This Buenos Aires Neighborhood Is a Food-lovers Dream
Throughout San Telmo’s amorously charged streets, an exuberance for life fills the air. Cobblestone roadways and historic buildings are the backdrop to an area where public art and graffiti murals are plenty, and the borough’s liveliness is felt throughout, whether in Plaza Dorrega where locals gather to dance tango or at late-night dive bars where rock bands croon live ballads until sunrise.
“San Telmo has this very bohemian sense of independence,” says Kevin Vaughn, chef of MASA and founder of Devour Buenos Aires, a local culinary concierge delivering travelers to authentic Buenos Aires eateries — no over-priced parillas or tango shows here. Truly unlike anything else on offer in the city, Vaughn gets to know the people who contact him — what culinary realms they prefer, whether they like to finish the day with an espresso or a cocktail, and so on — making it more like a convening of friends who appreciate good food and conversation. As one of his favorite neighborhoods to take travelers, Vaughn loves San Telmo for many reasons, specifically its culinary prowess and laid-back ethos, the latter of which make it feel like a true neighborhood where residents genuinely know and appreciate camaraderie with one another. In the last few years, Vaughn has seen a paradigm shift in San Telmo’s restaurant culture. Chefs are focused on creating what they love to eat, Argentine cuisine from Argentine ingredients, something quite rare in the city.
“The interesting thing about San Telmo’s burgeoning restaurant culture is owners and chefs respect the character of the neighborhood,” says Vaughn. “They fit right in.”
Two of his favorite eateries in San Telmo, Saigón and Merci, are perfect examples of this, as they recently opened in the historic San Telmo Market, an establishment that’s been in operation for the last 120 years and occupies an entire city block. First founded by the immigrant population that flooded Buenos Aires in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and both San Telmo and the market became synonymous with the Spanish, French, and Italian immigrants who flocked here, making the market a meeting point for the local populous to shop for fresh produce, meat and even antiques. As new blood to the scene, some may find it surprising that Saigon and Merci fit in so nicely, but Vaughn doesn’t.
“The food we’re seeing in San Telmo has a sense of independence,” says Vaughn. “Chefs often do what they want, even if it runs counter to what diners want and expect. You don't see this as consistently in other neighborhoods like you do in San Telmo. Elsewhere, everything tends to be more geared towards the consumer.”
With its recent coronation as the 2017 Ibero-American capital of gastronomy, Buenos Aires is sure to see an uptick in travelers visiting for the food. With San Telmo’s culinary renaissance, the borough will likely attract these newcomers without sacrificing its bohemian allure, as here, chefs are brutally true to themselves and the neighborhood in which they reside, creating the city’s most diverse culinary borough.
Here, Vaughn reveals his favorite San Telmo restaurants for a memorable meal.
Whether for pan con chocolate, a French baguette or an evening glass of wine with tapas, visit Merci during a jaunt through San Telmo’s 120-year-old historic market. This outpost opened at the rear of the market, host to several counters and seating areas, all perfect for a convivial meal. With a chalkboard menu revealing each day’s offering, it’s easy to spend an entire day here, later roaming the market to explore the stalls of other purveyors.
Also set within San Telmo Market and situated adjacent to Merci, Saigon’s red bar stools and retro decor beckon myriad gourmands to this tiny Buenos Aires outpost, where a team of chefs deliver the best pho in the city. An old-school diner menu illuminated with translucent light tells patrons what’s on deck for the day, and rays from the street pour into the restaurant, positioned wonderfully on a corner alcove in San Telmo and still harboring the bar’s original sign, La Coruña, the name of the former bar notable which resided here.
Matambre is the ultimate gathering spot for San Telmo’s street food staples, and it’s easy to join a lively conversation at one of the many plywood tabletops within. Here, chefs Clara Ines, Jorgelina Manderina, and Guadalupe Alpuin create modern renditions of classic meals, fitting their choice of name, which comes from mata hambre, translating to the hunger killer. The chefs are playful in their delivery: some of them wear dog collars as necklaces and serve their dishes in tin pans. But past their fun-loving demeanor, the restaurant seriously delivers, serving a selection of burgers, tacos, sandwiches, and deserts, all meant to be devoured by hand.
Set within a 19th-century, 300-year-old mansion, Pulpería Quilapan is San Telmo’s leading farm-to-table wine bar, general store, and restaurant, bringing the best of Argentina’s countryside to the heart of Buenos Aires. At first site, it appears as a finely appointed vintage shop, as the store is meticulously designed to reflect the history of both San Telmo and Argentina while serving the country’s best cheese, meat, artisanal products and spirits. Go for the food, but stay for the venue’s many concerts and vinyl gatherings held in the backyard garden.
The unanimous leader in San Telmo’s food renaissance, Los Infernales occupies a pleasant, street-facing storefront adjacent to San Telmo Market, an inviting, ornate façade for this carnivorous outpost. Bolstered by a menu with Argentine-only ingredients and helmed like a culinary classroom by Mariana Hernandez, Claudio Gomez, and Federico Zapata, the restaurant utilizes Argentina’s precolonial cooking techniques to create elevated street food, a true rarity in the city. While here, dine on decadent duck burgers, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and Swiss chard croquettes with fresh cheese and peaches.
El Zanjon del Gato
With a caricaturized cat decorating its entrance, El Zanjon del Gato is immediately recognizable, an eatery known for serving tapas-style dishes in a relaxed ambiance. Helmed by Andres Plotno, a 28-year-old chef cooking far above his age, Plotno’s communal culinary vision is reflected in his dishes, as everything he prepares is meant to be shared with friends. While here, order from a selection of delicacies like deep-fried quail with an egg on top, lightly-battered squid fritters and pickled mackerel with beets prepared three ways.
El Banco Rojo
For the most delicious empanadas in all of San Telmo, look no further than El Banco Rojo, an inviting, open-air eatery with a backyard full of picnic tables, the perfect area to sip the establishment’s craft beer all afternoon. The restaurant’s name translates to “the red bench,” and its moniker reflects the comradery of this outpost, as you’re likely to encounter a range of people enjoying meals together, from children to drag queens and everyone in between. During a visit, order the empanadas de cordero (lamb empanadas) two ways. The original iteration slides through your mouth like butter, the nine-hour braised lamb going down like silk, and the spicy version offers a pleasantry not easily found in a city known for its aversion to heat.