Neighbourhood Watch: Almagro

La casa del queso
La casa del queso
“As Mr. Links and I left through the Italian stained glass doors of Bistró by Darío Gualtieri, my dining companion skipped down the street, more than content with his lot. I was squeezed into a taxi and driven home.”

And that is how last week’s Wining On saga ended. In fact, there’s an element of non-truth to that. What actually happened is that we pottered slowly, given my full belly, back down Billinghurst Street, one of the main drags in Almagro neighbourhood, determined to catch a bus home. But what was so attention grabbing was the number of cafés, bar and eateries strategically placed upon a three-block line. Further investigation was required, and it has led me to believe that Almagro is the perfect microcosm of Buenos Aires, if not Argentina.

The neighbourhood where El Zorzal, better known as chanteur Carlos Gardel, lived with his mother still has its fare share of dance halls. La Catedral on Sarmiento is one such venue, serving up decent pizza and litres of beer to ensure hungry dancers with an appetite don’t turn on each other.

Almagro is also home to more than its fair share of Peruvian eateries, and one of my faves is Mamani (Aguero 707), a few blocks away from Abasto shopping mall. An extensive school-hall of a place that you often have to queue for, Mamani’s speciality is fried chicken – succulent and tender, half a chicken with some chips and salad is more than ample for three – lovingly spun around the rotisserie. The décor ain’t all that, the staff are rushed off their feet, but dishes to share are abundant, and that was the juiciest chicken I’ve had in BA.

Back on Billinghurst, two blocks down from Bistró, I was lured by some shiny stars cemented into the pavement. Buenos Aires’ very own walk of fame! A whole host of unrecognisable names (to me) are laid outside Cantina Don Carlos, a bodegón. A quick peek in, its walls are also covered in tango legends of the past (and possibly future).

On reaching Corrientes, that smog-filled avenue that double up as Theatreland 20 blocks down the road, another tango haunt awaits with quite the decent teatime deal. La Aurora del tango (Corrientes 3600) comes complete with an ample stage, surprising for such an intimate venue. Dishing up pasta and other such staples, drop by for a large coffee and two pastries – a bargain at 15 pesos, with the possibility of some tango action thrown in is a good deal.

Crossing over the bustling artery, a sign catches my eye. The House of Cheese. Dodging traffic, sprint over to La casa del queso (Corrientes 3587). An Aladdin’s cave of soft and solid curdled goods, there’s a fine selection to tussle with, and there are plenty of tables to linger over a meaty and cheesy selection. With tapas coming in at 15 pesos and a picada platter for two at 115 pesos, upgrade to the tabla suprema for some choice cuts and slice. La casa also hosts a happy hour with two-for-one on the handcrafted El Bolsón beers (a favourite of mine is the honey beer), as well as offering a Patagonian tea with toast and jam for 19 pesos. A right gem.

Two doors down is BA staple, Kentucky, which offers the same fare found across the city. Although the stand-and-eat bar is more compact than in other branches, it’s 6.50 pesos for an instant hit of gooey thick crusted pizza, and service is very friendly.

Three blocks down Billinghurst and you’ll stumble across a corner of surprises. Notable café El banderín (Guardia Vieja 3601) is definitely worth stopping by, a cacophony of wood and football memorabilia, with more than 400 banderines or pennants, adoring the walls. This bar really comes alive in the evening, with tables spilling around the cross-over streets of Billinghurst and Guardia Vieja, filled with young beer drinkers and elderly regulars who probably haven’t missed a coffee there since it opened in 1929.

Diagonally opposite is Guarda la vieja (Billinghurst 699), a buzzy bar and café that sports an enormous mural of a boot inside. Open from early evening until late, this corner spot draws a hipper crowd in search of a well-priced cold beer and friendly chat, which fortuantely comes for free.

The last two recommendations reflect recipes made by recent migrants to Argentina, and deal with Peru and Russia. Ermak (Billinghurst 815) is run by Ukranian siblings, so the menu is totally authentic, and it’s one of two Russian-Ukranian spots in BA (El molino dorado is also located in Almagro). If you’ve been craving potato varenikes (stuffed dumplings), this is the place. Those with a penchant for Russian folk music will thrill at the live performance, while others may run for the hills.

Meanwhile, Peru’s offering on Billinghurst is El principe (Lavalle 3502). Peruvian lunches are always a great offer and this isn’t a letdown. A starter, main and a drink come in at just 25 pesos, a ridiculous price in the current climate, so do drop by for chicken soup and a filling rice dish.

However, one neighbourhood revelation is La granja converso (Lavalle 3501). This old-fashioned deli deals in “unconventional meat” such as venison and rabbit, while giving a fancy twist to the Argentine staple milanesa by crumbing up llama and sweetbreads. If something “unusual is your requirement, do check out their website because they have quite the up-to-date list on what’s in stock for when you’re at a loss as to where to purchase an alligator (yacaré) steak.

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