Southeast Asia has infiltrated the culinary world over the last 30 years, with countless restaurants opening up in cities across the globe. The regional cuisine is most often associated with Thai and Vietnamese food, but also takes in influences from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei, Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore.
Buenos Aires has come a long way gastronomically since the days of pizza, pasta or parrilla. You still won’t stumble across a Burmese bar or a Malaysian mainstay, but, in the last few years, tens of Southeast Asian eateries have popped up in various parts of the city with some of the real success stories featured below.
From Bangkok to Belgrano and Malaysia to Martínez, the Indy picks out the best Southeast Asian cuisine that Buenos Aires (and its surroundings) has to offer today.
Cocina Sunae (Colegiales)
The impressive alchemy of basic ingredients into aromatic appetisers and moreish mains is why Cocina Sunae features on this list (and why it also made our top 5 puertas cerradas in 2011). Up there with the very best Southeast Asian gastronomic experiences this side of Bangkok, this one is for the real aficionados, looking for an in-house setting.
The 60-seat puerta cerrada (closed-door restaurant) flies the flag for independent restaurants all over the city, and sets an example for how to do it. With intelligent flavour combinations and a menu that changes weekly, the kitchen offers something new for every visit. According to Franco, one part of the husband and wife team, the clientele also changes with the pre-announced pan-Asian menu taking diners from the Phillipines to Malaysia without a blink. This also creates an interesting flow of people through the doors, dependent on their taste.
Wandering past the kitchen offers herb admirers a feast for the eyes, the table crammed with various exotic spices and a team abuzz with epicurean activity.
Mounds of mint, coriander, and lemongrass sit amongst gargantuan fresh prawns whilst the Vietnamese staple of pho (a traditional soup, chicken or beef) bubbles away; its a dish that Sunae has most definitely nailed.
Having been brought up in Pampagna, in the Philippines, Sunae learned various family recipes before making her way to New York City to perfect her culinary skills. Years later she moved to Argentina and has since written a book called Tastes of Southeast Asia, which includes 45 original recipes.
The food is inventive, aromatic and homemade. Tastes coming out of Cocina Sunae are unlike any others in the city, and that’s a real something. Here, spice means spice and and Sunae is not afraid to crack up the heat.
Ingredients are sourced from nearby barrio chino where fresh wild Argentine prawns are brought in daily. At $180 for three courses it is also one of the cheapest closed-door restauants in the city: with this you also get tea and water, and if this isn’t enough there’s also a corker of a wine menu to wade through. A real experience with really excellent food.
Colegiales (Exact address given on booking – reservations only) Wednesday-Saturday 8.30pm onwards. More info on the website.
Captain Cook, (Martínez)
A short venture out of town takes you to the verdant suburb of Martínez, touching Río de la Plata to the east and extending towards the Panamerican highway in the west. In the middle of this sprawling residential area, those looking for stellar Southeast Asian food will be delighted to come across Captain Cook.
The brainchild of head chef Marta Ramírez, who fell in love with all things Southeast Asian at the age of just ten after a family trip to the region, offers “traditional cooking with modern presentation” and a master class in sweet and sour flavours. The beauty of Captain Cook lies in the inventiveness and originality of the pan-Asian menu, from stuffed tofu with shitake mushrooms and ginger to Cambodian delicacies.
During a two-and-a-half year stint in the US, Ramirez learnt from a Cambodian in San Francisco and a Laotian in Miami before making her way back to Buenos Aires. Her “personal touches” are seen throughout the menu: diners are welcomed with Thai pork empanaditas served with homemade hoisin sauce as an amuse bouche and a strawberry and rum mousse palate cleansers arriving just before desert. The service is efficient and the waiters knowledgeable about the food you’re eating and the cocktails you’re drinking.
Sumptuous mains range from perfectly-cooked Loc Lac, to the ubiquitous – though often disappointing – pad thai, with fresh herbs and spices emanating from each immaculate dish. The Loc Lac includes succulent beef strips covered in a sticky tamarind marinade with scattered peanuts to break through and add another texture. Of particular note is also the marinated pork with mango and pear, the tender meat oozing aroma.
For desert, take the Malaysian Pisang Goreng, consisting of delicately cooked banana fritters, cinnamon ice cream, and a subtle lemongrass glaze, or plump for artisanal ice creams ranging from ginger, lemongrass and coconut to irregularities such as blue cheese and sweet potato with almonds.
