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Empanadas de Queso (Argentine Cheese Empanadas)

Empanadas are found up and down Argentina. But in the Northwest city of Salta, a red chile pepper-dyed dough stands out among the rest.

Overhead view of empanadas on a checkered blue background
Serious Eats / Two Bites

In the city of Salta in Argentina's Northwest Andes, a good street empanada requires you to spread your knees. You're meant to eat them “de patas abiertas”: open-legged and hunched over to let the juice spill onto the sidewalk instead of your pants. The absence of grease tinged by red chile pepper is the mark of a subpar empanada. Ride around Salta throughout the day, and you’ll see people enjoying empanadas and other street foods with sloppy enthusiasm. People gather by the train tracks to stuff themselves with fried potatoes filled with cheese. Even at El Patio de la Empanada, an outdoor food court complete with dishware and cutlery, the spirit of messiness is the same. Several stalls serve near identical menus of tripe, chopped beef, and jerky empanadas alongside bowls of locro, a hearty corn stew, each vendor calling you to sit at their table as soon as you arrive. 

Side view of an open empanada
Serious Eats / Two Bites

This is my fourth visit to the city, but it’s the first time I’ve really noticed the density and uniqueness of its street food culture. Argentine culture demands sit-down meals that meander into long conversations well after the plates have cleared, and across the country, you're often hard-pressed to find a quick bite, much less in the street. Yet in Salta, a city of 600,000, people pour onto the streets outside plazas and food markets to eat steaming tamales, greasy plain pizza, or Bolivian-style cow heel stew. I suspect their characteristically bite-sized empanadas, which can be eaten quickly at any time of day, are partly responsible. 

Lucía Blanco picks me up at the bus station to take me on an impromptu empanada tour. She is the owner of Las Gauchas, an empanada shop that specializes in takeaway and frozen empanadas. Blanco's introduction to the food world began at her father's small kiosk, where he sold empanadas that she helped make. Each day, she’d fold the repulgue, a word that describes the skilled act of sealing the empanada dough in a decorative braid.

Overhead view of two servings of empanadas
Empanadas from the writer's trip to Salta.Kevin Vaughn


Today, she regularly visits her favorite spots to understand what makes each empanada and its maker special. At each of the four stops we make, Blanco is able to recount the story behind every shop and points out minuscule details that make each place unique. Sharing a list of spots with me, she encourages me to try them on my own and tells me what to look for, like the number of folds in each braid, the char of a wood-burning oven or red dough prepared with local chile peppers.

She starts by taking me to the home of Marta Savaria, who serves patrons on her back patio. Ground chile pepper similar to paprika gives the empanada dough a characteristic yellow hue. And at El Buen Gusto, the repulgue is so tightly bound and perfectly uniform that there are rumors the shop invented a secret machine to make their empanadas. "Some shop owners probably think I'm some kind of spy," Blanco jokes as she compares three identical-looking empanadas. "I just really love empanadas."  

In Argentinian empanada making, local recipes tend to be inflexible and limited to just a few doughs and fillings. Whether empanadas are made with lard- or margarine-based doughs, are fried or baked, or contain chunks of potato or sliced green olives, the rules of provincial empanadas are frequently dictated by rigid creeds. 

But in Salta, where empanadas are sold from street corners, private homes, and restaurants, there's more variety and less dogma. And despite a local preference for chopped beef empanadas charred by a wood oven, my favorites are consistently the cheese empanadas topped with llajwa, a spicy grated tomato sauce—specifically the ones prepared outside the vital records office in downtown Salta by women who roll dough and stuff shells all afternoon. They sell so quickly that they're practically made to order. 

Back home in Buenos Aires, I wanted to make my own Salta-style empanadas by pulling from all my favorite details from my trip, and then adding a few touches of my own. I started with the dough: I infused butter with crushed chile powders that lent a golden tint and, when rested in the fridge overnight, developed a hint of sweetness. 

Overhead view of dough
Serious Eats / Two Bites

I settled on three cheeses for the filling: an elastic tybo, a block cheese similar to a Monterey Jack, for a long pull and fontina and young goat cheese to add nuttiness and tang. I included potatoes and onions—a local technique to add texture and starch to help soak up the extra fat from the cheese. "It helps you eat one after another," Blanco explained. "Without the potato, the melted cheese feels like a block in your stomach."

Blanco also adds vegetable broth to her cheese filling for extra flavor and juice. Her industrial production line justifies making pots of broth—my measly dozen didn't. Instead, I finely diced pickled kitucho chiles (a wild pepper similar to chiltepins), added a few spoonfuls of its pickle juice, and additional crushed chile pepper to add undertones of spice and zest to the cheese. 

I spent a Sunday afternoon carefully folding and twisting empanadas at my dining table until I'd formed seven dozen, most of which were bagged and sent off to friends across the city. Included were bags of hot sauce and instructions to be careful not to stain their pants.

Overhead view of a plate of empanadas
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For the Dough: In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add Spanish paprika and crushed red pepper flakes and whisk until the paprika infuses the butter, about 20 seconds. Remove from heat and set aside.

Butter in a pan infused with paprika
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In a measuring cup, whisk salt into the warm water until it dissolves. In a large mixing bowl, add flour. Make a well in the center about 4 inches wide. Add the melted butter to the well and, using a fork, mix butter into the flour until you have a sandy texture. Gradually add water and, using your hands, mix until a smooth dough forms, 2 to 3 minutes. (Be careful not to over-knead, as developing too much gluten will create hard empanada shells.). Cover dough with a damp towel and rest until the dough is soft and pliable, 30 minutes at room temperature.

Overhead view of adding butter to flour and forming a dough
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For the Filling: While the dough rests, in a medium saucepan, combine onions, olive oil, and a pinch of salt and cook over medium-low heat until soft and translucent, 8 to 10 minutes; set aside.

Overhead view of onions in pan cooking
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In a medium saucepan, combine potatoes, 3 cups water, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Cook until potatoes are tender and offer little resistance when pierced with a paring knife, about 3 minutes. Drain potatoes, transfer to a heatproof bowl along with the onions and set aside to cool. Once onions and potatoes have cooled, stir in tybo, fontina, and goat cheeses, pickled peppers and their juices, and crushed red pepper flakes.

Two image collage of adding potatoes to onions and mixing with cheeses
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For the Llajwa (Hot Sauce): Split tomatoes in half horizontally. Place a box grated into a large bowl. Rub cut faces of tomatoes over the large holes of a box grater, using the flattened palm of your hand to move the tomatoes back and forth. The flesh should be grated off, while the skin remains intact in your hand. Discard skin. Stir hot peppers, sea salt, and extra virgin olive oil into grated tomatoes. Add additional salt, olive oil, and hot pepper to taste, as necessary. Set aside.

Two image collage of grating tomato on a box grater into a glass bowl then stirring with a spoon
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Form and Fill the Empanadas: After 30 minutes, divide the dough in half; return one half of the dough to the bowl and cover with a damp towel. Using your fists or the palm of your hand, press dough down until it’s about 1/2-inch thick. Lightly dust with flour and, using a pasta sheeter or rolling pin, roll dough to 2mm thick. (Do your best to create an even, rectangular shape, which will help you get the most out of the dough with your cutter.)

Two image collage of pushing dough down with fists and rolling out with a rolling pin
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Using a 4-inch-wide (13cm) circular cookie cutter, cut discs out of the dough. You should have a total of 20 to 24 discs, with each weighing 25 to 28 grams. Cover discs with a damp towel or plastic wrap to avoid drying out. Repeat the process with the remaining half of the dough. If necessary, repurpose and roll out any leftover dough once to punch out additional discs as needed. Cover discs with a damp towel or plastic wrap to avoid drying out.

Two image collage of cutting our dough discs and covering with plastic wrap
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Holding a disc of dough in the palm of your hand, pinch one end to create a tulip shape. Place a generous tablespoon of filling (about 25g) in the center of the disc. Fold the dough over the filling to enclose, forming a half-moon shape. Use your fingers, dampening with water if necessary, to gently seal the edges together while making sure to push out any air bubbles (see notes).

