Italian coffee culture has spread throughout the world in the last twenty years or so, replacing the previously ubiquitous instant coffee and watery percolator fare with macchiatos and café lattes, but thanks to the country’s Italian immigrants, Argentines have long enjoyed Italian-style coffee — albeit with a few local twists.
Mate may be the official national beverage, but coffee drinking is a refined, lingering art in Argentina’s cafes. While well-prepared, coffee’s central position in Argentine life doesn’t mean that aficionados traditionally consider it among the world’s best though — in an average corner dinner the coffee is made with robusta coffee beans, while connoisseurs consider the arabica bean to be superior.
Giant multinational coffee chain, Starbucks bulldozed its way into the Argentine market in 2008 raising the quality bar for coffee beans and bringing with them the concept of ‘coffee to go.’ After the novelty has worn off, the phenomenon seems to be sticking. Starbucks now has dozens of stores throughout the country and by all appearances is aggressively seeking to dominate the market.
But unlike in the US twenty years ago, when Starbucks made its move out of Seattle, Argentina is already spoiled for choice when it comes to rich, decent-quality coffee prepared by competent barristas. Aside from the countless neighborhood and downtown Buenos Aires cafés, whose coffee quality can vary from middling to excellent, there are also some local chains such as Aroma, Havanna and The Coffee Store, which offer well-roasted arabica coffee and delicious snacks.
A charming aspect of frittering away a morning over a cup of joe in traditional Argentine style is that it is almost always served with a glass of seltzer and couple of cookies.
Here is a guide to the most common cups of coffee that you can order in most Argentine cafes. Select with care — you will be judged:
• Café (a shot of espresso/short black)
If you ask for nothing more than a coffee, “un café,” without specifying details, you will be brought the basic short black in a small espresso cup. To be sure there’s no misunderstanding, you can say, “un café chico” and give the nationally recognized hand symbol when ordering (see image). For those who like life in the fast lane. It’s quick, strong, and it will certainly perk you up for a few hours.
• Café en jarrito
The same espresso coffee as above, but in a mini-mug. Still smaller than a regular coffee cup. This is basically a double espresso, so don’t expect to sleep for approximately three days after drinking one.
• Cortado (macchiato)
The most commonly ordered style in Argentina, this is an espresso which has been “cut” with a little milk, to take the edge off the bitterness. You can also ask for it in a jarrito, as above. Only when you’ve sat in a café and sipped on a cortado can you say that you have truly visited Argentina.
• Café con crema
The same as a cortado, but with a dollop of cream instead of milk. A nice dessert coffee. If you’re a tightwad, check the price first, as sometimes they will add an extra charge for the cream.
For the lightweights who can’t handle a cortado, a lagrima is the inversion of the formula; an espresso cup filled with milk and just a touch, or ‘drop’ of coffee.
This is like the bigger, weakling brother of the regular café chico. Hot water is added to a shot or two of espresso to dilute the strength a little. We don’t really see the point of this one.
• Café con leche (café latte/flat white)
A regular sized coffee cup half filled with coffee and half with milk. You can vary the dosage by saying “mas leche que café” (more milk than coffee). You could ask for more coffee than milk if you wanted too, but that would be a little bit crazy.
• Capuchino (Cappuccino)
This is a slight variation on the Italian blockbuster. It depends on the café you are in, but the Argentine cappuccino will usually come in a slender transparent glass, with clearly visible layers of coffee, milk and froth, topped with a little cinnamon or chocolate. Unlike in Italy, they won’t laugh at you if you order it in the afternoon or evening.
• Submarino (submarine)
OK, it’s not coffee, but it is very Argentine. Served in the same transparent glass as a cappuccino. This time the glass is filled with warm, frothy milk, into which a piece of chocolate is submerged. The chocolate melts and creates a sweet, creamy treat. Mmm… delicious! A drink for the softy in all of us.
—by Dan Colasimone