Why It's Taken So Long for Buenos Aires to Embrace the Burger

In a country obsessed with red meat, why did the Argentine capital only recently discover what the rest of the world already knew: that burgers are awesome?

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Mar 18 2016, 6:00pm

My regular butcher shop is bumping at 8:30 PM and it seems like everyone is here to hoard meat for a bovine apocalypse. One woman just bought two-dozen paper-thin slices of beef round for milanesas, and another walks out lopsided by the weight of 8 kilos of short ribs, flank steaks, and chorizo for a "small family barbecue." My number is yelled out over the traffic outside, "What'll it be, champ?" and I ask him for a mix heavy on the rump steak and light on the sirloin.

And then the moment I feared arrives: "I want you to grind it all together. Twice."

The butcher tilts his head and asks if I'm sure that's what I want. I assure him that yes, I know what I'm doing and that the meat is for hamburgers. And no, I don't want him to ground up some leftover scraps instead. Everyone around me silently but emphatically judges my request. I'm positive I was someone's dinner table fodder later that evening.

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People patiently await the arrival of burgers at Burger Joint in Buenos Aires. All photos by the author.

From the outside looking in, it would make perfect sense for Argentina to turn out some of the world's best burgers. It's a red meat obsessed population that annually consumes about 120 pounds of it per capita and proudly claims to be home to the world's best. Around here, beef is the only animal called "meat"; chicken, fish, and pork aren't considered worthy of the term. And if you grill it well (or not so well) at a friendly gathering, ritual demands an enthusiastic ovation.

"Argentines think so highly of our asado that any other way of cooking meat is seen as inferior," explains Patricio Parachu, a graphic designer who spends his free time writing about hamburger spots on his blog, The Burger Life. "Hamburgers have always been looked down upon because our only frame of reference was places like McDonalds and the junk you eat at a football match."

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On a Sunday at about 2 PM, the neon hamburger sign flashes brightly over the entrance of Burger Joint. The walls are covered in tags from three years worth of customers, Seinfeld episodes loop endlessly on a television in the corner, and a small team occupies a congested open kitchen, taking orders over the noise of a loud crowd and searing patties. People strategically stand to nab the next open table while the hungry scan the room for a coveted bottle of curry ketchup or hot sauce.

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Pierre Chacra spent eight years working in different New York City kitchens before returning to Buenos Aires to open Burger Joint in 2013. He is part of a larger local culinary revolution ignited by young Argentine chefs that worked abroad and have returned to meld their experiences for a public that is ready to experiment outside the standard pizza, parrilla, and pasta.

The difference is that while most debuted high-end modern eateries, he opened a grungy burger shop. Chacra emanates a relaxed confidence and plays down all of my attempts to paint him or his eatery as culinary messiahs.

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"I think that we arrived at just the right moment,"Chacra explains. "Porteños can be the world's greatest customers if you give them exactly what you say you will. We aren't making miracles happen. We advertise a great burger and that's what we give them."

Within a year, it was named as one of 29 new burger bars to look out for by the Huffington Post, and became an unintentional spark that ignited a local craze.

A metropolis once absent of a single decent burger is now home to dozens of restaurants that took "the joint's" lead at varying levels of success. Some take the model and mold it into something different, while others simply rest on the laurels of a bubble.

One of Argentina's newest burger joints is poised to up the standard.

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An hour outside of Buenos Aires in the small city of La Plata sits Carne, the very first restaurant that Mauro Colagreco has opened in his native Argentina. Colagreco is the only Argentine chef to hold two Michelin stars and the return to his hometown to serve burgers, fries, beer, and shakes caused an uproar.

On a Tuesday afternoon, I struggle to find a table amongst the high school students, work crowd, and a wedding party of 25 that pack into the spacious modern interior. Young cooks in skinny jeans and white tees furiously flip, add condiments, and wrap burgers for a constant crowd. Each day, they shell out over 600 burgers.

Carne stands as evidence of how quickly the movement has evolved. Ingredients are sourced directly from producers, organic products are chosendespite expense when available, and they are working directly with local dairy giant Milkaut to produce the perfect cheddar.

"Everyone keeps asking us, 'Why cook burgers?'" begins Gonzalo Benavides, lifelong friend of Colagreco and executive manager of Carne. "Either the food is good or it's not. Who cares what you make, just as long as you make it well."