Four image collage showing how to cup dough disc in hand, fill with cheese-potato-onion mixture, and pinching closed into a half moon shape
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Fold the right corner of the empanada in towards the center and pinch to crimp. Working from that corner, continue crimping to form points along the edge so that the empanada looks like half of a sun with rays. (Be sure to work the dough gently to avoid air bubbles or tearing, and use your index finger to squeeze the filling in if necessary.) Repeat with remaining dough and filling, placing formed empanadas on a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Four image collage of pinching dough edges together to form sun shaped empanadas
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To Fry the Empanadas: Set a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet and line rack with a double layer of paper towels. In a large Dutch oven, heat 2.5 inches oil over medium-high heat to 350°F (177°C). Working in batches of 6, carefully add empanadas to hot oil, dropping them from as close to the oil’s surface as possible to minimize splashing. Fry, using a spider or slotted spoon to flip the empanadas halfway through, until golden brown on both sides, about 4 minutes. Transfer empanadas to prepared wire rack.

Overhead view of empanadas frying in dutch oven
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Return oil to 350° and repeat frying process with remaining empanadas, continuing to work in batches of 6. Serve hot with the llajwa.

Overhead view of finished empanadas on a plate with dipping sauce
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Special Equipment

Pasta roller or rolling pin, 4-inch (10cm) circular cookie cutter, slotted spoon or spider

Notes

This recipe can be easily doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, if desired.

If unable to find tybo cheese, substitute with Monterey Jack.

If unable to find Scotch bonnet pepper, substitute with a habanero pepper.

You may have to dip your finger in water and run it around the edge of the dough before pressing to seal the empanadas shut.

The empanadas can also be baked. To bake the empanadas, adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 400ºF (205ºC). Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment and bake empanadas for 15 minutes until golden brown.

If making a larger batch, be sure to keep extra empanada dough rounds tightly wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator to avoid drying out. 

For a more pronounced flavor in the dough, prepare empanadas a day ahead, reserve tightly covered in plastic wrap in the fridge, and fry the following day.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Empanadas are great for freezing for up to three months preserved in tightly sealed tupperware or plastic bags. Place empanadas on a lightly floured plate, baking sheet or baking pan that fits in your freezer, being careful not to let them touch. Once frozen, they can be stored in a plastic bag and shouldn’t stick to one another. 

Prepping the empanadas the day before will allow the chile pepper flavor in the dough to become more pronounced and less muted by the frying.

Chupín de Pescado (Argentine Fish and Tomato Stew)

A rustic stew whipped up by Argentine fishermen and home cooks, chupín is packed with meaty pieces of fish, tender potatoes, and lots of vegetables.

Overhead view of Chupin
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

“You’ve arrived just in time,” Graciela Narvaez greets me. “The guys are about to start the chupín.” 

It’s a scorching summer day in Tres Bocas, a village on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Chaco in Northeast Argentina. I’ve just arrived to the home of Narvaez and her husband, Alberto Navarro, to spend the weekend fishing on the Río Paraná, a river that extends 5000 kilometers from Brazil to Argentina’s Río de la Plata river basin and is home to countless communities of fishermen just like this one. 

The announcement of a hot fish and tomato stew, which I had only ever eaten on cold winter nights, catches me off guard. It’s barely 10 in the morning and the heat has already surpassed 100 degrees. “For breakfast?” I ask. Narvaez laughs, “It’s already midday. Lunch is at noon so we can take a siesta and beat the afternoon heat.”

Underneath the shade of the patio’s long corrugated roof sits Lolu, Alberto’s fishing buddy. He eyes a pair of armado, a catfish native to the warm fresh waters of the Paraná River, hanging from a string on the fence like an upside-down bouquet. The armado is a monstrous sight—bulbous belly, rounded face, long whiskers, murky brown scales, and a row of thorns that jut out from its sides. It’s known along the Paraná for its size and inexhaustibility. Once it is hooked, it swims deep with the current and, as it is pulled to the water’s surface, lashes its body back and forth and slams its head in all directions. 

The armado, according to this trio, is the only fish they’ll use for a chupín, making the triumph of catching one all the more prized. 

In the warmest months when fish are most active, Lolu and Alberto steer their large wooden canoe out to the rivers’ islets, where they spend weeks at a time camping in the wilderness with other fishermen. Days start before sunrise and go well into the afternoon. The men catch as much as they can using a system of nets and long lines with up to a dozen hooks that are held in the low water with anchors. The day’s catch is quickly gutted and cleaned and taken back to shore where their wives meet them on a motorcycle and exchange small bags of provisions for their husband’s catch, which they take back to the village to be sold by the pound or made into meatballs or milanesas (breaded and fried). 

“Fishing comes with a lot of sacrifice,” Alberto says. “It’s really difficult work. We can’t take a lot of food with us. Yerba mate, some lard or oil, a few vegetables, salt, some noodles, and a box of tomato sauce. We eat a lot of chupín.” 

The work calls for a chupín. The kind of meal that sticks to the ribs and fills you up with nutrients with just a handful of ingredients, a woodfire, and a single pot. 

Lolu sharpens a long boning knife and cleans the fresh armado. He tosses the guts into the yard for the animals and sets aside the heads for soup. Alberto takes the cleaned fish and slices them into thick cutlets without removing the skin, spine, or fins. In the backyard, he sets a deep cast iron pot on a grill that sits over a small fire, adds a generous scoop of pig lard, and begins to build his stew: onions, carrots, bell peppers, and peas are added one-by-one with a pinch of salt in-between, allowing each to soften and grow fragrant before adding the next. Uncooked tomato sauce and hot water are mixed in and reduced before adding starchy potatoes, which Alberto cuts into thick slices that will take long enough to cook that the broth will concentrate in both texture and flavor at the same time. 

“Once the potatoes are nearly finished, that’s when you add the fish and mix it with the liquid,” Alberto explains. “This moment is as important as building the sauce.” The fish cooks quickly, and if it’s left too long, you risk it breaking down into stray shreds and flakes of meat.

Noon had rolled around by the time we sat at a picnic table on the patio and ladled stew into our bowls. I immediately understood why this was a choice meal after a long day on the river: Alberto reduced the sauce so much that just a thick trace of tomato sauce was left at the very bottom of the pot—nearly all that flavor had been absorbed into the potatoes. Yet while the thick potatoes weighted me down, the delicate white fish and the simplicity of a handful of fresh vegetables was light enough that I could choose to go build a canoe or sneak in a nap. We all chose the latter. 

Chupín Up and Down the Río Paraná


A few days later, I crossed the river that divides the Chaco province from neighboring Corrientes. I met with cook Edgard Maidana of Nispero, a supper club and catering company, who was surprised that Alberto’s chupín was so different from his mother’s despite only being separated by a river. 

“Everyone that lives along the Río Paraná eats chupín,” Edgard says. “Every region has their technique and each family has their own recipe. If my mom has yucca on hand, she prefers to use that instead of potato. I’ve never seen anyone else make it like that.”

The addition of yucca demonstrates both the indigenous Guaraní legacy in Corrientes’ culinary tradition and the adaptability of the dish itself. Although his mother, Gaby Alcaraz, is also a steadfast believer in using armado, she uses a layering technique akin to a lasagna known as chupín "a la olla" or "pot-style." She stacks medium-diced raw vegetables and thick fish cutlets inside a large pot in alternating layers: Two layers of vegetables for every layer of fish. Fresh tomatoes are subbed for uncooked tomato sauce and the broth is made with half a liter of red wine, and a few tablespoons of olive oil, as well as oregano, paprika, and cumin. The pot is covered and simmers until the potatoes, which should be layered towards the top, are cooked through. 

I got curious and called my friend Jorgelina Mandarina, a cook and restaurant consultant in Paraná, the capital of the province of Entre Ríos, which sits just south of Corrientes. She was shocked by both recipes. For Jorgelina, chupín isn’t a stew but a brothy soup.

