It was with this background and bias that I entered Cafe San Juan in Buenos Aires a couple of weeks ago as part of a whirlwind tour of Argentina and Chile. The restaurant, located in the historic San Telmo neighborhood, is a small cozy place with an open kitchen off to one side. I immediately liked the vibe, and I smiled wide when I saw the chef behind the kitchen counter rocking a neon orange camouflage hat with the words:
This is not what I expected to see in Cafe San Juan, which is one of the top restaurants in Buenos Aires featuring one of the hottest chefs in the city, Leandro Cristobal. Leandro Cristobal. I like to think that with a name like that I could really go far in life. It's a power name if I've ever heard one, and lovely to hear said by someone with a Argentinian accent. In fact its English equivalent would without a doubt be Max Power, "The man whose name you'd love to touch, but musn't touch". But I digress as I easily do. In Chef Cristobal's kitchen none of the kitchen crew were touching anything but food, and all of them-- a sous chef, a prep cook and a dishwasher/ utility man-- were decked out in skate gear as well.
It was Tuesday night at 10:30pm, and we were seated at the last open table in a tightly packed dining room when another couple walked in and was offered a seat at the counter overlooking the kitchen. They wandered up there, turned up their noses and came back whining to the hostess (actually Chef Cristobal's mom I later learn) about not having enough room or something lame like that. Overhearing the conversation and being the gentleman that I am, I offer our table for a chance to watch this man cook and see first hand how they do things in Buenos Aires.
We squeeze our way to the counter and Chef Cristobal smiles at us appreciatively as he takes some of his sauce bottles down to make more room. It is cramped among the other random cooking miscellany and prep materials that are left, but it is certainly fun to watch the action in this small kitchen space.
The first thing that I notice is that every plate going out is huge. I normally like that, but some of these plates are ridiculously large. None of those gourmet sissy stacks that we are used to in the US: a ring of delicately stacked food in the middle of the plate with a six-inch circumference of white porcelain surrounding it. No, at Cafe San Juan, while they do take care in the presentation, they don't shy away from using the whole canvas, so to speak. The food is framed by the table (spills onto it maybe) and suddenly your voracious American appetite becomes very timid.
What are micro greens good for anyway?
The menu itself is curious. Not in the selections, which I had described to me as "Comida muy Porteña", meaning of the port city of Buenos Aires. No, what is a little strange is that the menu of heavily Spanish-influenced options is written on two tablet-sized chalkboards: too small to read from across the room and simultaneously too large to be comfortably carried and displayed by the servers. In fact, as you may be aware, decision making is not something I readily or easily manage, so I felt a little bad as our server (one of two in the entire restaurant) stood holding these tablet-sized chalkboards like Moses on the mount while we tried to make up our minds. We felt so hurried, in fact, that we both picked the first thing we saw, and then ordered the first two tapas as well. Wow.
Our appetizers came and were the size of some entrees that you would find in a stateside restaurant. Simple Spanish-style tapas: bruschetta of tomato, basil, jamon crudo and a wonderful herb-infused olive oil; and a tortilla española with a mouth-watering marinated mushroom topping. Fresh and delicious.
Thus far it was indeed quite joyous. We were halfway through a bottle of very suitable Malbec, and we were thoroughly entertained watching the chef and his crew man skillet after skillet on just a half-dozen or so burners. I had ordered the bife de chorizo, or tenderloin, and had seen a few go out already plated with a medley of grilled vegetables and potatoes (and Spanish chorizo). It was generally a huge portion as in keeping with the apparent philosophy of this country: eat until you start crying.
I think possibly because we chatted with the chef some, and took the seats at the counter in the first place where we were looming over him the entire evening, literally sharing his work station, that he gave me an even bigger cut of meat--with even more chorizo and potatoes on the side, which is, of course, ludicrous. I don't think it was just the wine or my whiny American appetite that made my cut look so thick, because I saw a few others go out, and they were noticeably thinner. Nevertheless it was delicious and well-cooked. It was topped by a wonderful chimichurri sauce and the vegetables were perfectly browned, the potatoes had the consistency of patatas bravas and everything was mixed with big chunks of Spanish chorizo.
Simple and delicious. And large. When you sit in front of the chef you feel as if you need to finish your food. But this truly was a large portion. And it was close to midnight. I did my best, then I pulled out some of the eight-year-old in me and did my best to push the food around my plate to make it seem like I ate more than I actually did.
My wife struggled through her plate too, which was a seafood pasta in a red sauce. I actually didn't even try it but it looked good and she, like me, was groaning in pleasure by the end of the meal, which is, of course, a valid and accurate way to measure the deliciousness of food.
So went our night at San Jaun Cafe. In fact, we loved it so much, that in our brief stay we decided to dine there again instead of a more traditional steakhouse where we had planned. Our second meal was equally as grand in scale and also very worthy: steamed mussels, beef ribs and a perfectly cooked salmon served under a big salad.
Buenos Aires is an incredible city that left us absolutely enchanted. Often while wandering the cobblestoned streets and gazing at the colonial architecture we were transported back to Spain or Italy. In Cafe San Juan, Chef Leandro Cristobal (and his mother) have created a gem of a restaurant highlighting these strong European influences that helped shape Buenos Aires into what it is today. In that sense, it truly is "comida porteña". However you choose to describe it, it's a great place and worth a visit when you are there.
Cafe San Juan is located in the San Telmo neighborhood in Buenos Aires on Avenida San Juan 450.