Slightly further out from the centre but worth the trip, let Captain Cook transport you to Southeast Asian climes.
Avenida Libertador 13562, Martinez, Tuesday-Saturday 8.30pm till close and Sunday, 12.30-4pm. Tel: 4898-9070
Lotus Neo Thai (Belgrano)
“Well known” to the staff at the Thai embassy, it is no surprise that Lotus Neo Thai features on this Top 5. Located amidst myriad Chinese eateries in Belgrano, this restaurant stands out, not only for the bright red exterior and the bamboo clad interior, but for the quality of the food coming out of its tiny kitchen.
Lotus Neo Thai offers a vast menu of mostly Thai dishes in a restaurant with a mixture of tables and cushions for those looking for a more traditional setting and experience.
The mixed chicken, beef, and lamb satay served on a banana leaf gets proceedings off to a good start, with plenty of peanut-rich sauce to coat the tender meat in. Moving on, the massaman curry, which was ranked by CNN as the tastiest dish in the world in 2011, comes highly recommended. Here it is served with enough of a kick to bring authenticity to the plate but without leaving customers blind from eye-watering spice. Slow cooked chunks of beef reside in a coconut milk with potato, cardamom, star anise and a whole host of fresh herbs and spices.
The Thai banana pancakes are not bad either and as well as the great food on offer Lotus Neo Thai has a lot in the way of refreshment. Of the options at the separate bar at the back of the restaurant the passion fruit caipiroska and the frozen mint, lime, ginger and sky vodka concoction are of particular note.
The small outfit in Barrio Chino is doing a lot right, and with lunch deals from $100 with dinner from around $200 per person, it’s well worth a visit.
Arribenos 2265, Belgrano. Monday 8pm-close; Tuesday-Sunday: 12-3.30pm and 8pm-close. Tel: 4783-7993.
Green Curry (Microcentro)
Set in the heart of Buenos Aires’ business district, many city workers flock to Green Curry for a flavour kick to break up the day.
The concept here is basic: tasty food with speed, two things which in theory work so well together but can often result in ketchup spilled on a tie or cars full of empty burger wrappers. This is not the case at Green Curry. Southeast Asia remains the focal point for all dishes here with daily specials allowing different countries in the region to take the culinary main stage throughout the week.
Homemade curry pastes and creative chefs keep the menu fresh, ranging from the universal green curry to lighter beef salads and wraps, all starting at a very reasonable $35. If you’re looking for recommendations, the elusive lychee can be found in a flavour-packed yellow prawn curry with coconut milk, fried onions, and pumpkin. The bulgogi, with its delectable dressing and toasted sesame on mixed leaves, is a great option for those looking for a lighter lunch – washed down with a homemade Thai lemonade infused with ginger you have got a great meal.
Green Curry does not shy away from spices but instead offers these on the side, leaving porteños and visitors to turn up the heat according to taste rather than monopolising a dish with spices, which could prove rather contentious in Buenos Aires. Quality service and great food in a suitable setting that facilities efficiency and fits well in the business district.
Tucumán 271, Monday-Friday 11.30am-5pm. Tel: 4312-8337.
Sudestada (Palermo Hollywood)
Sat on a corner in bustling Palermo Hollywood, Sudestada got its reputation early and held it. In an area that has become a go-to for new restaurants, the Southeast Asian eatery fits in very well.
Revered for its lunch menus but also open for a slightly pricier dinner, the swanky outfit – juxtaposed with its hip, graffiti clad exterior – takes inspiration from diverse corners of Southeast Asia. These well-known lunch menus have the option to pick and choose according to taste, with interactive menus needing to be whole-punched by the customer themselves. At lunchtime, you will get a starter, a main and a drink for just $60, with the Vietnamese bo xao (noodle salad) getting my vote.
On the evening menu it’s lemongrass-laden freshly grilled fish that hits the mark most with its simple yet effective delivery. The fried fish is also noteworthy, with a homemade tamarind sauce sealing the deal. Brush up your chopstick skills before entering as they’re in common use here… you might want to make a booking too, as there are often people sat down the minute the doors fling open on a summer evening.
For those Palermo Soho dwellers, go wild, cross the train tracks and give it a go. It may well just be the best Southeast Asian eatery in Palermo.
Guatemala 5062, Tuesday-Sunday 12-4pm and 7.30pm-close. Tel: 4776-3777.