by Varud Gupta
Walking into an Argentinian grill, or parilla, might at first overwhelm the senses — the sight of succulent meats being passed around a table, the smell of vegetables caramelizing over coals, and the sounds of wine glasses clinking together for a “Salud!”
Argentina is famous around the world for its quality of meat. Free-range animals on large, fertile grasslands led to a gaucho(cowboy)-driven lifestyle. As the expertise of gauchos increased over the years, so did the variety of meats. Beef takes the center stage at Argentinian barbecues, but at any parilla, there might be upwards of 30 cuts of meat. Here are the highlights:
When it comes to beef, there are two different types of cuts: prime and grill. In a parilla, both cuts will be cooked over coals, but prime cuts are typically cooked more quickly and over higher heat, while grill cuts are cooked low and slow. Thus, prime cuts are closer to a typical steak with a medium-rare inside possible, while the grill cuts are well-done. However, because of the duration of cooking time, grill cuts remain tender and delicious.
Bife ancho is one of the most popular prime cuts known for its blend of tenderness and flavor. The best way to experience it is quickly seared to medium-rare.
Similar to: ribeye, rib roast
Ojo de Bife Ancho
Some restaurants will offer ojo de bife ancho, a very specific cut of bife ancho that is one of my personal favorite prime cuts. Ojo de bife ancho has the perfect blend of meat and fat, which barbecue experts and newcomers alike enjoy.
Similar to: ribeye
Bife Angosto or Bife Chorizo
In most cases, angosto and chorizo are used interchangably, but if we want to try to be specific, angosto is most likely a Porterhouse or strip steak, while a chorizo is generally sirloin rump. These prime cuts deserve your respect.
Similar to: New York strip, strip loin, sirloin
Lomo is one of the most expensive and prized cuts, known for its tender texture and juiciness; however, I find its tenderness comes at a great loss of flavor.
Similar to: tenderloin
Asado or Costillar
Asado is a bit confusing because it is both a cut of meat and the name of an Argentinian barbecue. In this case, we are referring to the rib section of the cow. Many believe that “you can’t have an asado without asado.” This is one of the most common cuts to cook whole, tied to a metal cross and grilled slowly near the fire.
Similar to: ribs, rib cage, short and spare ribs
Tira de Asado
Tira de asado is a particular cut within the Asado or Costillar family. It is my absolute favorite cut — the flavor that comes across in the tira de asado is phenomenal and makes up for any extra chewiness that this cut usually has. It is a cut that you have to get down and dirty with in order to nibble on all the tasty bits around the bone, so maybe don’t go for it on a first date.
Similar to: short ribs, cross-cut chuck ribs
Vacio is a cut not seen much outside of the Argentinian grill, but is THE cut for asados when discussing grill cuts. I haven’t attended a single asado without vacio. It is known for the thick layer of fat on top that gets crispy as the cut is cooked, and its juicy underside. Vacio is a mix of muscle groups named for the “empty space” it surrounds in the stomach area.
Similar to: flank
Something that really sets an Argentinian BBQ apart from others around the world is the inclusion of achurras, or offal, as part of the meal. This stuff is delicious and should not be discounted by the wary. Offal can be part of any round of the asado, but since they are smaller and cook faster, they will usually come at the start off the meal.
Choripan isn’t necessarily offal, but it’s most easily classified as so. Choripan is the combination of two words: the first five letters of chorizo, or a typical Argentinian sausage, plus –pan, or bread. The sausage is placed between two slices of bread and loaded up with chimichurri sauce, a very popular green herb sauce, before being devoured. Choripan is a must-have of any Argentine barbecue, and is often the first thing eaten.
People swear by mollejas, and it’s easy to see why. Cooked quickly on high heat, mollejas develops a crispy outside layer but remains creamy on the inside. It might remind you of very tender chicken.
Similar to: sweetbread, thymus gland
Pork can’t hold pace with the popularity of beef, but despite its secondary position, still has many goodies to offer.
Probably the most popular cut from the pig to appear in the asado, as well as the second most popular street sandwich after choripan. Bondiola has a great balance of meatiness, fat, and tenderness.
Similar to: pork shoulder, Boston butt
The ribs of the pig, best prepared whole, and slowly. Personally, I would go for this cut over bondiola, but that could just be due to my Texan roots.
Similar to: pork ribs
Lamb is prized in Patagonia for the exact same reasons as cows up north: free-range animals that get to nibble on a variety of vegetation. The reason why cordero is so popular in the south and vacuno isn’t is due to Patagonia’s landscape: rocky, hilly, shrub-y steppes that give the lamb its unique flavor.
Cordero Patagonico or Al Asador
Simply put, if your restaurant has this available, go for it. Getting a whole lamb that has been grilled for hours should be a rite of passage for any meat-eater.
If the whole lamb isn’t available, one of the best individual sections of the lamb is the ribs, where the mix of meat-off-the bone and fat is a perfect blend of taste and texture.
Similar to: rack of ribs
Ordering Your Meat: Vocabulary
Cruda al centro = Rare
Jugosa = Medium Rare
Rosada = Medium
Bien cocida = Well Done
Varud Gupta’s life is food–eating, reading, exploring, and creating. Voted Forbes 30 Under 30 Most Clueless Individuals, in October 2015 he embarked on a culinary journey to learn about cuisines around the world. His first book documented an experiment in Recipe Development (how to create and gain inspiration for original recipes) while his most recent novel narrates the journey of leaving the US to travel to Argentina and learn about Asado, or Argentine BBQ. Follow his blog, or find him on Instagram and Twitter.