South America draws many travelers for its beautiful beaches (Brazilians do wear bikinis best), challenging treks (not only the Incans can master Machu Picchu), and divine wine regions (a toast to you, Mendoza). But the entire continent also holds an equal amount of pleasures for eating enthusiasts, thanks to its wealth of cattle ranches, rich farming traditions, and abundance of world class restaurants. No matter your tastes, there are delicious itineraries waiting south of the equator. Here are three worth savoring.
For Carnivores: The Parrilla Triangle
Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil form an appetizing axis for meat-eaters, and each country excels at the parrilla, grilled meat restaurant. First stop: Montevideo, Uruguay’s Mercado Del Puerto. Once the city’s central marketplace, this sky-lit, iron-edged emporium now offers a dozen smoking parrilla restaurants. Dating back to 1868, the Mercado del Puerto fills with hungry locals daily for lunchtime, when busy asadors sear and char all manner of meats until perfectly "a punto" (medium). Though it’s hard to choose which counter to belly up to, it’s even harder to go wrong at spots like El Palenque, a favorite since 1958, which serves up jucy lomo (beef loin) brochettes. Finish the feast with the local digestif —medio y medio—half dry white wine, half sweet sparkling wine—at Roldos, which made the refreshment famous.
Next stop: Buenos Aires for a beefy stroll through the quaint, cobbled neighborhoods of Palermo or San Telmo. No matter which Parrilla Tour you opt for, participants catch a glimpse inside family-run eateries unlikely to be found otherwise. Tastes include choripan, a grilled sausage on a roll; chopped steak empanadas; and the main event, thick, juicy bife chorizo (sirloin steak), all served with generous amounts of local wine, of course.
A visit to a classic churrascaria in Sao Paolo, Brazil completes the tasty trifecta. Since 1971, Ponteio has been popular for its parade of skewered meats—20 different varieties, in fact. Waiters generously slice off all manner of meat, like lamb, beef, pork, chicken, sausage, and turkey, into heaping piles on the plate. The all-you-can-eat extravaganza also comes with a cold and hot buffet, brimming with seafood, salads, sides, and desserts.
For the Trendy: Buenos Aires’s Puerta Cerradas
The best way to break out of Argentina’s steak, pizza, and pasta rut: visit the "puerta cerradas," clandestine “closed door” restaurants that were once the city’s best kept secrets. Now a popular alternative to regular restaurant culture, these dining experiences offer flavors that venture outside of locals’ famously tame taste for spice. NOLA Buenos Aires, helmed by chef Liza Puglia, isn’t afraid to zest up her four-course meal, served inside a stylish Palermo townhouse. A New Orleans native skilled with Mexican flavors, Puglia’s diverse culinary background produces a one-of-a-kind tasting experience, expertly paired with local wine.
At The Hidden Kitchen, also in Palermo, authentic Tawainese and Chinese cuisine, rare finds in B.A., make up the menu. The BYO booze aspect allows it to be one of the more gently-priced deals behind closed doors. Reservations for all puerta cerradas are required. Guests are given the "secret" location upon booking.
For the Chef-Centric: The Continent’s Top Toques
South America is a breeding ground for some of the world’s best chefs. A tasty trot throughout the continent highlights the land’s gutsiest gourmets. Peru is home to Gaston Acurio, one of the world’s most celebrated chefs, whose empire of two dozen of restaurants spans the Americas and Europe. Acurio is responsible for La Cocina Novoandina, a new wave of South American cooking, which you can sample in Lima at his iconic Astrid y Gaston and La Mar, or in Cusco at Chicha.
In Bogota, Colombia, Leonor Espinosa is the toast of the town for her restaurants Mercado, Leo Cocina y Cava, and La Leo Cocina Mestiza. Espinosa explores the roots of Colombian cuisine, and combines her heritage with a modern twist in her cooking. Her foundation, Funleo, is devoted to the preservation of Colombia’s food traditions while highlighting sustainable practices and local production.
Credit Rodolfo Guzman with putting Santiago, Chile on the world culinary map with his innovative restaurant, Borago, which brings a decidedly avant-garde flair to a previously staid restaurant scene. Ingredients such as dehydrated shamrock soil and purple edible sea rocks are locally sourced and creatively used. Guzman’s menu is an innovative conglomeration of techniques he learned in some of Spain’s finest kitchens, such as Mugaritz; his studies in biochemistry; and inspiration from the bounty of his homeland.
Photo credits: Mercado del Puerto Uruguay courtesy of Hernan F. Rodriguez; NOLA Buenos Aires courtesy of Jocelyn Mandryk; La Leo Cocina Mestiza courtesy of La Leo Cocina Mestiza