A Vegan Trip to Argentina, Part 1: Buenos Aires

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“A family trip to Argentina.”  Words that strike fear into the vegan heart, even while promising an exciting foray into an exquisitely beautiful country with friendly people and fascinating culture.  I packed up my vegan protein bars and boarded the 11-hour flight along with my sister, mother, and stepfather.

(Before we arrive in Argentina: a word on Air Canada.  I chose “Strict vegetarian / non-dairy” for my meal option when booking the trip.  Air Canada provides meals for intercontinental flights, and when you’ve chosen a non-standard one, it’s kind of fun because the attendants bring you your meal before everyone else with a little tag with your name on it.

Of the four meals I had (two flying down and two back), three of them were surprisingly edible.  The green curry with tofu was yucky, but the quinoa with spiced sweet potato, pasta with roasted veggies, and spinach crepe with asparagus were all perfectly edible.  The sides, including marinated veggie salads, bread with non-dairy margarine, and even a soy yogurt (!) were ok too.  Overall, I have to give Air Canada a thumbs-up for their vegan meals.)

Argentina is the land of beef; there is no way around it.  I read a lot online about the challenges for vegetarians visiting (or living) there; for vegans it seemed like an almost impossible place to navigate.  I resigned myself to ten days of bread, olive oil, and perhaps the odd green salad.  We had booked a private guide for a couple of days in Buenos Aires, and in an email exchange prior to the trip he told me that there is a vegetarian restaurant very close to our hotel.  A glimmer of hope.

After the grueling overnight travel from Toronto, through Santiago, to our boutique hotel in downtown Buenos Aires, we stumbled foggily to the restaurant-lined square a couple of blocks away.  Regrettably, I did not get the name of the restaurant on the corner of Costa Rica and Malabia that we piled into, ordering a round of local Imperial beers, which were light and very refreshing.  I steeled myself, looked down at the menu… and was delighted to see a little carrot symbol next to a number of choices.  While these vegetarian options were (unsurprisingly) mostly cheese-centric, one caught my eye: a grain burger with ‘grilled tofu cheese,’ rice, greens, and sprouts.  I had tailored my tiny Spanish vocabulary for just such an occasion, and I pointed to the menu and asked the server, “Sin queso, sin huevos, sin productos de leche?”  He went back to the kitchen and reappeared looking pleased.  I couldn’t believe it.  A full vegan-friendly meal at our first, randomly-chosen restaurant.  And it was delicious.

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It’s safe to say I got a bit lucky on that first day, but equally true that it was not as difficult as I had feared to find food in Buenos Aires that I could not only eat, but enjoy.  Our wonderful private tour guide, Pablo Piera, was very helpful in this regard.  Whenever it was time to eat, Pablo spoke to our servers in order to assure my meals would be vegan-friendly, and several times managed to order off-menu concoctions for me in places that otherwise would have presented real difficulty.  When he brought us to a beautiful café famous for pastries and sweets, he got the kitchen to make me up a pita-vegetable sandwich so that I would have something to nibble while the family sampled the desserts.  Pablo was an all-around fantastic guide, tailoring our time in Buenos Aires to suit our interests (heavy on the art!), and possessed of a seemingly-unlimited wealth of knowledge about the history and culture of Argentina.  If you are ever planning a trip to Buenos Aires, I cannot recommend him highly enough.

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The vegetarian restaurant near our hotel was called Krishna.  Starving after a long day sightseeing, my sister and I arrived promptly at 8pm, the opening time stated on the website, to locked doors (classic Canadians, coping poorly with European-style dinner times).  Thirty-five long minutes later, the doors opened into a small but beautifully decorated dining room, with Indian- and Buddhism-inspired details.  The English-translation menu featured pakoras, salads, and several seitan-based dishes, among others.  When I asked the server about vegan options, she left and returned with the chef, who smiled knowingly as he told me that he is vegan as well.  After he explained which dishes would be appropriate, I ordered sautéed setian and vegetables with rice and a large salad.  Both were delicious; the salad was enormous and fresh, and the seitan was cut into small pieces and mixed in a savoury sauce with lots of chopped veggies.  My sister said that the tomato sauce served with her vegetable balls was possibly the freshest-tasting she has ever had.  The only disappointment of the evening was that my camera battery died after snapping one blurry photo of the dimly-lit dining room.

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For our last night in Buenos Aires, Pablo had booked us tickets to La Esquina de Carlos Gardel for dinner and a tango show.  Once we were seated in a comfortable booth in the beautiful theatre, I checked the prix-fixe menu.   No appetizers or desserts that could potentially be modified to vegan; one pasta entrée that seemed like a contender if ordered without cheese.  When our stern-looking server arrived, I explained as nicely as I could about my diet and asked if there was any way a green salad could be ordered for an appetizer (there was nothing of the sort on the menu).  To my surprise, she assured me that I could get a vegan-friendly salad, and suggested the pasta as an entrée.  The salad arrived shortly afterward, consisting of mixed bitter greens atop thinly-sliced tomatoes in a vinaigrette; I was delighted.

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Unfortunately, my entrée appeared with a small mound of melted cheese on top of the pasta.  Watching our server rush around topping up wine for the tables in her section, I decided not to say anything and just scooped the cheese and affected pasta off the top (luckily, it was self-contained and had not spread around the dish).  The pasta was fine after this, and to my surprise, was followed by a lovely fruit plate for dessert.  (My family was jealous!)  The tango show started during dessert, and I can honestly say it was one of the most mesmerizing live performances I have ever seen. Despite the misstep with the pasta, I would definitely recommend La Esquina de Carlos Gardel for any vegans hoping to see an amazing tango show in Buenos Aires.

The next morning, we ate breakfast in the hotel.  I ate the same breakfast I’ve had virtually every day I’ve spent outside of North America: toast and jam, fruit, and black coffee.  We left for the domestic airport and departed for the second and final stop on our trip: Mendoza.  I wondered how I would fare in a more rural setting, as we were booked at a wine hotel in the desert about 20 minutes outside Mendoza… and I marveled at the fact that I was halfway through my Argentina vacation and had not touched the protein bars at the bottom of my carry-on bag.

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