It's been my experience that food tours are growing in popularity across the globe. If an army marches on its stomach, then so does the world's growing flocks of tourists. Experiencing local food for most travelers is an integral part of the travel experience -- that's certainly the case with me.
Food tours have an inherent appeal. They can save you a lot of research time and are likely to give you a better dining experience than you'd find on your own. You're taken to a restaurant a local has selected as an excellent or high quality establishment indicative of that tour's theme -- local food, artisan food, etc. Many of these restaurants are small "hole-in-the-wall" places that you'd be unlikely to frequent otherwise. Beyond just the selection of that restaurant, you'll be given a thorough explanation (in English) of the meal -- the kind of background information you'd expected from a guided tour. Elements like the history of a dish, how it's prepared, local ingredients, and some unique aspects in the sampled cooking -- facts that make for entertaining and delightful eating. And usually you're part of a small group of folks with a similar interest in food and food topics.
While recently in Buenos Aires, my wife and I went on two food tours, both of high quality but with different themes. Both tours were in the San Telmo barrio although these companies also conduct food tours in different parts of the city (San Telmo is known for its "elegant decaying" architecture, fine restaurants and tango shows). Both tours were walking tours that encompassed four different restaurants each; you walk to a new one for each course of the meal, enjoying the ambiance of San Telmo and burning off a very small percentage of the calories you've just consumed. Both tours have lunch and dinner options. Both tours require prepaid reservations (in US $). Both offer custom group tours. Both tours lasted just over 2 hours and had delicious food which more than filled us.
I've chosen to accompany the text of this blog with lots of photos to share with you the visual of the dining experience. Sadly, there's no effective way to convey the wonderful taste and smell of the dishes we were served. To find a photo's legend, scroll your mouse over it slowly or click on the thumbnails below for a more detailed description.
1) Parrilla Tour:
Co-owner and our guide, David (an American expat), lead us on this tour which focused on "traditional Buenos Aires" cuisine. The tour encompassed four restaurants each with excellent food, each a part of the story of the traditional Porteno dining that Parrilla Tour focuses on (note: the theme is traditional good food, not the fancy stuff). Restaurants we visited were smaller establishments, generally very simple places and frequented by Portenos, not tourists. Their tour groups tend to be small, maybe a dozen or so clients, and it made for a nice intimate gathering -- a fun way to learn about food and culture with some new friends.
- We started with an empanada at Pedro Telmo, owned bu Zumela, an 84 year old who makes her empanadas from scratch each morning. Empanadas in Argentina are baked, not fried, and each of the country's regions has its own distinctive type of empanada (including a distinctive shape). The empanada was served with traditional soda water (from antique glass canisters wherein carbon dioxide is mixed with water). They were brought to us straight from the oven and were an excellent start!
- After we made the empanadas disappear, we strolled through the fascinating Mercado San Telmo and made our way to a small parrilla adjoining the market, run by a retired accountant who likes to grill meat (when he feels like it). Here we had choripan, a slowly grilled pork sausage (chorizo -- found on almost every menu in the country) on fresh white bread and served with a variety of condiments -- incredibly good!!
- The main course of our meal was served at Don Ernesto, a parrilla (steakhouse) situated in what was once an antique shop (and a favorite of Eva Peron's). It's a quaint place, with graffiti covered walls, run by a nice family. We were served sirloin and skirt steak grilled in the usual style (slowly cooked with salt the only seasoning). As with all beef we enjoyed in Argentina, it was extremely tender and excellent. Argentina has among the best beef in the world because it's free range and naturally fed. We enjoyed the meat with fresh tossed salad, fresh bread, and a Malbec wine from Mendoza, a full-bodied, dark red wine from the rain-shadow of the Argentinian Andes.
- We finished the meal at an artisan "heladerias" (ice cream shop) known as Nonna Bianca. Ice cream is a traditional desert and this shop has dozens of flavors. It was as good as any ice cream I've ever tasted.
I'd highly recommend this tour to folks just arriving in Buenos Aires so that you get to experience the traditional food of the region. Parrilla tours does an excellent job in this regard and I recommend it highly (note: we paid our own way on both these tours; our opinions are in no way influenced by a "freebie"). Most of Parrilla Tour's clients are tourists.
Fuudis tours offers a nice and in some ways complimentary contrast to Parrilla Tour in that it tends to focus on popular and trendy gourmet restaurants, rather than on presenting just a traditional Buenos Aires meal. Their restaurant choices are more upscale and apparently change often. Most of their clients are locals, rather than tourists. The size of a Fuudis tour can vary significantly from a few individuals to even a few dozen people, depending on the venue. The day we visited the tour was run with just three clients (including the two of us). Our guide was Anne (an Aussie expat) who was charming and personable and very knowledgeable about the topic.
- Our appetizer was served at a trendy burger joint, Perez-H. We each had a half of an enormous and excellent hamburger, accompanied by fresh potato and sweet potato fries.
- Our next course was at Cafe San Juan, where Chef Alejandro prepared a great series of appetizers including a warm home-baked breads, pork and beef meatballs in a tomato sauce, and a wonderful salad (greens over grilled vegetables) in a pesto sauce. We got to see the chef work on that evening's meal, preparing several small pigs (that were remarkably intact by North American standards). Another tasty Malbec was served with these courses. This was my favorite of the places we visited on the Fuudis tour.
- The main course was served in Mesa 524. We were presented with a slow-cooked meat dish with potatoes and blue cheese, accompanied by a tasty cabernet sauvignon. Extremely tasty, although by this time I was so full I could just sample the meal.
- We ended with desert in a trendy wine bar whose name eludes me. I had the flan, my wife a tart with ice cream , both of which were excellent.
The Fuudis tour is also excellent and very recommended. If you only have time for one of these tours, which should you take? That completely depends on the type of dining experience you want. If you want to sample a traditional and flavorful Porteno meal, then I'd recommend you take Parrilla tours. If you want interesting trendy gourmet food, take the Fuudis tour. Better yet, leave enough time to enjoy both tours!