Buenos Aires is one of the great culinary destinations in the world, home to superb seafood restaurants, to century-old trattorias that are probably more authentic to the ideals of Campanian cuisine than many places you’d find in Naples, and to Asian-fusion joints that would be at home in Santa Monica. The brawny local pizza, especially the cheeseless, herb-laden fugazzetta, may be the best outside Italy. The Argentine style of the flaky turnovers called empanadas is copied all over South America. Argentine wines, notably the elegant Malbecs from the Mendoza region, are among the hemisphere’s finest. Porteños, Buenos Aires natives, will tell you that their ice cream is the world’s best, that the cider is exceptional and that nothing beats a gourd of bitter mate.
The rest of the planet, of course, knows Argentina only for its beef: hunks of well-done animal served in baffling profusion; the hearty stuffed-beef dish matambre serving as appetizer to a meal of beef, beef and beef; restaurants raising their own herds of cattle and grilling them over hot wood fires, the only possible vegetable component of the meal being chimichurri, a garlicky parsley sauce that adds perhaps a gram or two of chlorophyll to a massive portion of grass-fed animal flesh. There are dozens of places to buy empanadas here, and even a few that sell fugazzetta and Malbec, but any Argentine expat you come across will tell you, mouth full of steak, that there are no real Argentine restaurants in Los Angeles, no places worth mentioning.
They must be keeping Mercado Buenos Aires, a restaurant-market in the western reaches of Van Nuys, to themselves. It’s no match for Argentina’s most elegant places, but when you walk into the market on a Sunday afternoon during soccer season, you may wonder if there are any porteños left in Buenos Aires itself.
Mercado Buenos Aires is busy, seriously busy, a big-city dining room alive with the smells of charred meat, garlic and freshly drawn espresso, the Boca Juniors game flashing on a half-dozen flat screens, and the sticky essence of the 2-liter bottles of Inca Cola that improbably dominate two tables out of three. A cold case running the length of the room is stuffed with creamy Argentine desserts, deli meats and savory spinach tarts; another case, behind the counter, is stacked with enough empanadas to feed all the soccer hooligans at La Bombonera. (The empanadas are especially good when you take them home and bake them in a 350-degree oven until they become toasty and steamy and hot.) There are displays of Argentine cookies, shelves of mate, and a display of a peculiar, crustless Argentine white bread, pan de miga, that is as broad as sheets of music paper and cut to an extreme thinness — if you want to make a sandwich with the greatest possible ratio of meat to bread, this is apparently the stuff to use. (Sandwiches made with it at the Mercado tend to involve a lot of mayonnaise-drenched fillings.)
The basic unit of consumption at Mercado Buenos Aires is, as at most Argentine restaurants, the parrillada, a towering all-meat combination platter served sizzling on a small charcoal brazier, a sort of three-dimensional textbook on the insides of a cow. Here is a skirt steak, the diaphragm muscle of the beast, grayish and the opposite of rare, but still full of flavor and juice; here are the short ribs, sliced thickly across the bone and seared to almost black; here is a rather bloodless fillet. At the base of the composition are grilled sweetbreads flattened to almost the size of toaster waffles, bolstered by a couple of herb-spiked grilled chorizos, very like Italian-style pork sausages, and a huge, crisp-skinned blood sausage as long and as girthy as a child’s arm. The salty, dripping juices from the meat flavor the sweetbreads — there is hardly a hint of feral glandiness to them — but the morcilla is not a blood sausage for beginners. The thick, inky goo practically spurts out at the touch of a knife, and even if you have ample experience with black Irish puddings and the wobbly cubes that garnish Chinese soups, it is hard to think of this well-spiced sausage as anything other than what it is — if you hit the parrillada on certain days, it can seem as if you can count every molecule of hemoglobin with your tongue.
With the parrillada, you eat mashed potatoes, rice or French fries that vary widely in their crispness and desirability, although once you have saturated them in chimichurri, they’re all good. If you have moral objections to foods touching, you can order various components of the parrilladaà la carte, or perhaps a New York steak (bife de chorizo), a T-bone or a milanesa — a thin, pounded, breaded steak, topped if you like with a broad slice of semimelted provolone cheese and a glop of tomato sauce.
While you are waiting for the meat to arrive, you can entertain yourself with cast-iron pans of melted provolone, a slice of a delicious ham-and-cheese tart, or L.A.’s premier choripan, which is a sandwich of grilled sausage and chimichurri on a crusty length of French bread.
But even without the parrillada, Mercado Buenos Aires is a happy, buzzy place to have lunch, linger over an enormous antipasto platter that includes cheese, olives and potato salad as well as half the roster of La Espanola’s Spanish-style chorizos, nibble on a slice of fugazzetta or spinach-stuffed Easter tart, eat a prosciutto sandwich and drink wine that you have imported yourself from the BevMo! down the street. For all of the Mercado’s virtues, it serves no beverage stronger than Mexican tangerine pop.
Café de la Ciudad in Mercado Buenos Aires, 7542 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 786-0522. Open Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–7 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.–5 p.m. BYOB. Takeout. Difficult lot parking. AE, MC, V. Lunch or supper for two, food only, $10–$25. Recommended dishes: choripan, melted provolone, empanadas, parrillada.
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