If you feel like being a little bold in a city where culinary adventure means differing from steak, empanadas and pizza, then maybe it’s time to try something a little loco.
Though the term ‘Middle-East’ encompasses the large area from Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan, the large Armenian population in Argentina means that most of the restaurants come under this category.
This said, the menus tend to lean towards more generic Middle-Eastern cuisine, and few really differ in content, just quality.
Most offer the familiar foods of hummus, baba ganush, stuffed grape leaves, and kebabs, but there are some which offer a much wider selection and it’s a good idea to order the ‘mezze’ option if it’s on offer – then you can try a mix of dishes.
Though seriously tasty, Al-Zein in Las Cañitas has the atmosphere of a greasy spoon restaurant, which puts it in the ‘best for takeaway’ box. And I’m afraid all those belly dancing dinner shows didn’t even get a look in, however fantastic one’s navel might be. This week’s Top brings you our pick of the best middle-eastern restaurants in Buenos Aires.
Sarkis is probably one of the best-known Middle-Eastern restaurants in the city, and for a perfectly good reason. The food, atmosphere, service and price all leave customer’s bellies and pockets happy.
Managing to be incredibly Argentine and incredibly Lebanese at the same time, the setting is unpretentious and fun – but if you’re looking for somewhere dark, intimate and romantic, this might not be your cup of hummus.
As Middle-Eastern food, is about sharing, Sarkis is better to enjoy with a group of friends. The food is great value, but if you’re on a budget, the more you can share the better, especially as the portions are rather large. They have menus in English and Spanish, but just dive in and order a mixture, you’ll be hard pressed to find something not worth shouting about.
The kofta is fantastic and comes served with a humungous bowl of delicious matzdoun (thick yogurt). The falafel topped with tahini (crushed sesame sauce) and empanadas lasmayin (Turkish pancakes) also caught our attention.
My friend squealed, mouth full, that I had to put in how ”god-like” the ensalada belen was. So here it is: The ensalada belen is dios-licious.
Sarkis seats around 150 people, but it’s always full so you might want to turn up earlier, or expect to wait at busy hours. It’s a testament to how good (and big) the food was, that instead of leaving the few mouthfuls of arroz a la persa I had left on my plate, it was dutifully wrapped up, taken away, and eaten the next day.
Thames 1101, Villa Crespo. Open for lunch 12-3pm and dinner 8pm-1am. For more information call 4772-4911.
With overtly Middle-Eastern decoration, authentic music and a fortune-teller sitting in the corner, you might think El Manto could lean toward cheesy.
Surprisingly, it all adds to the atmosphere of the place, which, with its dark lighting, candles and smart tables, makes it a perfect spot to take that special someone.
El Manto is more expensive that the others but the food is great. They have a fantastic selection of foods differing from the usual hummus and tabbouleh affair (although they have these too).
The mezze starter is perfect for trying a bit of everything, and although the prices are steep, the $56 price tag could easily have bought you enough food for two people to eat as main meal.
The raw kefte (not for the faint of heart) was delicious, especially served with peas. For mains, you can go a little crazy and choose the vodka shish, or the cognac pork, which definitely came big enough to share.
The service is brilliant, attentive and the owner (who also owns Hola! Siniór kebab restaurant) happily explained the origins of the cuisine and the restaurant itself. It also has a heated terrace and seating outside, making it perfect for summer dining.
Costa Rica 5801, Palermo Hollywood. Opens for dinner during the week from 8pm until close and for lunch and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. For more information visit www.elmanto.com or call 4774-2409.
U.G.A.B Cena de Los Viernes
Located inside the Armenian cultural centre, walking into this restaurant has the feel of accidentally stumbling into an Armenian wedding – a feeling which didn’t go away throughout the entire meal.
Big tables of Armenian families immediately told me I’d found the right place. Along the side of the hall were tables of Armenian cuisine, which, instead of being a buffet for customers to help themselves, are purposefully displayed to teach notoriously picky Argentines exactly what is what on the menu. Helpful waiters are ready and standing by to explain and serve their food.
In one corner stands tables covered in an array of sticky pastries – and hats off to anyone who can walk past without an overwhelming urge to pick up a baklava (nutty pastry).
The waiters and waitresses, who looked like they might have been the owner’s children and their friends, are actually students saving to visit Armenia. At around 11pm the hall was treated to an impromptu Armenian dance off – which would have been cheesy if it wasn’t for the whole place whooping and singing along, before returning to their dinner as if dancing waiters is as normal as the sun in summer.
Armenia 1322, Palermo. Open Friday and Saturday nights, 8pm until close. Call 4773-2820/1522, or send an email for more information.
Tierra Santa Theme Park
If you’re after good and inexpensive food in a novel surrounding, this is your ticket.
Tierra Santa is a religious-themed park, where Moses, Jesus, Adam and Eve are all brought to life as one big papier-mâché family. After watching a mechanical show of genesis, a re-enactment of Jesus’ birth, and popping into the last supper, you can take your own seat at a table in one of the park’s restaurants.
Set against the backdrop of AD Israel, you couldn’t get closer to most people’s idea of ‘Middle-Eastern’ than being served your dinner by a shepherd near the Wailing Wall.
Stocked with the usual dishes of tabbouleh, hummus, kebabs and Arabian empanadas, the food at Tierra Santa is good, but it’s really more about the setting.
Go early to catch the nightly music and dance show where a woman whips her hair back and forth in the most fascinating fashion to a background of surprisingly brilliant live music. Then head on over to the park’s spectacle site to see a 60ft Jesus rise from inside a hill to raucous applause.
Entrance to the park does cost $50, so if you want to enjoy your shawarma in one of the strangest settings of your life, you’ll probably want to make a day of it.
Av. Rafael Obligado 5790, Costanera Norte. Open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Visit the park’s website for more details.
It might not be the fanciest, and it might not be the best, but this little hole in the wall just has something special about it. With a simple menu of classic Middle-Eastern/Armenian dishes – stuffed vine leaves, tabbouleh, hummus, semsek and so on, the food is delicious and incredibly cheap.
Every dish costs under $20, and a glass of wine is only $9, which the owner pours from an industrial sized bottle. So don’t go expecting a wine list because you’ll just get blank stares.
The restaurant is always busy, and full of locals – older men in sharp musty suits, groups of young scenesters, solo diners people-watching, couples on dates – all sorts of people who just can’t help but keep going back.
The Armenian couple who own, wait tables and prepare the food at Mía Casa are incredibly characterful and treat every customer to their domestic act: the wife stomps around with a grumpy face, while the husband shuffles after her beaming smiles at everyone. Once Luna the house cat has coaxed you into letting her sit on your lap, you’ll feel like part of the family.
So, our best advice for enjoying Mia Casa: leave your expectations at the door and order everything on the menu.
Cabrera 4570, Palermo. Open for dinner every day except Tuesday. Call 4777-2723 for more information.