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The Unlikely Rise of Mexican Food in Buenos Aires

Argentines are famous for hating el picante (spice). Not a trace of it can be found in the vast majority of traditional Argentine foods, and what is called a “spicy meat empanada” really has only the tiniest pinch of ají. This general dislike for anything hot makes the recent growth in popularity of Mexican food in Buenos Aires surprising to many. But it has happened. Restaurants offering Mexican cuisine can now be found all over the city: Guia Óleo lists 55 establishments, many of them opened in the last five years.

Mexican Chilis provide a spicy kick often missing from the Argentine palate. (Photo: Massimiliano Trevisan)

Traditional Mexican food, full of spices and with ancient influences, presents a stark contrast to the usual Argentine fare. The real action of late, however, is not in the sit-down restaurants offering authentic Mexican dishes, but rather in a new trend taking Buenos Aires by storm: Mexican fast food, tailored to Argentine tastes.

Similar to the way that Peruvian food embraced Chinese influences, or Tex-Mex cuisine grew out of cultural integration in the American Southwest, many restaurants in Buenos Aires are offering a distinct new take on Mexican fast food dishes. According to Sebastián Pino of 3 Tiros Burritos, the ever more-popular burritos and tacos are different from the original Mexican versions “in their ingredients and combinations”, instead building on more traditional Argentine styles.

“Mexican dishes are sautéed with spices and different vegetables, while the Argentine version includes fewer vegetables and pays more attention to the cooking of the meats,” adds Pino. Chiles, a Mexican staple, are also notably absent in the majority of these fast food options, which in turn replace the traditional corn tortillas with the flour “rapiditas” that are more familiar to Argentines.

Pino, who has lived in Mexico and the United States, says that in his view, Argentines enjoy trying new flavours, as long as they don’t stray too far out of the realm of familiarity. He explains that the attraction of Mexican fast food is its adaptability: just as Tex-Mex inserted North American ingredients into Mexican dishes, creating a deliciously popular hybrid, the same can be done with ingredients that cater to the Argentine palate, while still offering new and exciting flavour combinations.

“Argentine cuisine, always seeking simplicity and tradition instead of new flavour combinations, is not very original. Mexican food is the opposite, always trying to integrate pinches of spice and the ideal condiments for each dish,” adds Pino. The combination of the two offers innovative options that feed the Argentine appetite for the exotic without pushing them too far out of their comfort zone.

California Burrito Company offers burritos and salads both (Photo courtesy of CBC)

Alec Hart, North American owner of widely successful franchise chain California Burrito Co. (CBC), has a similar idea in mind. He believes that burritos are catching on in Argentina because they offer a relatively nutritious meal that doesn’t stint on flavour, a major attraction to the image-conscious young urbanites who drive city trends like this one. CBC also caters to very diverse tastes, because customers can choose from several different salsas and select the ingredients of their burrito, meaning that the level of Argentine-Mexican fusion lies in the hands of each individual.

For Hart, Mexican food is a “celebration” and the fresh simplicity of high quality, low carb ingredients present a winning combination. The owner of burrito delivery service Donky’s, Santiago Garcia Vozzi, agrees, saying that the beauty of the idea is that burritos contain many everyday ingredients, just put together in an innovatively tasty way. Vozzi’s ambitions for the adaptability of the Mexican fast food model are such that for him, burritos don’t necessarily need to even be Mexican. “What we did,” he says, “is copy the format but with different types of fillings, trying to avoid that just because we’re eating burritos people only think of Mexican food.”

Donky’s offers an Indian burrito with a chicken curry filling, and an American burrito featuring steak with barbecue sauce. In a country famed for loving empanadas, it’s the format, as much as the flavours themselves, that seems to appeal to the locals. This is shown by orders on www.BuenosAiresDelivery.com, where alongside empanadas, the top-ordered foods over the last six months have consistently included spring rolls, tacos, burritos, and shawarma.

Pino, like his counterparts, envisions Mexican fast food taking its place among pizza, empanadas, and sushi as the next big delivery attraction. All agree that they see the trend, which has been growing steadily for about two years, exploding within the next year.

Without a doubt, the internet plays a driving role in inspiring and enabling such changes in tastes. As Vozzi says, “now that everyone is constantly in the know, we’re better informed and so we demand new things, new products and new flavours.” In that sense the growth of Mexican food matches the popularity of other types of exotic, ethnic foods, like Indian or African, that are also taking hold in the city.

However, the influx of foreign tourists, study abroad students, and expats also plays a role in driving demand for international flavours. According to a report by La Nación in May 2012, more than 25,000 students come from abroad to study in Argentina every year. Many of these foreigners bring with them eclectic tastes and a demand for a much wider variety of ethnic foods than have traditionally been available in Argentina. The concentration of students in trend-setting areas like Palermo then goes hand in hand with the Argentine middle class’ appetite for the exotic in driving the growth in popularity of new cuisine.

Quesadillas at Magdalena's Party (photo courtesy of Magdalena's Party)

Mexican fast food seems to appeal to diverse groups of people, from parrilla-loving locals to the hordes of foreigners in the Argentine capital. Johnny Deutsch is the owner and executive chef of Magdalena’s Party, an eclectic bar in Palermo. The food they offer, combining inspirations as diverse as Italian, Argentine, Canadian, and Southern Californian, excite locals and foreigners alike, according to Deutsch: “The California Burrito was a match made in heaven for the Argentine palette. It’s a burrito stuffed with beef, french fries, cheese and sour cream.”

While the eagerness of a young, connected population to try new flavours certainly makes Mexican food more marketable, it can still be hard to get the natives sold on the spice, though this may become easier in coming years: “The Argentine palette is changing, and the tolerance for spicy food is changing with that,” says Deutsch. But for now it comes as little surprise that most Mexican fast food options available bow to the sensitivities of the Argentine tongue, and keep the spice on the side.

Regardless, the new combinations that are being wrapped up in burritos and taquitos involve more than enough excitement, and point to the growth of a promising new flavour boom in years to come.

Posted in Food & Drink, TOP STORYComments (6)

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