“Chupín is one of those recipes that changes depending on the context of the meal,” Jorgelina says. “I made chupín at a restaurant that I worked at in Buenos Aires. We made a stock with the fish head, built a broth with all sorts of vegetables and spices, and made a soup. We either topped it with an herby chimichurri or grated tomato and chiles. At home, I still make a stock but I just need fresh tomato, the best catfish I can find at the market, and whatever vegetables I have on hand.” 

I wanted to make a chupín that reflected all three cooks.

Choosing a Fish


The first step was figuring out how to replace armado with another fish. In Buenos Aires, there is an abundance of saltwater fish from the Atlantic Ocean but river fish from the Paraná is limited and challenging to find. Armado was out of the question. 

I gleaned advice from Alberto and Graciela. They explained the basics despite being skeptical that a real chupín could be pulled off with any other fish: It needed to be a bottom feeder that weighed at least two kilos with enough white meat to slice into steaks that were at about one inch thick at the middle part of the fish, with meat that is firm enough to withstand the rolling boil of a strong flame. 

I remembered something that Gaby had mentioned: The armado is a fish that absorbs whatever flavors you throw at it. I needed a fish that would take in more flavor than it put out, which meant avoiding oily and full-flavored fish like salmon and Chilean sea bass. Finally, Jorgelina assured me that any well-selected catfish should work: “Look for fish with white meat that has intramuscular fat. You want a fish that will help give a butteriness to a broth.” 

I ended up choosing a boga, a scaled catfish from the Paraná River that fit nearly all the specifications: thick cutlets, strong white meat, and enough fat to add richness without sabotaging the chupín that muddy catfish flavor. For those cooking this elsewhere, catfish (whole if you can get it, though that isn't easy everywhere) is a good freshwater option, while striped bass, snapper, and monkfish are some good saltwater choices.

Making My Own Chupín

Alberto’s humble campsite stew is the product of necessity: A hearty meal with limited ingredients and cooking utensils. I wanted to take advantage of a home kitchen and incorporate Gaby and Jorgelina’s techniques without straying too far from the original essence. 

I started by making his chupín to a tee: equal parts fish and potato, one-fourth part onion with carrots, red bell peppers, and peas stewed with a jar of plain uncooked tomato puree and water.

I built my base slowly with pork fat, cooking the onions downs until they were browned and sweet, adding one vegetable after another. The final result was a simple, hearty stew similar to the one I ate in Tres Bocas: a touch of sweet carrot and onion, slightly acidic tomato, starchy potatoes that kept their structure and held onto the broths flavor, light flavored fish, and the immediate desire to take a nap afterwards. These were the elements I wanted to preserve. But I wanted more sauce, more flavor to welcome each bite of boga. 

I decided to make a simple stock with the fish head plus aromatic vegetables and herbs. This is something you can do if you're working with a whole fish. If not, vegetable stock is one good choice for sneaking more flavor into the pot than just water, though water too will work.

I tried both chupíns side-by-side. The essence was the same except my more flavor-packed version had a complexity that spoke to all three regional perspectives I'd experienced, all in one bowl of chupín. Once I was done, I promptly took a nap, as one does after eating a chupín.

Season fish with salt. Spread flour in a wide, shallow bowl, then lightly dust fish all over in flour, shaking off any excess, and transfer to a plate.

Fish in a pan
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

In a 5-quart Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the pot, add fish and cook, turning once, until golden on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Return fish to plate and set aside; leave oil in pot.

Two image collage of frying hook
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Add onions to Dutch oven, season lightly with salt, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add bell pepper and continue to cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes longer. Add white wine, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until raw alcohol smell is mostly gone, about 3 minutes.

Two image collage of cooking tomatos
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Add tomatoes and their juices, peas, oregano, smoked paprika, and cumin and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Add stock (or water) along with the potatoes, bring to a simmer, and cook until a paring knife inserted into the potatoes slides in with only a touch of resistance, about 20 minutes.

Four image collage of finishing stew
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Return fish to pot, nestling it into the liquid and vegetables, and cook until meat is cooked through, about 10 minutes (the actual cooking time will depend heavily on the thickness of your particular pieces of fish, so keep an eye on it). Add peas and cook until just heated through. Serve right away.

Overhead view of finished stew
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Notes

Any mild yet firm white-fleshed freshwater or saltwater fish is acceptable in this dish; while I have had it made from freshwater fish, along Argentina’s Atlantic Coast, similar preparations of chupín call for saltwater fish like grouper and hake. If the fish has edible skin (such as snapper and sea bass), feel free to leave it on. If you buy a whole fish and break it down yourself (or have the fishmonger butcher it for you), look for one that is between 2 and 3 pounds (1-1.4kg). you can remove the head and tail (reserve those for broth; see below), then cut the body crosswise into three roughly 1- to 2-inch-thick, bone-in steaks. You can then split each of those steaks vertically through the middle so that you end up with six nice-sized bone-in fish "chops." Alternatively, you can buy the fish as steaks, or as fillets, whether with or without bones, though it's best to get thick and meaty fillets that will hold together in the stew, not thin flaky ones that will fall to pieces.

If you buy a whole fish to make this, you can prepare a quick fish broth from the head and tail: In a medium sauce pot, combine fish head and tail, 1 quartered yellow onion, the cloves on 1 head garlic garlic, 5 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns, and a pinch of salt and cover with water (at least 1 quart; 1L). Bring to a bare simmer, then continue to cook at a bare simmer for 30 minutes. Strain and discard solids.

This recipe can also work with fresh peas, though if you use them, you should add them just before the carrots to give them more time to soften.

Sorrentinos

Originally filled with ham and cheese, sorrentinos—a round stuffed pasta two to three times the size of a typical ravioli—can be found in restaurants and pasta shops all over Argentina.

Sorrentinos in a bowl
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

One of Buenos Aires’ greatest attributes is the close proximity to pasta no matter where you find yourself in the city. Walk down any street long enough and you will run across a small, family-run pasta "factory." They’re easy to spot: A display case decorated with a dozen types of fresh pasta or pastel-colored cardboard boxes waiting to be filled with noodles usually figure prominently in the window. Peek inside and a cook dressed in a characteristic white frock is probably working the old machines that flatten dough into dozens of pasta shapes, long noodles, or square strips that are cut into circles, squares, or triangles that are later stuffed with sautéed vegetables or ham, and most likely, lots of mozzarella or ricotta cheese. 

The legacy of Italian immigration—between 1870 and 1920 nearly 4 million Italians immigrated to Argentina, making up 25% of the population according to the 1914 census—isn’t just the frequency with which Argentinians consume pasta, but the furor and fanaticism that they attach to it. 

In Buenos Aires, people are as loyal to their choice pasta shop as they are to their favorite football team. Every day of the week, but particularly on Sunday afternoons, long lines of customers grab a number and wait patiently to buy their favorite pasta and sauce by the kilo. 

“I buy fresh pasta from Del Patrello or Soma, which are both close enough to where I live,” says cook and baker Trinidad Benedetti. “I don’t see the point in buying from anywhere else.” 

Restaurants operate with the same mysticism and develop signature pasta dishes that birth legions of loyal fans, sometimes nationally. In the north Atlantic beach city of Mar del Plata, the Vespoli family lays claim to inventing the sorrentino, a round stuffed pasta known for its size—two, sometimes three times the size of a typical ravioli.

“Every pasta has its own personality,” writes Virginia Higa in her novella, Los Sorrentinos, a fictionalized account of her childhood spent with her relatives, the Vespolis. The original sorrentino was made with ham and cheese and, Higa writes, big enough to require three or four bites. The dish became so popular in Mar del Plata that the restaurant’s patriarch, Don Chiche, attempted (and failed) to patent the recipe in Buenos Aires. 

