The new melting pot of the Americas: Winning hearts and taste buds in underground Buenos Aires
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The new melting pot of the Americas: Winning hearts and taste buds in underground Buenos Aires

No, this isn’t New York City, despite the concrete jungle façades with beautiful graffiti oozing out into the streets, the monstrous buses ragging through jammed intersections, and the amazing theatre scene on and off Corrientes. The economy certainly isn’t on the rise any time soon. And no, there aren’t any Frank Sinatra songs dedicated to Buenos Aires.

However, due to a steady increase in immigration and tourism, the shaky peso and the grey areas of bureaucracy, a fertile breeding ground for new culture has sprung up in the Argentine capital. In September 2014 alone, an estimated 198,000 foreign visitors landed in Buenos Aires, injecting a much-appreciated US$189.3 million into the local economy, according to Argentina’s Ministry of Tourism.

Young foreign entrepreneurs from varied ethnic backgrounds are taking advantage of this influx of tourist spending, as well as Argentina’s unstable economy and relatively straight-laced culinary world by jumping on the Closed Door Restaurant trend, forming culinary startups in rented apartments. It’s the perfect recipe for a palpable incline in cultural diversity in what is otherwise a tame and borderline colorless Argentine society.

When a door closes…

A closed-door restaurant, or puerta cerrada, is a privately run, intimate and unique dinner prepared for 10-12 strangers who are invited to eat homemade cuisine in the host’s apartment.

The puertas cerradas of Buenos Aires have been trendy for a while now, but behind the buzz of culinary innovation, there is another conversation worth investigating: the stories of some of these international entrepreneurs who find themselves living here. They are the select few who have decided to set up shop and share a piece of their culture through a rich yet welcoming culinary experience.

But why start a business in this country and not back in their respective homes?

“I can’t see it being possible at all in the U.S.,” says Meghan Lewis, co-founder of Jueves a la Mesa. “The regulations that we would have to deal with, from industrial grade machines in the kitchen to a certain size bathroom… Here, as long as we use common sense practices of cleanliness and structure it’s likely that no one will bother us about all the specifics.”

Tasting food at Jueves a la Mesa.

Tasting food at Jueves a la Mesa. Photo: Andrea Fasoli

Lewis arrived in Buenos Aires from Colorado about six years ago, while her business partner, Sofia Madriz, ventured here seven years ago from Costa Rica. Every Thursday, they prepare flavorful, nutritious vegetarian food influenced by their respective homelands.

Even they have felt the effects of the roller coaster economy, with runaway inflation cutting into the bottom line.

“[Inflation] means we have to be sensitive to the rising prices and adjust our prices accordingly,” says Lewis, who lists her menu prices in pesos. “In our favor, however, is the fact that many of our clients have other currencies to spend, meaning that they don’t feel inflation as much as people who depend on pesos feel it.”

Sofi TK, left, and Meghan Lewis, right, co-founders of Jueves a la Mesa. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

Sofi Madriz, left, and Meghan Lewis, right, co-founders of Jueves a la Mesa. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

Ivan Ramírez Vera, owner of Xochitl (pronounced “show-chill”), also keeps prices in pesos on the menu at his puerta cerrada, which features traditional Mexican food.

“I wish I could charge dollars, but I also understand that the people that work here earn money in pesos, so it’s not fair to charge dollars if the currency is in pesos,” says Ramírez. “I have to be fair to my guests and not hypocritical. But if you don’t have any pesos and want to pay me in dollars, I will accept them!”

Ramírez, who hails from Xalapa, Mexico, has been living in Buenos Aires on and off for 5 years. He attended culinary school and had a freelance photography business back in Mexico before opening Xochitl.

“I’m not turning a profit; I’m just doing it because I like it,” says Ramírez.“I love cooking Mexican food. I prepare a small table for everyone to come meet new people and to experiment with new food from my country – food that my family eats at home.”

Ivan Ramírez VEGA at his restaurant, Xochitl. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

Ivan Ramírez Vera at his restaurant, Xochitl. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

A taste of home

Other puerta cerrada owners share Lewis’s opinion that starting – and running – this kind of a business is far easier in Argentina than in other countries.

“Argentina is not like home. You can’t start this back in England nor in Ireland… there’d be legal issues to deal with and the market is saturated,” says Daniel Thompson, co-founder of The Sunday Reception/Frameless Events.

