A guide to eating your way through Latin America


My job is to cover the stock market. I do this with the mindset of a trader, something I honed while working at Bear Stearns and JPMorgan Chase & Co. As any sell sider knows, the physical act of trading is only half the job; the other half is taking care of clients and picking up the tab at dinner. Last summer, work took me to South America and Mexico, where I kept a running journal of all the hot spots recommended by clients, colleagues, and locals. 

Here's a guide to eating your way through the financial hubs of Latin America. 

Buenos Aires  

Steak spot No.1: LA CABRERA  

The age-old debate about which parrilla, or Argentine steakhouse, is the best will never die: New entrants continue to flood the scene, and locals keep romanticizing their old favorites. One name that always pops up among locals and tourists alike is La Cabrera in the neighborhood of Palermo Soho. While you wait outside for a table, you may get lucky as servers usher out platters of sausage on toothpicks and pitchers of boozy punch. Once inside this heavily decorated house of meat, expect to be enamored with not just the pièce de résistance (the bife de chorizo) but also the accompanying mélange of hot and cold side dishes such as the veggie cheese dip, a standout on any appetizer menu. lacabrera.com.ar  

Steak spot No.2: LA BRIGADA  

Two things this old-school spot in the San Telmo neighborhood does well are cook a proper piece of steak and offer a vast selection of fine wines. But it doesn't end there as the server will deliver the sizzling chop to your table and proceed to slice the tender meat with-wait for it-a spoon! The meat-centric starters are also a must, especially the spirally spaghetti strings of lamb, veal, or goat chinchulines (intestines) doused in lemon juice. parrillalabrigada.com.ar  

Steak spot No.3: LE GRILL  

The best option for steak in the beautifully rejuvenated area of Puerto Madero is Le Grill, where the clientele is heavily skewed toward the business crowd and the prices are, naturally, inflated. Splurge on the steak tasting menu, which splits up a bife cut into three aging stages: traditional, 45-day dry-aged, and 100-day dry-aged. This place also has some of the best charred mollejas (sweetbreads) in town. legrill.com.ar  

Steak spot No.4: EL OBRERO  

And now comes the far-off-the-beaten-path option for good Argentine meat. In the neighborhood of La Boca, this cash-only joint will likely be at least a half-hour drive from your hotel, and most locals would advise you to jump in a cab right after your meal, given the area's sketchiness. The décor is neighborhood Italian joint meets shrine to Argentina fútbol, with team flags and photos of Diego Maradona adorning the walls. The menu is vast, and many come here for the meat, but the secret to this place? It's the homemade pasta. No website. Located at Agustín R. Caffarena 64. 

Bogotá, Colombia  

The new spot: LOCAL BY RAUSCH  

Already a force in Colombia's food scene thanks to the popularity of their flagship Criterión, the Rausch brothers opened the latest addition to their upscale restaurant empire a year ago. Jorge Rausch, a star judge on Master Chef Colombia, sees the menu at Local as a modern take on the country's traditional food. Begin with a smattering of starters, such as the arepas with braised lamb and tucupi sauce or the yucca-and-cheese-stuffed fritters known as carimañolas. As for the mains, Jorge says the best-seller is a Posta Cartagenera, an extremely tender short rib with sweet tamarind sauce, coconut sticky rice with raisins, red plantains, and avocado mousse. hermanosrausch.com  

The must-try spot: ANDRES CARNE DE RES  

This is guaranteed to be one of the wackiest group dinner outings you'll ever experience. Tourists and locals alike head for this mazelike, multifloored destination for food and entertainment in the heart of Bogotá's upscale Zona T area. They come for the 60-plus-page menu of traditional Colombian bites, the plethora of booze options, the flash mobs of live music, the dancing that inevitably breaks out as the night progresses, and the waitstaff that changes into Halloween-style costumes for street performance acts that vary from the amusing to the downright creepy. Get the night started with a round of Bogotá Brewing Co. beers and shared plates of chorizo, chicharrones, and tostones. andrescarnederes.com  

The coffee spot: CAFE DEVOCION  

The self-proclaimed only farm-to-table coffee roaster in the world has a perfect business meetup spot on the ground floor of the Hilton in Bogotá's bustling financial district. The coffee shop aesthetically leans toward being a posh bar. Its waiters serve almost 20 varieties of high-quality coffee, and its bartenders use preparation techniques that include everything from the everyday espresso machines and French presses to cold Kyoto-style slow drippers. (If a vacation isn't in the cards anytime soon, you can visit Devoción's spacious sister location in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn to satisfy that craving for first-class java.) devocion.com 

Mexico City  

The local spot: EL CARDENAL  

This no-frills joint has been a staple in the historic center for more than 30 years and has sister locations citywide. Wait times can be 30 minutes to an hour, but they shouldn't deter visitors from trying some of the best food in all of Mexico City-which is saying a lot for one of the top foodie destinations in Latin America. The duck breast cooked in lard, the chicken in black mole sauce, and the lamb shoulder prepared barbacoa-style in maguey leaves are absolute musts. If you want to get a little loco, give the escamole (sautéed ant eggs) tacos a whirl. restauranteelcardenal.com  

The new spot: CENTRALITO 

 Located just a stone's throw from Avenida Presidente Masaryk (the Fifth Avenue of Mexico City), this one-year-old restaurant in the upscale Polanco neighborhood is a vivacious affair teeming with suits and trader vests. Upon your entry, the host may walk you by a man expertly slicing Ibérico ham and lead you to your seat next to a stunningly lighted wall of liquor and a raw bar with king crab legs protruding over the glass. In terms of vibe, picture a slightly toned-down version of New York steakhouse STK with a heavier emphasis on music from the '70s and '80s. Steaks and seafood are the crowd pleasers here. centralito.com.mx  