Sorrentinos in a bowl
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Today, sorrentinos are found in restaurants and pasta shops all over the country. Amongst all the types of stuffed pasta, they feel the most emblematic, not just because they were invented here but because their size mimics the Argentine habit of eating with the eyes almost as much as the taste buds. 

“Our food is defined by its abundance,” says Rosario Ranieri, the third-generation owner of Spiagge di Napoli, an Italian restaurant that has been a fixture of Buenos Aires’ Boedo neighborhood since 1926. Spiagge is known for its pasta, like hand-rolled fussiles al fierrito, a noodle that is spun around a thin rod to create a hollowed, corkscrew shape and finished off in a salsa that combines pesto, red sauce, cream, and slices of baked ham. Customers can order them by the kilo to share. 

Spiagge makes their sorrentinos with ham and cheese topped with the diners’ choice of salsa; the filling was stacked so high that they looked like upside-down espresso cups.

Exercises in Abundance

I started my initial trials by focusing on the dough. Many restaurants finish sorrentinos in a metal tray in the oven, smothering them in sauce and cheese that melts until it's bubbly and brown—it’s fantastic. Yet the traditional Argentinian dough made with all-purpose flour, eggs, and water doesn’t take full advantage of the finishing technique. The dough softens considerably and takes on a pillowy texture that I more readily associate with a varenyky than a slightly al-dente pasta. I wanted something stronger that would withstand an extra few minutes in the oven without creating a texture that is nearly indecipherable from its creamy, cheesy interior. So I turned to semolina. 

Benedetti shared her recipe with me. It calls for 20 egg yolks for every kilo of semolina, resulting in a hard dough that requires no kneading, but instead a long resting time and extra folding and rolling. 

Dough before being miced
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

After testing dough-resting intervals of 30, 60, and 90 minutes, I found that somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes was sufficient time to properly hydrate the semolina for a workable dough. The dough that rested for 30 minutes was stiff, grainy, and broke apart easily in the pasta maker, which I was ultimately able to correct during the rolling process but not without considerable patience. Doughs that rested for 60 minutes and beyond were easier to roll out and made for relaxed, workable doughs from the start.

This dough also needs to be folded over itself and fed through the largest setting of the pasta maker over and over again, the first few times dusting the dough with semolina to prevent sticking. The process creates soft, silky dough without sacrificing sturdiness.

As per Trinidad’s suggestion, I folded and rolled out my semolina dough a total of 12 times. With each turn through the pasta maker, the dough felt less stiff in my hands. After a final 30-minute rest, the dough was silky smooth and light yellow in color, and sturdy enough to be punched out with a round cutter to be stuffed with a generous amount of filling.

Choosing the Right Filling

I started by testing out the original filling: baked deli ham and mozzarella cheese in near equal parts. The combination was familiar and nostalgic but it felt like too simple of a payoff for a dough that required so much work. In my second trial, I stayed literal: baked ham, pancetta, mozzarella, and tybo, an Argentine block cheese similar to a Monterey Jack. The filling was tasty but I still felt like it didn’t merit the work of making them from scratch. 

Then I remembered something that Rosario told me: “The salsa you put on top of the pasta is just as important, if not more, than the pasta itself.”

Rosario was referring to noodles with no filling, and was in no way encouraging me to stray too far from the accepted norms within the sorrentino canon, but I pretended that was exactly the wisdom she was imparting. I wondered: Could I create a totally novel filling that referenced the textures and flavors of the original ham and cheese, but with more of an unexpected wow factor?

Overhead view of filling cooking
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

My mind shifted to vegetarian options, first the usual suspects—eggplant, tofu, tempeh—before settling on king oyster mushrooms. Their bulbous shape, comparatively low moisture levels, and ability to take on a deep flavor and a luxurious texture that is both meaty and silky  was exactly what I was looking for. Choosing the correct aromatics and spices to season the mushroom was essential to mimicking the lightness of the baked ham and the smoke of the pancetta: Fresh sage, thyme, and rosemary combined with crushed red pepper and nutmeg were key. Chopped leeks softened over low heat rounded out the butteriness that pork adds and mushrooms lack. 

My intention was to mimic the fatty, savory flavor profile and the bite of the baked ham, and the mushroom mix checked off both boxes.

For the sauce, I took Rosario’s advice more literally and went with tradition. According to orthodoxy, ham and cheese sorrentinos should be served with salsa rosa, a simple mixture of cream, roma tomatoes, rosemary, and garlic. The sauce was important: it grounded the experiment with nostalgic familiarity.

I know that Don Chiche would not approve. Lucky for me, he never got that patent.

For the Pasta Dough: In a large bowl, combine semolina and salt. Form a well in the center about 4 inches wide. Pour egg yolks into well and, using a fork, beat thoroughly, then gradually begin incorporating the semolina into the eggs until a moist crumble forms. Gradually add water while using your hands to combine until a uniform, soft dough is formed. Wrap in plastic and let rest at room temperature for 1 hour 30 minutes.

Four image collage of dough being formed
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Unwrap dough and set on a semolina-floured work surface. Using a semolina-floured rolling pin, flatten dough into an oblong shape about 1/2 inch thick. Set pasta maker to widest setting and pass dough through. Place the sheet of dough on a lightly floured work surface. Fold both ends in so that they meet at the center of the dough, and then fold the dough in half where the end points meet, trying not to incorporate too much air into the folds. Using the rolling pin, flatten dough to 1/2 inch thick. Pass the dough through the pasta rollers at the widest setting, then repeat the process 12 more times, dusting with semolina, as necessary—after roughly 6 passes through the rollers, dusting with more semolina will not be necessary.

Two image collage of dough before and after going through a pasta roller
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Narrow the setting by 1 notch and pass dough through, then run it through again. Continue passing the dough through the rollers, reducing the thickness by 1 setting each time until the pasta sheet is about 1mm thick (this is the third-to-last setting on many pasta rollers, but may not be the same on all). The dough should be elastic and slightly translucent but durable. Transfer dough to a large zipper-lock bag, gently folding to fit, and let rest 30 minutes.

Overhead view of dough rolled into a thinner piece
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Remove dough from bag, unfold, and cut in half. Return one dough sheet to zipper-lock bag. Spread other dough sheet on a clean work surface, and, using a 3.5-inch round cookie cutter, cut out as many dough rounds as possible. Repeat with other sheet of dough. Transfer pasta rounds to zipper-lock bag to prevent from drying and set aside. (You should have 24 rounds of pasta; if you don't, if you don't, re-roll dough scraps and cut more circles.)

Dough cut into circles
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

For the Filling: While the dough is resting in Step 1, make the filling. Combine king oyster mushrooms, olive oil, sesame oil, thyme, sage, rosemary, and Spanish paprika in a medium mixing bowl and, using your hands, toss until evenly coated. Cover and let stand 20 minutes.

Overhead view of king oyster mushrooms in a borl
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Heat a 12-inch cast iron or stainless-steel skillet over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add mushrooms and their marinade along with a large pinch of salt and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until moisture has evaporated and mushrooms are deeply browned, about 12 minutes.

Overhead view of mushrooms in pan
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Stir in leeks along with a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are translucent, about 8 minutes. Transfer mushrooms and leeks to a large bowl and stir in mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, and nutmeg. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Overhead view of leeks cooking down with mushrooms
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

For the Sauce: In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil and garlic over medium heat, stirring constantly, until very lightly golden, about 30 seconds. Add rosemary and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tomato passata, increase heat to medium-high, and bring mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomato sauce has reduced and thickened into a chunky salsa, about 20 minutes. Stir in cream, bring to a gentle simmer, then turn off heat. Discard rosemary sprigs and set sauce aside.

Two image collage of sauce being made
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

To Form and Cook: Dust a rimmed baking sheet with a thin coating of semolina flour and set aside. Form filling mixture into roughly 2-tablespoon balls (slightly larger than a golf ball), then press into a puck shape. Transfer filling pucks to a separate baking sheet or platter.

