Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on vegan dining options around the world.
By John Keeble
An interesting challenge came my way earlier this year and I grabbed it. Can a vegan survive in The Land of Meat?
I flew to Buenos Aires and took an Airbnb in the historic and arty district of San Telmo. Surely, I reasoned, that district would be the most likely to offer alternative lifestyle restaurants.
One of the lessons of more than half a century of travelling – as a vegetarian and then as a vegan – is that fear can be far greater than the reality on the ground. This is true almost always, from landmines to prices, and food is no exception.
However, it is better to have a good plan to make sure you don’t starve during the learning phase in a new location. [Survival note: Airbnbs with kitchens work better than hotel rooms].
In San Telmo, I quickly stocked up from local supermarkets with enough to create vegan meals in my Airbnb kitchen. That kind of precaution never adds much to the cost because I like to cook sometimes instead of eating out all the time. [Survival note: secure your eating base].
Then I set about what really interested me. Could I find good vegan food in the cafes and restaurants or would I be swamped by the extreme meat culture? I decided to jump in the deep end.
My first restaurant was a parrilla joint. Parrilla is a national dish of Argentina – chunks of barbecued meat served with fries or salad.
I got a cab to the restaurant, arriving as the doors opened for evening meals. By the time I had struggled through the Spanish menu to try to work out the different styles of cooking and presentation, the whole place was packed.
The waitress was as baffled by me as I was by the menu – so somehow we agreed I would take whatever she recommended. It was a surprise akin to horror when it arrived.
Three big parrilla chunks with fries. I cut into one piece and sat back. I had to be objective and honest in my research. I had to eat it… but… I took a long pull of my cerveza and steeled myself.
The second day offered less of a challenge. My HappyCow vegan and vegetarian (V&V) app recommended several vegan restaurants in San Telmo and my smartarse phone showed me the way. [Survival note: Download the HappyCow app and use it, though finding places on your own is good fun too – some of my most memorable eating experiences have been at eateries that I chanced upon].
The Naturaleza Sabia was everything I had hoped for – an old, arty building and decor to match, a good menu of exciting vegan (and vegetarian) dishes, and enough vegan booze to keep me happy. Could life get any better?
By Day 3, I was pretty much convinced that I was not going to starve. That was good and bad. I liked eating, sure, but where was the drama and the challenges to overcome? Fortunately, at that stage, I could not see into the future.
Anyway, I took a recommendation for the Hierbabuena V&V eatery from one of my friends and… Hey, you don’t want a long list of restaurants do you? You want to know if this lifelong veg*n ate the parrilla chunks. Right?
Well, the parrilla joint was a great place, more a friendly eatery than a restaurant – and, the meal was there in front of me.
I prodded it with my fork… got into it with my knife… and opened up what looked like the tissue layers and the remains of veins… the smell came up and grabbed me…
As a journalist, I have done many things that more normal and sensible people would have shied away from. Could I really let myself be defeated in this quest for the truth?
I shut my emotions down, always a good tactic in extreme circumstances, and cut off a small piece. I raised it to my mouth, trying not to get the smell in my nose again, and popped it in.
As I chewed, a kind of horror spread through me. I tried to look normal and happy to avoid upsetting the other diners.
It was truly difficult, but I had to get it down. I had to do my duty, my honest research, but enough was enough!
I just thanked the gods of kindness and compassion that it was 100% vegan seitan mocked up by the highly-acclaimed La Reverde vegan restaurant to look, smell and taste like traditional meat parrilla.
Cuenca expat Janet Engel, who was once a meat-eater, then moved on to vegetarian, and now eats vegan except for salmon once a month, made a wider assessment than my time in Buenos Aires.
“My experience in Argentina was challenging at times,” she said. “I knew in the beginning that Argentina was all about the meat, all about the beef.
“I was delighted to find many, many options for vegetarian food, particularly in Buenos Aires. For part of the time I was with a tour group and everywhere I went I was able to ask for what I needed, sometimes just a big plate of vegetables and potatoes and rice, and that was okay.
“I found the restaurants almost everywhere to be very accommodating. I ate some beautiful food.
“I frequently went to grocery stores or markets to buy veggies and other food that I could eat. I took a lot of vegan food with me when I flew to Argentina.
“It was challenging at times to see the quantity of beef that was consumed everyday by my friends in the tour group. It staggered my mind. I struggled with watching that.
“For me, I was content to do what I had to do. Sometimes vegans and vegetarians feel like the outsiders, but it was interesting that over time a number of people in the group would look at what I was eating and say: “Hey, wow, that looks great. I actually want that. I think a couple of people were encouraged to begin to lessen their meat consumption and try some vegan and vegetarian things when they got back home.”
My vegan experience of Argentina was good, too. This is what I found in the cities and tourist locations that I visited before the Covid-19 crisis abruptly halted my trip.
Salta: A lovely old city, quite small, in a wine producing area in northwest Argentina. The restaurants had a willingness to accommodate vegans and vegetarians even when the other hundred diners wanted beef dishes.
The best that I tried – with our tour group – was La Vieja Estacion. It was an evening restaurant with a spectacular traditional music and dance show. For me, the chef created a vegan starter, main course and desert. The wine was vegan, and the well-flavoured main course was exceptional.
At a lower cost and exclusively vegan, the Chirimoya restaurant was superb. In fact, so good that meat-eating friends enjoyed a group dinner there too.
Mendoza: A bigger city located south of Salta. It dates from 1561 and it is the heart of Argentina’s wine and olive oil industries. The centre has many restaurants, including 30 listed by HappyCow as vegan or vegetarian, and probably scores more willing enough to provide V&V meals.
If you like to sit at a pavement table and watch the world go by while you eat a light lunch and sip your drink, you could try the Arabian Food Truck or go a bit more upmarket in a street of open restaurants near the city centre.
El Calafate: A tourist town near the Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia. It had lots to offer vegans and vegetarians – including a great vegan sushi that I shared with friends. The park’s fabulous glacier attractions did not run to much in the way of vegan and vegetarian food at its central cafeteria. Apparently, there was one vegan dish … but it was sold out. Damned vegans. There are so many about these days.
This list should have been longer. Much longer. But travelling plans collapsed when we had to dash through the night to Buenos Aires in the hope of getting a flight back to Ecuador before the border was closed. Nine of us failed.
I spent six weeks in lockdown in Buenos Aires before getting out on a humanitarian flight to Ecuador. I had an Airbnb in Villa Crespo district with the best host I have ever met.
It was not all bad. My host Cristian knew how to buy good vegan food and the best vegan wine.
In fact, it was so good I think I’ll go back for more.