Tucked away a couple of blocks behind Congress this buzzing cantina has proved a well-kept secret, serving up perfectly cooked, flavor-filled meat and all the fixings at a third of the price of some of the tourist hotspots for over fifteen years
Such is its popularity with in-the-know locals that one can arrive any evening of the week to find Cervantes not only open, but packed with porteños.
Although it opens around 8p.m., things really get going here closer to 10pm and even though the dining area takes up two spacious rooms, the sight of a snaking line of hungry patrons through the restaurant is not uncommon on weekends. The decor is basic; tourist posters of Patagonia are the only decoration and the tangerine/custard paint-job on the walls might soon be celebrating its own bicentenary, but no one comes here for the interior design.
There is a kitsch fountain in the area separating the two dining rooms, but any calming effect of the soft sound of trickling water is drowned out by the buzz of controlled chaos as pouting waiters dance hurriedly through the tables, limboing out of the way of swilling wine glasses and balancing impossible towers of steaks, sides and salads.
Service can be sloppy; appetizers might arrive with the check, but this is forgivable when you witness the no-nonsense gentlemen waiters, in crisp white shirts with sleeves rolled up to the elbows, waistcoats and bow ties casually managing dizzying orders from dozens of tables without the aid of pencil and paper.
Nowadays in Buenos Aires the only Argentinean accent you will hear in some restaurants is that of the waiter. Cervantes is the antithesis. Attractive twenty-somethings play the dating game alongside mothers who didn’t fancy cooking as chuckling grandfathers give troublesome toddlers the taste of their first drop of wine. Families and friends come and go, dignified and dapper old gentlemen set the world to rights over a bottle of red whilst the melancholy lonely diner engulfs himself in his reading between mouthfuls of steak and wine.
The food is typical, reliable Argentinean fare done simply and extremely well and there is a broad selection of dishes on the menu, besides what’s on the grill. Basic starter options include grilled provolone and a selection of different cold cuts of meat with sauces.
Half a dozen salads are offered including beetroot, radish, egg, carrot, pickle, apple and, oddly enough, golf sauce —a dubious Argentine invention that is a mix of tomato sauce and mayonnaise. The pasta portions are hearty and come with the diner’s choice among a selection of 14 sauces, most notably, pesto, prawns and Parisienne.
The delicious omelets are the size of a birthday-cake; often they are sliced up and devoured between a whole family. A few rice dishes, meatballs, supremas (chicken escalopes) and milanesas (breaded steaks) are also available. Should there be room for dessert the flan, a local delicacy, is highly recommended – light and creamy and hard to refuse for the price. Grilled apples, fruit salad, ice cream and a good selection of Argentine cheeses are also on offer.
The specialty of this restaurant and what keeps the crowds coming back is what’s on the grill. Juicy chorizo sausages bursting with flavor, succulent rump steaks still sizzling in their juices before you on the metal serving plate accompanied with an inexpensive liter of sweet house wine (there’s no wine list here) will allow even the most indulgent gluttons plenty of change to spend later. Pork cutlets, chuck ribs, rump roast, skirt streak and others are available from the grill as well as grilled hake, salmon and brótola (forkbeard). If with a large group, why not make like the locals and order a few dishes to share, trying bits and pieces of each until you can manage no more? Most main courses are reasonably priced. An exception are the eye-catching ‘Cervantes Specials’ — essentially a pile of vegetables, beetroot, Spanish potatoes, coleslaw and eggs on top of grilled beef, chicken or pork.
Don’t forget to ask the waiter for a jar of blood-red chimichurri, a vital meat-eaters condiment comprising garlic, herbs, spices and oil that is often overlooked by the tourists – but you won’t find any of those here.
—by George Warren
Cervantes I $-$$
Perón 1883 (corner of Riobamba)
Tel: 4372 5227/ 1060
•Hours 12-4pm; 8pm-12pm (daily)