Overhead view of filling pucks
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Arrange 12 pasta rounds on a clean work surface. Set a filling puck in the center of each round. Using a finger moistened with water, very lightly wet the edge of each pasta round, then top with the remaining pasta rounds. Slowly working your way around each sorrentino, press and stretch the top dough rounds to make the edges meet with bottom dough rounds. Press down gently on each filling to remove air bubbles, then press edges to seal. Place on floured baking sheet.

Four image collage of folding sorrentinos
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Spoon 1/2 cup of sauce into a large casserole dish, spreading in an even layer.

Casserole dish lined with sauce
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Add sorrentinos to boiling water, stirring gently with a slotted spoon to prevent sticking. Cook until sorrentinos float to the surface, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Using the slotted spoon, transfer sorrentinos to casserole dish, then spoon remaining sauce on top. Bake until sauce reduces slightly and begins to brown around the edges, 10-20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Four image collage of boiling, placing in casserole dish, and baking sorrentinos
Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Special Equipment

Kitchen scale, rolling pin, pasta roller, 3.5-inch round cookie cutter

Make-Ahead and Storage

Sorrentinos freeze well. Lightly dust a tray with semolina or flour, add sorrentinos being sure that they are not touching one another, and freeze. Once frozen, transfer to a zipper-lock bag, pressing out air as you seal, and return to freezer.

Albondigas de Ricota (Argentina Ricotta Balls)

Breaded, heavily seasoned cheese balls make the perfect cheesy vehicle for thick, garlicky red sauce.

Overhead view of albondigas de ricotta on a blue background
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

The first time I ate an albondiga de ricotta it was an accident. My dinner partner and I were at our neighborhood bodegón, Albamonte, a sixty year-old, Italo-Hispano restaurant in the middle of Buenos Aires. We’d already made it halfway through a bottle of wine when the waiter approached the table to announce that the kitchen had run out of lasagna. We needed to order something else. The waiter planted himself firmly at the head of the table and stared blankly into the dining room whilst listing off every single dish on the menu over the din of the full house. A world of different pastas, sauces, appetizers, breaded meats, shellfish, and pizzas blended into one another, neither of us sure where the name of one dish ended and the next began. I heard ‘albondigas’ and ‘ricotta,’ yelped ‘¡ese!’ and felt the knot in my stomach dissolve as the waiter traipsed back to the kitchen. 

“I’m sorry. I let the pressure get the best of me,” I told Evy. “I don’t even like ricotta very much.”

We assumed we were ordering albondigas con ricotta, not thinking through the important difference between the Spanish prepositions ‘con’ and ‘de’: meatballs with (con) ricotta versus balls made from (de) ricotta. Meatballs are a common dish across Buenos Aires’ traditional restaurant scene; places that lean more towards Spanish roots spoon them over rice while the Italians serve them smothered in red sauce. 

Side angle view of a cut open ricotta ball in red sauce
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

The waiter quickly returned with a metal dish that looked like the latter: A trio of breaded balls and a bubbling tomato sauce. Sans ricotta. 

“Wait, but?” Evy started. Before she could finish her sentence, the waiter had already disappeared. 

We dug in and realized our error when our forks offered little resistance to reveal a fluffy, eggshell white interior. The meatball is the ricotta, we laughed. It was divine: soft, flavored with specks of herbs and nutmeg, and the perfect vehicle to shovel a thick, garlicky red sauce onto our taste buds. We finished right as our waiter returned with our next plate. 

I had a lot of questions: Where was this dish from? Why had I never seen it before? What do they use to bind the ricotta? Are the breadcrumbs and ricotta seasoned with the same spices? I could’ve continued but the waiter shrugged his shoulders, told us, "Yeah, they’re really good," and moved to the next table.

Side angle view of the albondigas de ricottas on a blue background
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

After a bland first attempt at home, it was abundantly clear that ricotta is similar to tempeh or tofu: It’s an ingredient that offers texture more than flavor. I had to overwhelm it with loud herbs and spices, and top it with an equally boisterous sauce. I called María Antonieta Brignardello, a third-generation pasta maker and owner of vegan pasta business Potoca. She recommended that I start with the holy trinity of abuela-style Argentine cooking: nutmeg, white pepper, and paprika. Potoca also serves their pasta with nutritional yeast flavored with different herbs—it was an idea that inspired me to add a second cheese to mine, one with a saltier flavor that the ricotta lacks. 

I tried a variety of cheeses to see which I liked best. I knew I didn’t want a fresh or soft cheese that would melt down and fall apart once it hit the heat. It needed to stay firm and hold the texture of a meatball. Pecorino Romano, with its high melting point, offered the right sharp cheese flavor without breaking down and sacrificing the balls' structure. To complete my flavor-boosting mission, I accented the ricotta mixture with fresh parsley, lemon zest, lemon juice.

The original dish was served with a simple red sauce but to continue to kick up flavors, I decided to serve mine with a putanesca-like sauce, thick with tomato, chunky black olives, and capers. The final result wasn’t a mirror image of that very first bite back at Albamonte, but it had the surprise delicious factor all the same.

For the Tomato Sauce: In a 5-quart Dutch oven, combine olive oil and garlic and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until garlic just begins to turn very lightly golden. Stir in olives and capers and cook until just heated through, about 45 seconds.

Overhead view of black olives cooking in dutch oven
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Stir in canned tomatoes and their juices, thyme, oregano, and white pepper. Using a wooden spoon, break up tomatoes until large chunks. Season lightly with salt, then bring to a simmer, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring often, until sauce has darkened and thickened to a chunky texture, about 45 minutes. Transfer sauce to a heatproof container and set aside. Wash and dry Dutch oven.

Four image collage of adding tomatoes and spices, stirring, boiling and removing sauce from dutch oven
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Meanwhile, for the Ricotta Balls: In a large mixing bowl, combine ricotta, Pecorino Romano, half the parsley, lemon juice and zest, 1 teaspoon white pepper, and nutmeg, and stir until thoroughly combined. Season generously with salt. Add flour, and, using a clean hand, knead into ricotta mixture until a moist but not sticky ball forms; mix in more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, if necessary. Let stand 5 minutes.

Overhead view of Ricotta mixture
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

In a small mixing bowl, stir together breadcrumbs with remaining parsley, remaining 1/2 teaspoon white pepper, and a large pinch of salt. Place beaten egg in a second small bowl.

Overhead view of bowl of eggs and bowl of breadcrumbs
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Using lightly moistened hands, roll ricotta mixture into golf ball–size balls (about 50g each). Transfer balls to a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate for 10 minutes.

Two image collage of a hand rolling a ricotta ball and a tray of ricotta balls
Serious Eats /Vicky Wasik

Hold a ricotta ball in your left hand and gently roll it in the beaten egg to coat. Lift ball, allowing excess egg to drip off, then gently set in breadcrumb mixture. Using your right hand, gently roll the ball in the breadcrumb mixture to evenly coat; you may need to lightly press breadcrumbs into ricotta ball to ensure they adhere. Return to parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining ricotta balls.

Four image collage of dipping ricotta ball into egg then breadcrumbs then placing on a baking sheet
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

In a 5-quart Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering (a ricotta ball should being to lightly sizzle when lowered into it). Working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the pot, fry ricotta balls, rotating every 1 to 2 minutes, until evenly browned all over, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spatula, transfer fried ricotta balls to a paper towel–lined tray.

Two image collage of ricotta balls frying in oil
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Add sauce to olive oil in Dutch oven, stirring to combine. Bring to a simmer, then gently nestle fried ricotta balls into sauce, shaking pan gently to coat balls in sauce. Simmer gently until ricotta balls are heated through and their fried coating has absorbed some of the sauce, about 10 minutes. Coat evenly with Parmigiano-Reggiano, allow to melt slightly in the heat, then serve.

Four image collage of sauce, ricotta balls being added, pot being shaken, and cheese being added.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

All Hail the Buenos Aires Bodegón

A reflection of the massive waves of immigrants that arrived in Argentina at the turn of the 19th century, these Italo-Hispano restaurants are brimming with character.

