of Argentina’s top restaurants serve La Fuerza. The distillery also opened their own La Fuerza Vermouth Bar in the up-and-coming Chacarita neighborhood of Buenos Aires. The bar is as laid back and cool as the vermouth cocktails they sell.
Best super southern wine: More and more vineyards and wineries are popping up in the Patagonia region of Argentina, pushing the boundaries of extreme southern winemaking. We tasted a lot of Patagonian wine and much of it is very good, but the winery we’re watching most closely is Bodega Contra Corriente in Trevelin, Argentina. It’s the brainchild of a pair of friends from Montana who came to Patagonia nearly 20 years ago on a fishing trip. They never left. Instead, they created one of the region’s top fishing lodges where they recently put in 7.5 acres (3 hectares) of vines and hired Sofia, a young and passionate Argentinean winemaker. Their first vintage is about to be released and we got a taste of it. The 2019 gewurztraminer is tart, citric, and very pale with round acids that make it much more versatile than just a “Thanksgiving dinner or Thai food” wine. Their chardonnay tastes of butter and pears and is not over-oaked. But the 2018 pinot noir is the real star. Lighter in color than many pinots from Patagonia (where the harsh cold and sun urges grapes to grow thicker skins), but full of cherry and plum flavors with a mouthwatering, slightly fiery finish.
Here’s more about travel in Argentina
Here’s more about travel in Chile
Here’s more about travel in Bolivia