A Family’s Dedication to Beef Lives On at Don Julio in Buenos Aires

BUENOS AIRES — At Don Julio, a much-beloved steakhouse in the city’s low-rise Palermo neighborhood, a 110-square-foot grill dominates the soaring dining room in the way that a grand piano commands attention on a concert stage.

Don Julio was rated the No. 1 restaurant in Argentina on the list compiled last year by the organization Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. Each day a line of prospective meat eaters, hoping to score one of the seats set aside for walk-ins, forms along Calle Guatemala. Their wait is tempered by Prosecco, poured free.

Inside the packed dining room, which seats 87, you can always hear the comforting susurrus of meat cooking over wood fire. The sound whets the appetite as effectively as Pavlov’s clanging bells.

On that huge grill, strip steaks and tenderloins — two of the most popular cuts — are cooked to an internal temperature of 113 degrees, a tad more rare than the usual Argentine bien jugoso (juicy medium-rare and wall-to-wall pink). By way of prep, the meat gets nothing more than salt on both sides a minute before it’s cooked. Any fat that weeps out runs down channeled grating rather than dripping on the fire.

Having written four books on home grilling, I was puzzled by this. A virtue of the grill, I had been taught, is that the dripping fat infuses the meat with appealing smokiness.

“I want only the pure taste of beef, no smoke,” said Pablo Rivero, the owner of Don Julio, who shepherded the restaurant from its early days as a mom-and-pop establishment to its current renown as the go-to parrilla (a word that connotes both a grill and a steakhouse) in beef-besotted Buenos Aires.

Mr. Rivero, 40, is a leading figure in the rebirth of the city’s steakhouses, along with such chefs as Santiago Garat at Corte Comedor and Leo Lanussol at Proper. For years, classic Buenos Aires cuisine was largely defined by old-fashioned parrillas, and local joints known as bodegones — that serve milanesas, empanadas and heavy red-sauce Italian fare. Now it’s easy to find good bread, unapologetically pungent Patagonian cheeses and housemade pickled vegetables in addition to superb meat.

Nevertheless, despite a long growing season and fertile soil, good fresh vegetables are not yet as widely available as they have become in markets in the United States. To ensure a constant supply of seasonal produce, Mr. Rivero harvests a five-acre garden that he planted about 20 miles outside town in the rich soil of La Plata.

In season, he serves fire-roasted peppers, salads of tender greens, and flavorful zucchini charred on the grill and brushed with olive oil, oregano and salt. Plump tomatoes are dressed in olive oil from Mendoza and garnished with brined capers, both berries and leaves.

In keeping with family tradition, Don Julio serves only grass-fed beef, once the rule in Argentina but now more likely to be the product of feedlots.

Before the Riveros arrived in Buenos Aires in 1994, the family owned a butcher shop in the city of Rosario, about 180 mile to the north. For three generations they raised their cattle on an island in the Paraná River, all of it free-range and grass-fed. Don Julio, which Mr. Rivero has run since he was 23, remains committed to this sustainable way of rearing livestock.

Mr. Rivero gets most of his supply directly from ranchers who raise cattle in the way he requires, on the endless pampas — Argentina’s short grass prairies, as green as a Vermont meadow on a fine summer day. If he needs to supplement this supply, he relies on Cacho Rios, a keen-eyed buyer at the Mercado de Liniers, the Argentine capital’s auction where 12,000 to 15,000 cattle are sold daily.

Mr. Rivero is uncompromising about his preference for free-range, grass-fed beef. “Argentina has the ideal ecology for raising this ancient food,” he said.

In contrast to feedlot cattle, which are fed corn and soy and slaughtered at 14 to 16 months, Mr. Rivero’s suppliers raise steers for 24 to 30 months. This longer period on the pampas allows the animals to develop the intramuscular fat, or marbling, that makes for tenderness and deep flavor.

As for dry-aging meat, a popular technique, Mr. Rivero is not a fan. The process allows airborne molds to interact with beef to create a distinctly funky flavor that many people find appealing. Mr. Rivero, in contrast, seeks unmitigated beefiness. “If a steer is raised correctly,” he said, ”it will already have unadulterated, and balanced, beef flavor.”

Letting the meat dry-age and lose about 30 percent of its weight, Mr. Rivero estimates, is costly. Moreover, he sees it as “a crime against the sacrifice of the animal.” In Spanish, the common usage of the word for “sacrifice” rather than matanza — the equivalent of “slaughter” — conveys a more intimate and purposeful attitude toward the death of an animal.

At any given moment in the restaurant, you’ll find Pepe Sotelo, the chef and grill master, working over a panoply of strip steaks, rib-eyes, tenderloins and skirt steaks, as well as plump homemade sausages and a phalanx of sweet breads.

The grill sits about six inches above a bed of hardwood quebracho coals that pulse with an orange heartbeat. If you hold your hand above the grate, you should be able to count to three before it feels too hot. That’s the right temperature for cooking a perfect steak.

Under the supervision of the charcutier Guido Tassi, Don Julio offers a variety of homemade sausages, much of it made from pork and the trimmings of whole beef carcasses.

Mr. Tassi also makes superb potro (pony prosciutto) that reflects Argentina’s deeply equine tradition. When told that horse meat could be a tough sell to tourists from North America, Mr. Rivero countered with a well-known adage from “The Gaucho Martín Fierro,” the epic poem that Argentines read in their school years: “Todo bicho que camina va a parar al asador.” Everything that walks winds up on the grill.

Mr. Rivero also maintains a singular focus on Argentine wine. According to Sebastian Rios, the wine columnist for La Nación, Don Julio regularly vies with Oviedo, a Buenos Aires seafood restaurant, for the largest collection of Argentine wine.

The dining room forgoes the gaucho tchotchkes and cowhides of many Buenos Aires steakhouses. The décor at Don Julio includes wraparound bookshelves laden with wine bottles signed by customers. A blackboard reads, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.”

I asked Mr. Rivero why the restaurant is named Don Julio. A family name?

“No,” he said, “He was a local character.”

Like a number of Buenos Aires neighborhoods, Palermo has a social organization that started as a murga (something like a New Orleans second line band). It grew into a year-round club, populist and Peronist in its politics. Julio Cogorno founded the murga in Palermo, where he was widely acknowledged as the garrulous unofficial mayor of the barrio.

“He was a terrific guy who drank a lot,” Mr. Rivero said. “Finally, the doctors told him that he had to stop drinking. He did, and died within a year.”

Mr. Rivero paused. “Maybe he shouldn’t have stopped.”

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