Overhead view of a messy table at Miramar
The house recommends snails in a tomato-rich broth.Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

“What’s the name of the woman that comes to sing tango?” I ask. Oscar González’s eyebrows come together in the middle of his forehead as he stares pensively at the scene in the crowded restaurant, rolling through a mental rolodex of different characters. He's been waiting tables for the last 18 years at Miramar, a bodegón in Buenos Aires’ historic San Cristóbal neighborhood.

“Her name is Ana,” he responds. But before he can launch into an anecdote, Ana slinks into the dining room from a side entrance and immediately begins belting out a tango ballad: "Anoche, de nuevo te vieron mis ojos/anoche, de nuevo te tuve a mi lado" ("Last night, my eyes saw you again/Last night, I was back by your side.") 

It’s 3 o'clock on a chilly Tuesday afternoon and the packed lunch crowd’s loud murmur subsides to near silence in an instant. It’s been a year since my last visit here—I prefer to save my cross-town pilgrimages to this restaurant for the winter to tuck into a bowl of oxtail stew or mussels provenzal. Ana’s song fills the room, accompanied at times by a loud gush of air emitted by the espresso machine and noise of traffic on the avenue outside, and then it’s over; people applaud, pull a few bills from their wallets to deposit into Ana’s hat, and promptly return to their meals. The white noise of table chatter and silverware clanging against ceramic plates returns, and Ana disappears back into the crowded street. 

Outside view of Miramar
Miramar has been a neighborhood staple and choice spot for artists, writers, and tango singers since 1950.Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

“This place is hard to describe,” says Oscar. “It’s magic. Lots of new restaurants try to imitate bodegones like this, but you can’t create history out of nothing.” 

Bodegones are Italo-Hispano restaurants that became popular in Buenos Aires beginning around the 1930s and remain ubiquitous across the city. They serve as a reflection of the massive waves of immigrants that arrived in Argentina at the turn of the 19th century from all across Europe, particularly Italy and Spain, which played an essential role in building the country’s capital out of a dusty provincial city of the old Spanish colony. Open a menu and you’ll see the mark of these immigrants: There’s always a Spanish-esque tortilla served well-done or extra runny, Italian-ish fresh pastas that splatter sauce everywhere, and one or two hidden dishes brought over from the old country by the original owner that make each restaurant its own unique universe.

By the 1960s, European immigration all but stopped, and the construction of restaurants like Miramar slowly petered out. They are relics of another time, as a brief glance at the vast majority of their customers would confirm. Although an older crowd isn’t the entirety of their customer base, it’s certainly their most loyal.

Aside from the style of the cuisine, bodegones all treat their customers the same, and there are only two kinds of customers: You're either a loyal patron that’s been coming for decades or a random diner who's walked in off the street. The owner of a popular Italian cantina (who preferred not to be named for this article) once summed up the attitude of the bodegón like this: "We give the service we are required to—nothing more and nothing less. We’re here to make good food and take it from the kitchen to your table. Some people get annoyed that we don’t hang around and chat or cater to them." 

Her assessment, however, is a bit overexaggerated. Going to a bodegón for the first time is like a first visit with the in-laws: everyone is cordial, and the vibe is homey and may even be warm. But if you want to be treated like family, you have to keep showing up. Once you prove that you’re in it for the long run, you’re in. 

“A lot of my good friends started as customers,” explains Oscar shortly after Ana disappears. “There's a customer that lets me use his beach house in the summer. I take my daughters. He could charge a lot for that but won't charge me.”

Oscar excuses himself to grab an order from the kitchen. Before he could get there, he’s intercepted by a table of four older men. “How are you?” one yells. “We’ve been waiting all afternoon to talk to you.” 

Miramar opened in 1948. Prior to that, it was a hat shop that counted acclaimed tango singer Carlos Gardel amongst its most loyal customers. For nearly five decades, Miramar originally functioned as a rotisería, a neighborhood take-out spot that served homey Italo-Hispano dishes. The first head chef, Cabaleiro, worked the kitchen well into his 80s; today, his protégé, Richard Llanos, continues making the same exact dishes, but to dine-in. 

A tortilla Española prepared with dry chorizo and served babé, or extra yolky
A tortilla Española prepared with dry chorizo and served babé, or extra yolky.Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

In the early aughts, Miramar expanded from a take-out joint into a full-blown bodegón, known around the city for its Galician cuisine. On the wall, signs encourage you to PIDA CARACOLES ("Order the Snails'') or emphatically announce RABO DE TORO: ESPECIALIDAD DE LA CASA ("Oxtail: The House Specialty"). This time around, I order the snails. While I sip on a Mendozan Chardonnay with whiffs of lemongrass, I tease the snails out of their shell with a toothpick, each erupting along with squirts of a tomato and wine broth that leave gray and red spots on a pressed white tablecloth already dirtied with breadcrumbs. The bodegón is an elegant mess—if you haven’t stained the tablecloth, did you even have a good meal? 

I’ve always been fascinated by places like this, and not just because of the communities they cultivate, nor the aura of nostalgia they provide in the form of pressed tablecloths, wood paneled walls, and posters of the old country. The headline of a framed restaurant review hanging on a dark wooden column at Miramar reads, "The Way Our Grandparents Ate.” While that phrase gets thrown around a lot when people talk about bodegones, as if this food belongs to some long-lost generation, I disagree. Bodegones fascinate me because the food they serve isn’t stuck in time; it transcends it. No matter how much the city grows and food culture expands, you can always find yourself a seat at a bodegón—your bodegón—and the food is always there, just as you remember it. This isn’t the food of los abuelos, or grandparents; it’s the food of the people of Buenos Aires—los Porteños. 

That nostalgia does a disservice to bodegones and their food, much as the description of Buenos Aires as a European city in South America—repeated by both foreigners and locals alike—flattens the city's character, as if Paris was copied and pasted onto the beaches of the Río de la Plata. Neither recognizes the confluence of immigrants from across the globe, nor the way that multi-generation Porteños have blended and created a culture that's unique.

“Immigrants arrived from around the world and had to communicate in broken Spanish peppered with words from their homeland,” explains Mariana Radisic Koliren, owner of the sustainable travel company Lunfarda Trave, named after the country’s characteristic slang. “Those words became the base for our slang, Lunfardo, the intersection and meeting point for the diversity of Argentina. European languages merged with words from Indigenous and African origins. Lunfardo became the living testament of the mosaic of cultures that Buenos Aires became in the late 1800s.”

Lunfardo and the bodegón are both forms of communication and reaffirmation—the former, an outward expression of belonging to the idiosyncrasies of this specific place; the latter, the ingestion of our city between bites of bread and sips of wine, a Eucharist that also includes a giant plate of noodles doused in red sauce. 

Any thick, leather-bound menu you open at a bodegón will leave you confronted with a culinary dialect, a language both familiar and foreign that one must practice in order to become fluent. Anybody can tell you the difference between a pesto and bolognesa; only the most studious have a breadth of pasta sauce knowledge to choose between puttanesca, Parisienne, scarparo, rosa, fileto, or principe di Napoli. What are sardines de vigo? And how are sea bass a la Vasca, a la Veneciana, and a la Lyonessa different? Why are milanesas denoted by geography? Would you like one a la Napolitana, Suiza, or Maryland (topped with tomato sauce, ham and cheese; served with a mustard-induced cream and cheese sauce; or accompanied with a fried banana and creamed corn, respectively). Obviously, everybody knows that the latter is only made with chicken—at Don Ignacio, a dive dedicated exclusively to beef milanesas (32 of them), they looked at me cock-eyed when I asked about the absence of the Maryland, as if beef was the odd ingredient. 

Vertical view of dishes on a counter with a meta slicer behind and sausages hanging from the ceiling
Menu staples nod to the bodegón's Spanish roots: oxtail, snails, and tortilla Españolas.Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

“Be careful about calling this food European,” warns historian and food scholar Carina Perticone. “They may have European roots, but we have modified them so much that there is only a trace of European-ness left. There are plenty of dishes that appear European but are completely unique to here. These foods are American, they’re Argentine-American, they’re Rioplatenses.” 