Now in his third year in Argentina, Thompson knows what he’s talking about when it comes to business. He worked in various jobs in his native England, including a sales position with his family’s company and a stint running a dubstep club.

“This city is full of the same stuff!” adds Nico Reynolds, the other half of The Sunday Reception/Frameless Events team. Reynolds is the head chef for the restaurant’s Sunday brunch and intimate dinner setting, which feature board games for guests, a ping pong table, live jazz performances and a movie after dinner.

“People are coming because they are looking for something different,” he continues. Reynolds and Thompson speak almost in unison, sometimes even finishing the other’s sentences. “It’s not rocket science. These sorts of things are always born out of necessity. People here are incredibly tolerant.”

Daniel Thompson, left, and Nico Reynolds, center, of The Sunday Reception. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

Daniel Thompson, left, and Nico Reynolds, center, of The Sunday Reception. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

For the most part, they are right. The market isn’t saturated with an overwhelming amount of cultural diversity – in this case food and intimate settings to bring small groups of locals and foreigners together at the same table – offering like-minded expats an opportunity to put down roots and offer the public something new. Something off the radar and out of the government’s reach, for now anyway: a taste of their home.

“Ireland was in a bad economic crisis in 2011. We go through frequent big waves of immigration. Sixty percent of my friends are living in different countries,” says Reynolds. An only child, he credits his chef skills to his father, who encouraged him to open cupboards and find something to create – a freedom of expression that he has brought with him from Ireland to Argentina.

Battling the bureaucracy

However, not everything about owning a restaurant in Argentina is perfect, as taxes and import laws can make it near-impossible for chefs to get that one vital ingredient.

“Political decisions are affecting my [restaurant],” says Ramírez. “I cannot import anything. How can I cook authentic Mexican food if I cannot bring Mexican ingredients? Real Mexican food does not exist here. I haven’t seen it.”

Chef Ramírez at work. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

Chef Ramírez at work. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

Argentina has strict laws regulating imports of food items. Businesses that wish to import items for consumption must often get official government approval and sometimes pass additional sanitary requirements – hurdles that can be prohibitively expensive or complicated for owners of small businesses like puertas cerradas.

Ramírez relies on regular trips back to Mexico to stock up on necessary ingredients, which he brings back in his carry-on bag. Though he has had some luck at Paraguayan and Colombian-owned mini-markets, he says it’s hard to find the spices and materials in Argentina.

In addition to feeding the hungry masses, these closed-door restaurants play another role: injecting bits of colorful diversity into a somewhat white-washed porteño city, beginning with the language itself.

“Even with the [restaurant] name, I am educating people about my country,” says Ramírez.

Xochitl means “flower” in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. Ramírez uses his dinners to educate guests on the flavors and culture of Mexico, even inviting a Mexican-American friend, Benjamin Atkins, to sing classic rancheras at his dinners.

Dinner at Xochitl. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

Dinner at Xochitl. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

For Lewis, it’s about presenting diverse vegetarian food and providing an opportunity for communion between Argies and expats.

“I think it’s important that we are more conscious about what we eat, and the cultivation of plant based foods generally causes less damage to the earth and the people involved in the process than meat.”

Vegetarian, however, doesn’t mean flavorless. In fact, Lewis targets foreign diners who enjoy spicy food, as well as Argentines who want to experience the beauty of spice and aren’t afraid to say no to meat.

“We always include spicy dishes because they are so hard to come by in Argentina,” she says.

Dinner and music at The Sunday Reception. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

Dinner and music at The Sunday Reception. Photo: Maryella Shelton-Dyson

Adding flavor to the city

These chefs see themselves as complements to the overall Buenos Aires dining experience, which has for decades relied on traditional Italian-influenced cooking and, of course, meat.

“We are cooks who want to present things that don’t exist here,” says Ramírez, adding that he believes the rise of foreign-born chefs has made the city’s food scene “richer.”

“I don’t think we are in competition because there is only so much space at our tables and we are doing it for the same reasons.”

Could the historically Eurocentric Buenos Aires be the new melting pot of the Americas? These unique restaurants and community spaces bring a splash of necessary color to Argentina, while encouraging diversity and connecting to escalating immigration and tourism in Buenos Aires. Perhaps the Puerta Cerrada is just the push Argentina needs to welcome different tastes and customs.