Dining: A Gaucho Rides Again
Working through the Grand Baby Beef at La Cabaña requires attitude and endurance. Truly committed patrons of this Buenos Aires institution forgo side dishes, concentrating instead on the 4-inch-thick, 3.3-pound slab of steak and a bottle of Argentine wine. And in this city where men are men and dinner begins after 10 pm, finishing this richly marbled symbol of Argentine culture is a matter of pride.
Argentina’s love affair with beef dates to the 16th century, when the Spanish introduced cattle to the country’s fertile grasslands, or pampas. By the mid-1700s, large herds roamed the pampas freely, prompting the rise of the Argentine cowboy, the gaucho. Donning high boots, vests, and baggy pants, gauchos hunted the semiwild livestock on horseback while subsisting primarily on their prey.
By the end of the 19th century, however, landowners had fenced in the once-open grasslands, creating massive estates to house higher-grade livestock. Railway lines linked the rural regions to Buenos Aires, where meat-salting plants fostered the country’s beef-industry boom. The new order relegated the Argentine cowboy to farmhand duty, but—as the size, spectacle, and popularity of La Cabaña’s Grand Baby Beef suggest—the spirit of the gaucho lives on in Argentina.
Of the many steak houses in Buenos Aires, La Cabaña is the most celebrated. Soon after opening in 1935, La Cabaña earned a reputation as the finest steak house in the country, if not the world, hosting guests from Walt Disney and Charles de Gaulle to Richard Nixon and Fidel Castro. Yet even Argentina’s most famous restaurant could not withstand the country’s economic slump in the 1990s. After its Congreso neighborhood deteriorated, La Cabaña closed in 1996.
One of La Cabaña’s frequent customers, Orient-Express Hotels founder James Sherwood, saw an opportunity in the demise of his former haunt. Sherwood purchased the establishment’s name and contents, and in October 2003, reopened La Cabaña in the upscale Buenos Aires barrio of La Recoleta.
The new incarnation of La Cabaña closely resembles the original. Two life-size stuffed cows once again guard the entrance, and decades-old artifacts, including a guest book filled with the signatures of famed patrons from the past, share space inside with original paintings by Argentine artist Florencio Molina Campos. Grill masters wear traditional gaucho garb, razor-sharp knives with ornate handles tucked into their belts, as they sear enormous slabs of tender flesh over an open flame.
In addition to the Grand Baby Beef, the modern-day gauchos prepare premium cuts of prime rib, tenderloin, and rib eye. Appetizers include beef carpaccio with Parmesan cheese leaves and black olive tapenade. Dessert is appropriately delectable, most notably a white chocolate sorbet with coconut sable and kumquat jelly.
La Cabaña’s menu also includes pasta, chicken, and fish. But nothing substitutes for steak—preferably, the Grand Baby Beef—in the land of the gaucho.