I thought of my go-to neighborhood bodegón, the German-owned Gambrinus. I often have a hard time deciding between a matambre a la pizza—a tough cut of meat that translates to “kill hunger," which was given to butchers after a long day's work, and is today served with tomato sauce and cheese on top—or pork stewed in a sticky plum sauce (French? Umbrian? Romanian? None of the above?) served with creamy mashed potatoes, or gnocchis piled with a thick, paprika-heavy goulash. 


————————————


It is just past 11 p.m. on a cold Thursday night and I’m sitting at a table in the back corner of Bar Norte, a bodegón that has been popular in Buenos Aires’ tribunal district since it was opened by a group of Spanish immigrants in 1975. By day, it’s sparsely filled with suits and ties; by night, it has the same suits with loosened ties—with bottles of Coke swapped out for bottles of wine—alongside neighborhood patrons, and couples and friends who are making their way in or out of one of the two theaters that sit on the other side of the plaza. 

The place is packed. I’m squeezed into a chair that’s been jammed between the table and an armoire that houses bottles of salad dressing, stacks of folded tablecloths, and silverware that lets off a loud, metallic echo each time a new table is set. When the crew of middle-aged waiters aren’t reaching behind my head for a wine glass, they’re rushing past me with plates stacked like towers: ñoquis topped with maroon-red stewed beef estofado and milanesas that droop over either end of their plates; tortillas Españolas that sit in a shallow mote of runny yolk, and long strings of spaghetti that wait to be mixed with one of the 26 salsas on the menu, which gives clear notice that “the SAUCES are charged separately.” 

Overhead view of a messy table at Miramar
The house recommends snails in a tomato-rich broth.Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

“You’ve been here before, right?” asks the waiter. I had—four times, to be exact. On each occasion, I was waited on by this same older man, except for the time that I sat at the table adjacent to him while he took his lunch break; me with a tenderloin and mushroom sauce with noisette potatoes, him with a grilled fish and salad. 

His question catches me off guard. Not because of the boisterous scene in front of me but because it feels like the start of an initiation. He introduces himself as Pancho, and I can’t help but feel excited; a level up, the beginning of my initiation as a regular. “Yeah, I’ve been here a few times,” I reply with my best feigned nonchalance, and extend my hand. “I’m Kevin.”

Costillas a la Riojana (Argentine Pork Chops With Fried Eggs and Vegetables)

Topped with peas, onions, bell peppers, and a fried egg. these pork chops are most often found in old-school neighborhood restaurants of Buenos Aires.

Overhead view of a plate of Costillas a la Riojana with an egg on top
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

According to the legend, late one night in the early 1960s a group of backpackers arrived unexpectedly at a hostel in Chilecito, a small town in the province of La Rioja that hugs Argentina’s central Andes. They were hungry and asked Ferrito, who was working the front desk, if there was anything for dinner. The fridge was full of disparate ingredients: A few pork chops, eggs, potatoes, leftover salsa portuguesa, Swiss chard cream sauce, and peas. He pan-fried the pork chops and eggs, mixed the sauces together, and topped everything with sautéed peas and potatoes, both oven-roasted and fried. Thus were born costillas a la riojana.

Ferrito eventually opened his own restaurant, which still stands today. He refined the dish, getting rid of the herby, tomato-based salsa portuguesa, and watched his creation spread through restaurants all across the country, changing from province to province. In nearby Santiago de Estero, white wine and paprika—a staple ingredient in the bell pepper–producing province—are used to make a thick sauce with the sautéed vegetables and the fat that runs off the pork chops. In Buenos Aires, where the dish is most often found in old-school neighborhood restaurants, pork chops are grilled and topped with sautéed pancetta, peas, onions, and bell peppers, and served with a pair of fried eggs and papas españolas, or thin rounds of baked or fried potatoes. 

Side angle of Costillas a la Riojana
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik


Here in Buenos Aires, it was never a dish that I was particularly fond of, mostly because of the exclusion of a rich sauce that would add complexity to the grilled vegetables. Plus, the pork chops run the risk of drying out on a hot grill top. And then I gave it another chance at Café Argot, a bakery and bistro that sits on a quiet corner in Buenos Aires’ Villa Santa Rita neighborhood. 

“My mother used to make costillas a la riojana when I was a kid,” says Alejo Benitez. “At the restaurant, we used a recipe by local chef Gastón Rivera as our base and I played around with the sauce using my go-to spices: black pepper, Spanish paprika, and crushed red pepper.” 

Alejo is the co-owner of Café Argot alongside his partner, baker Kenya Ama. The duo dedicates much of their menu to reviving Buenos Aires’ Hispano-Italo classics for a new generation of diners. The costillas were a solid example: juicy pork chops with a satisfying browned crust and sautéed bell peppers and onions beaten down in his white wine–and–red pepper sauce, which turned to a gravy that sank into the bed of papas españolas they were served with. 

Finished Costillas a la Riojana
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik


The menu changes frequently, and thus, I had to learn to make it at home if the experience was to be repeated. The biggest challenge was the sauce. Alejo couldn’t remember the exact proportions of wine and seasoning, so I first worked off some recipes I found from Santiago de Estero, which use similar ingredients to build the sauce. The final result was a candy-red sauce with a strong peppery taste—tart green bell peppers and sweet paprika and red bell peppers—that reminded me too much of an empanada filling.

I decided to try again with something more herby, and used oregano, thyme, and parsley, along with some freshly ground white pepper. In order to cut down on an overt bell pepper flavor, I cut extra-thin slices and did the same for the onions, in hopes that they’d melt down more and blend with the other ingredients. The long braise broke the vegetables down considerably, they turned sweet and slightly sticky, and complemented the dish's pork flavor rather than compete against it. Topped with a fried egg with yolk that spills down into gravy, it's the perfect combination of flavors to sop up with a batch of crisp baked potato slices.

Season pork chops all over with salt and set on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet for at least 40 minutes or refrigerate, uncovered, for up to 24 hours.

Overhead view of sprinkling pork chops with salt
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

In a 12-inch stainless-steel or cast iron skillet or large Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add red and green bell peppers and onion along with a large pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until softened and onions have lightly browned, about 15 minutes; lower heat if necessary to prevent excessive browning. Transfer cooked vegetables to a heatproof bowl and set aside. Clean pot or skillet.

Two image collage of overhead view of cooking peppers down in a skillet
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Pat pork chops dry with a paper towel. In the cleaned pot or skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Working in batches if necessary to not overcrowd the skillet, place pork chops in skillet and cook over medium-high heat until evenly browned on both sides, about five minutes per side. Transfer pork chops to a platter and set aside.

Two image collage of overhead view of porkchops being browned in a skillet
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Lower heat to medium and add basil, oregano, and white pepper to remaining butter in skillet and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Pour white wine into skillet and bring to a boil while scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook until raw alcohol smell has largely cooked off, then add the cooked bell peppers and onions to the skillet and simmer, stirring often, until jammy, about 20 minutes; add additional water 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time, if needed, to keep vegetables from becoming overly dry. Season with salt.

Four image collage of an overhead view of a skillet with seasonings in it, white wine added, peppers added, and peppers reduced to a jam like consistency
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Nestle pork chops in the vegetables, reduce heat to low to maintain a simmer and cook until pork chops register 130 to 140°F (54 to 60°C) on an instant-read thermometer for medium and sauce has thickened to a gravy-like consistency (add water, if needed, if the vegetables are too dry), about 10 minutes. Add frozen peas and cook until warmed through, about 5 minutes.

Two image collage of an overhead view of porkchops being nestled in peppers and then peas being added.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Serve pork chops with crispy fried eggs on top (you can serve 2 chops with one crispy fried egg per person or 1 chop each with a fried egg for 4 people).