The hotel spot: J&G GRILL  

It would have been a mistake to miss out on what I heard was a can't-miss spot for business lunches and dinners from Michelin-starred Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Located at the luxurious St. Regis hotel in the heart of Mexico City, this place has an immaculate interior, as one would expect from a Jean-Georges establishment, along with a massive wall of wine and an enclosed patio with a view. While the glazed short ribs with apples and jalapeño purée, as well as the oversize black pepper octopus tentacle in tarragon sauce, were fantastic, my favorite part of the whole experience was the lone television in the corner that played nothing but WWE Raw- a nice touch in a country that takes its wrestling seriously. jggrillmexico.com 

São Paulo  

The drinks spot: SKYE AT HOTEL UNIQUE  

Skye is a sprawling rooftop bar and restaurant at the aptly named five-star Hotel Unique, recently rated one of the best hotels in South America by Condé Nast Traveler readers. The thumping beats of a DJ play to crowds of young finance hotshots- men in sharp suits and ladies dressed to the nines. Attractive couples perch at two-tops, knocking back caipirinhas and making their way through roll after roll of sushi. Tourists survey the panoramic views of the skyline while tiptoeing around the colorfully lighted-up pool surrounded by daybeds. Be prepared: The line for nonhotel guests can snake around the block on busy nights. hotelunique.com.br  

The steak spot: VARANDA GRILL  

Corporate-card holders swear this is the city's best steakhouse. Perhaps it's the space itself, with its woodsy interior chopped up into private dining rooms that lend themselves to intimate business meetings. Or perhaps it's the menu, which offers about 30 options of steak split into Brazilian, Argentine, American, or Kobe styles. A tasting menu of the choicest cuts is available for a minimum of two people. While I don't normally pound the table on greens, the namesake salad-prepared tableside, with gargantuan chunks of hearts of palm-is a must-order. varandagrill.com.br  

The other steak spot: BARBACOA  

A trip to São Paulo wouldn't be complete without a visit to one of the city's authentic rodízio steakhouses, where the food will make you wish for a bigger stomach and the waiters eagerly rush tableside with massive skewers of meat at the slightest hint of interest from the patrons. Barbacoa is favored by finance types; this happens to be one of six locations scattered throughout Brazil (there are eight more in Japan and even one in Italy). This meat palace has several things going for it vs. its better known and pricier competitor, Fogo de Chão, a Dallas-based chain that's seen its Nasdaq-listed shares almost cut in half since an initial public offering more than two years ago. Barbacoa's table service begins with a legion of dynamite starters; consider the mixed plate of sausage slivers and chicken hearts or the breadbasket littered with meat empanadas. The colorful salad bar works out well for the carnivores at the table, thanks to a meaty selection of carpaccio platters. 

 Pro tips: As with all rodízio steakhouses, don't fill up on the all-you-can-eat salad or the server's heavy-handed spoonfuls of side dishes; wait patiently for the best and most interesting cuts, such as the rib-eye locally known as the bife ancho and the delectable fat-marbled hump of the cow known as cupim. Have the tableside bartenders make you a caipirinha, one of the healthiest pours in town. barbacoa.com.br  

The sushi spot: OHKA  

You don't have to travel far to track down a top-notch sushi spot in São Paulo, which has the world's largest population of ethnic Japanese outside Japan. But it helps when it's located just blocks from the primo night life scene around Faria Lima, the avenue where it seems almost every major sell-side bank in Brazil is headquartered. Enter Ohka, a chic den spun off several years back by alums of the uber-popular Nagayama. The dark orange mood lighting and silky drum-and-bass backdrop make for a calm setting until the sake takes hold and the chatter from the tables starts to ramp up exponentially. Best bites are the unexpectedly spicy sea bass sashimi and an off-the-menu sensation of raw salmon and fish roe atop a fried leaf over soy- and wasabi-based sauces. If you arrive without a reservation and the place is beyond packed, try your luck at nearby Kosushi or Restaurante Kitchin, a one-year-old spot that also has ties to Nagayama. ohka.com.br 

Santiago, Chile 

The must-try spot: LAS CABRAS  

What if I told you that one of the top eateries in South America is a 1950s-style American soda fountain diner? What if I added that the chef, Juan Pablo Mellado, previously worked at El Bulli, the molecular gastronomy pioneer that received the designation of world's best restaurant a record five times? You might not believe me. But next time you're in Santiago, grab a booth at Las Cabras and order a mound of buttery salmon crudo and a house special-maybe the pork-laden lentil-and-tomato stew called Malaya Chancho & Lenteja or an oversize meat sandwich. Wash it all down with one of four beers on tap or a couple of pisco sours. Then you'll know what I mean. facebook.com/LasCabrasFuenteDeSoda  

The seafood spot: AQUI ESTA COCO  

Here in a lively part of town known as Providencia you can find several variations of sea bass preparations here, including one baked with slices of smoked salmon and cheese, though you can't go wrong with any of the fish on the menu. Don't forget the starters either, especially the seared scallops smothered in coconut sauce and served on the half shell or the unbelievably flavorful seafood broth that's completely covered by a single oversize prawn. aquiestacoco.cl  

The wine spot: BOCANARIZ  

Between quaint eateries and happening dive bars on a winding street called Lastarria you'll find a popular tapas joint that carries almost 400 Chilean wines in its underground cellar. Bocanáriz's draw is the wine tasting menu, which when served gets the full-explanation treatment from a knowledgeable team of sommeliers. That said, the tapas definitely are not second-rate, especially the melt-in-your-mouth deer tartare, the lamb-stuffed bell peppers, and the meaty seared octopus buried in a sea of black truffles. bocanariz.cl


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