Side angle view of a pork chop topped with an egg
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

12-inch stainless-steel or cast-iron skillet or large Dutch oven

My Journey Into Gran Chaco’s El Impenetrable

The Argentinian forest is home to an isolated community whose cuisine is intimately connected to the land’s bounty and scarcity.

Beef 'pulpa' being hung to dry under the intense summer sun to make charqui
Beef 'pulpa' being hung to dry under the intense summer sun to make charquiSerious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

“Your trip doesn’t really begin until we make our way to El Impenetrable,” Alina Ruiz said with a giggle as we walk around her farm on the outskirts of Juan José Castelli, a small city in the northeastern Argentine province of Chaco. I looked at her, dumbstruck: I had already taken a two-hour plane ride, a five-hour bus, and a private car—with an overnight layover in between—to get to her farm and restaurant. And I was still a hundred kilometers away from Paraje La Armonía, a village shrouded by dense, dry forest where Ruíz leads classes in cooking, nutrition, and hospitality. 

“Just how impenetrable could this place be?” I prodded. 

She excused herself to her kitchen to finish setting up for the night’s dinner service before I could get an answer. It was a Saturday in early February, and the sunset cast pink and yellow hues over fields of mandioca shrubs that surrounded the farm, extending as far as I could see. Ruíz had a small crowd of guests in attendance, waiting to dine on a five-course meal prepared almost exclusively with ingredients from the farm: eggs with smoky pork escabeche; lamb ravioli made with an arugula dough; sweet breads made from the fruit of indigenous chaná and carob trees; and a trio of empanadas stuffed with crisp, pan-fried goat, smoked surubí—a local river fish renowned for its fatty meatand beef jerky sautéd with sweet onion sofrito.

Graciela Cavana fills homemade empanada shells with pan-fried goat
Graciela Cavana fills homemade empanada shells with pan-fried goatSerious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

To me, it seemed like an exercise in abundance, and I said as much I struggled to sample the dessert, a tangy guava granita. “This isn’t an unusual amount of food. Chaqueños expect this,” explained Ruíz. “People eat with their eyes and don’t consider a meal without meat to be a real meal.”

Juan José Castelli sits on the southern end of the Gran Chaco, a sprawling dry forest that covers nearly 800,000 square kilometers and spreads across Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. The city is the entryway to El Impenetrable, a section of the forest known for its forboding ecosystem of tightly packed wilderness and razor sharp thorny shrubs, which is subject to suffocating summers and regular occurences of both drought and floods.

During Spanish colonization and well after Argentina’s independence, the wild acted as a natural barrier, hence the name. The colonizers were kept out and the autonomy of the indigenous hunter-gatherer Qom and Wichi communities remained intact.

Today, El Impenetrable remains largely isolated from the rest of the country. From Castelli, the small village of Paraje La Armonia is only accessible by a disheveled dirt road that must be navigated with a vehicle capable of 4-wheel drive—although quite a few locals brave it with motorcycles. During the rainy season, the estimated 60,000 people that live in the surrounding area are frequently left completely cut off, with no running water or internet access, and unstable sources for electricity.

Graciela Cavana fries goat empanadas in her outdoor kitchen
Graciela Cavana fries goat empanadas in her kitchen. Rural homes in Chaco have kitchens outside and residents cook with live fireSerious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Although indigenous communities across the nation were demolished by the Argentinian military following independence from the Spanish Crown, the far reaches of northern Argentina contain the country’s most diverse mixture of native, Criollo, and European populations. El Impenetrable is home to indigenous communities and rural Criollo families—peoples of Spanish or mixed descent whose culinary heritage is deeply tied both to ancestral knowledge and foods of the colonies, particularly livestock, dairy, and wheat.

The morning after my meal with Ruíz, we packed up a pick-up truck and drove two hours to Paraje La Armonía, where I spent a long weekend cooking traditional family meals with three local women. In rural, isolated villages like La Armonía that means hearty, pastoral dishes that are intimately connected to the bounty (or scarcity) of the surrounding land. Everything is cooked over a wood fire outdoors—smoke and embers are as crucial for imparting flavor as the ingredients themselves—including dishes that in other cuisines might be cooked on a stovetop or in the oven, like thick, rib-sticking stews made with meat butchered from free-grazing goats or cattle in a cast iron pot set over a live fire, and zapallos al rescoldo, hollowed-out pumpkins stuffed with chicken, vegetables, and fresh, homemade cheese, roasted over burning embers. For refreshment, you might be served cups of aloja, a drink made with fermented carob pods, typically enjoyed with bite-sized empanadas filled with tender, re-hydrated beef jerky heavily seasoned with white pepper and chives picked fresh from the garden.

Zulma Argañaraz, a cook and longtime resident of La Armonía, hopes to build a small restaurant for travelers on the side of her home. The village sits at the entrance of a new national park, and she hopes to build a business with her daughters and the help of Rewilding Argentina, the foundation that runs the park. With Ruíz as her teacher, she is learning to select and toast carob pods to grind into flour for breads, pastries and drinks—mixed into hot milk or water, it tastes vaguely of vanilla and warm chocolate.

Charqui empanadas ready to be popped into the oven
Charqui empanadas ready to be popped into the ovenSerious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

But her specialty is empanadas. More specifically, her specialty is empanadas de carne al cuchillo: Small cubes of tough meat cut from the round, or hind leg, stewed until tender with tomato sauce, parsley, paprika, and nearly three times the meat's weight of slowly sautéed onion, stuffed into a lard and flour pastry shell and baked. To cook a dozen, rather than build a fire for her clay oven, she grabbed a metal trash can with the bottom sliced off and a grill fitted to it on the inside and placed it on top of a few bricks. She then shoveled hot embers from a fire pit underneath the can, placed the rimmed baking pan with the empanadas on the grill, and then finally put a sheet of metal on top to seal the can and then shoveled more embers on top.

“The oven would cook the empanadas really fast but I’m not going to waste that much wood for two dozen empanadas,” Zulma said, and while using the trash can was evidence of the pragmatism that confines the cuisine of this region, the technique also produced one of the most surprising empanadas I’ve ever eaten: the smoke embedded itself into the empanada dough like a pork shoulder cooked in a barrel smoker all day long.

Down the road, Graciela Cavana and Jorge Luna live on a sprawling property with five of their ten children and a grandchild. Their home is surrounded by the omnipresent monte, the untamed wilderness where cows, hogs, goats, and horses roam freely. The terrain makes it difficult to maintain even the smallest of gardens, so livestock that grazes in the wild make up the bulk of every meal.

Jorge Luna carries a freshly butchered goat
Jorge Luna carries a freshly butchered goat. A small goat will feed the family of 8Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

While Cavana built a fire, Luna butchered a chivito, or kid goat. One feeds the entire family: the shanks are stewed and served with starchy rice and potatoes; the central rack is butterflied and grilled until the skin turns golden and crisp; the tenderloin is cut into cubes and pan-fried before being stuffed into lard-injected empanada discs. This would be our menu for the day, Cavana explained, and I was reminded of the abundance of food I had eaten in Castelli a few nights prior. But here in La Armonía, the generosity was punctuated by the fact that this food was the product of resilience—of respecting and caring for one’s land, no matter how harsh it is in return; of honing the skill and wisdom it takes to feed a family on fresh, local ingredients, no matter how sparse they are.

“We are pretty self-sufficient. Except in times of drought, we live mostly off of our land,” Cavana explained. Nothing goes to waste, and that's evident everywhere you look. In the distance, animal skins baked into leather under the intense sun: Essential clothing to search for livestock amongst shrubs with thorns that are as long as an index finger. Even the fire she used to make our meal was built using fallen trees or invasive species that asphyxiate the soil.

Jorge Luna carves goat to cook on the parrilla
Jorge Luna carves goat to cook on the parrillaSerious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

In the shade, Luna finished quartering the kid meat and set the skull aside. “The next time you come, we’ll eat soup and barbecued goat head.”

And all I could think was that I would gladly take another plane, bus, and car ride for the occasion.