Operating a restaurant is a tough business. In fact, according to Dun & Bradstreet reports, “restaurants have only a 20 percent chance of surviving two years. The business challenges are compounded in a tough market like Austin, where several new restaurants open each month driving a hunger for people to continually seek out the hottest new place.
It’s impressive when a restaurant survives. That’s exactly the case with Buenos Aires Café, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
A Taste of Home
Engineer, Reina Morris, moved from her native Argentina to Austin more than a decade ago. After arriving, she met a delightful group of Argentines in Austin who frequently held pot luck dinners to share their favorite recipes. The experience led Morris to change her profession to became a pastry chef, and soon after she further pursued her Argentine culinary passion by opening the original Buenos Aires Café on South First Street.
“She didn’t speak English well and she missed home,” says her daughter and Paola MG Smith, co-owner of Buenos Aires Café – Este. “She wanted to bring the flavors of Argentina that she was missing to Austin.”
In 2005 it was, and still is, the only Argentine restaurant in town.
“Ten years ago the culinary scene was very different in Austin,” says Smith. “It was a gamble to open, even in the ’04 (as in 78704 zip code of South Austin). Now there are tons of great restaurants in South Austin. Now people are very adventurous.”
The restaurant has changed during the decade. It moved to larger digs on the east side with Buenos Aires Café – Este, located at 1201 East 6th St., closed the original South Austin location, and opened a second location in the Galleria in Bee Caves.
An important element in the longevity and success of Buenos Aires Café is its warm and inviting atmosphere. Mother and daughter team Morris and Smith draw people in with charm and hospitality. They are the kind of people who care more about their food and the dining experience than anything else. They always have a smile, a kind welcome and plenty of heart stirring stories.
Another significant component of their durability is that they continue to serve a core menu of Argentine classics while introducing new items to keep things fresh.
Speaking of fresh and new, Amy Stowers recently joined the team as the new general manager and head of the beverage program for Buenos Aires Cafe, Este. She has a deep background in the culinary business, start her career in family restaurant at a young age. She moved to Austin in 1999 and worked at Vin Bistro where she developed a palate for wine. She has honed her interest in wine by passing the Introductory Exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers.
“I like simple cocktails with Argentine heritage and a touch of Austin,” says Stowers. “I do things like take New Age Rosé wine from Argentina and add a splash of Campari. It brings a hint of bitterness to balance the sweetness of the wine to make it pleasing to the palate.”
What to Eat and Drink
Stowers quickly learned her way around the Buenos Aires kitchen and bar, working with Smith, to pair cocktails and wine with traditional Argentine dishes. She has revamped the wine list combining a solid selection of 80 percent Argentine wines with fun and approachable wines from around the world.
“I like wines that have an old world sensibility in a new world style Argentine wine,” says Stowers. “Wines like the Las Nencias Reserve Blend, made with Bonarda, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah that are easy drinking with a nod to Bordeaux find a place on our list.”
For a perfect three course meal, Smith and Stowers recommend the following food and drink pairings.
Appetizers: PEI Mussels, Rosé and Pisco
Argentina is known for its beef, but with that long coastline, there is also a huge seafood culture. Chef Patrick prepares Prince Edward Island Mussels tossed in a green curry coconut milk with shallots, garlic, and diced Roma tomato. It’s a damn good dish served with grilled ciabatta bread.
Pair those succulent mussels with the New Age Rosé wine cocktail finished with a splash of Campari. The acidity of the wine sings with the shellfish.
If you’re in the mood for a cocktail, try the Un Vagón Hibiscus infused Pisco, made with Deep Eddy Vodka, fresh lemon, shaken served up in a martini, finished with a drizzle of local strawberry-lavender shrub and a candied lemon wheel. Smith explains the history of the Un Vagón name saying, “It is a slang term for the ‘it girl’ or the society lady. She is a woman who exudes style, grace and beauty.”
Second Course: Empanadas, Malbec and Gin
Buenos Aires Café creates seasonal empanadas weekly, and serves them individually, so they can be an appetizer or a main. Argentine cuisine incorporates international influences like cumin from Spain and the Arab countries. The Buenos Aires Café empanadas are oven baked Salta style (think flaky meat pie). There are five varieties to choose from:
- Suave: mild ground beef, green onions, raisins, green olives, fresh herbs, traditional spices
- Pollo: shredded roasted chicken, red bell peppers, green onions, fresh herbs
- Atun: Genova tuna, onions, red bell peppers, tomatoes, black and green olives, oregano.
- Verdura: spinach, ricotta, parmesan, onions
- Semanal: spicy tomato braised beef, potato and cheese.
All empanadas are served with house-made chimichurri, which isn’t traditionally done in Argentina, but satisfies Austinites’ love for dipping.
Pair them with the Valle Las Nencias Reserve Blend, a big bold wine named for the violet flower that grow on the hillsides of Argentina. The earthy Malbec and juicy Bonarda in the wine are great with the Suave, Semanal and Atun empanadas.
An herbal and complex Gran Gomero cocktail makes an excellent pairing with any of the empanadas. The cocktail made with Waterloo Gin, Amaro Montenegro, fresh lime, sugar, blackberry cardamom shrub is served on the rocks with a lime twist. Oh so good, and easy drinking. It is named for the El Gran Gomero, a more than 200 year old tree in the central park of the Recoleta, neighborhood of Buenos Aires. When Smith was a child, her mother Reina would take her to the park to pick blueberries near the majestic tree. Similarly, Treaty Oak Distilling, makers of the Waterloo Gin, also ties its name to the historic Treaty Oak tree in Austin.
If you want a bolder cocktail, try the Santiago made with Makers Mark, Angostura bitters, lemon juice, sugar. Smith smiles when describing this cocktail, “This was my husband’s first drink. Now he loves cocktails. Amaros are big in Argentina and this cocktail is similar in style. It was created by Pichin Santiago, who was a famous bartender in Argentina in the 1940s. He had a lab to develop drinks, and wrote a book. Tragos Magicos de pichin el barman.
Third Course: Spinach Ensalada, Chicken Pâté and Petit Verdot
Light and refreshing, the salad made with a blend of organic baby spinach, feta cheese, organic Fuji apples and spicy house roasted pecans tossed in house made sweet and tangy balsamic vinaigrette is a lovely accompaniment to the rich chicken pâté. The house-made pâté is topped with a brandy glaze, served with sliced baguette, pickled cucumbers and red onions, capers, whole grain mustard, fig marmalade and served with pink Himalayan salt. A healthy layer of chicken fat seals in the luscious love underneath. It’s insane.
Try the Ruca Malen Petit Verdot with the pâté. The firm tannins play well with the fatty chicken and the plum and black cherry flavors in this velvety smooth wine give added zip to the fig marmalade.
A delightful cocktail to pair with it is the Suavecito, made with house made Malbec syrup infused with cracked pepper, coriander and Aji Molido, along with Benedictine, Pierre Ferrand Ambre, stirred and served over large block ice, garnished with sage. This drink is smooth and sexy with the right spiciness to make the pâté sing. Suavecito is slang for a smooth talker, which you definitely will be after one of these.
Celebrate 10 years of Argentine cuisine and hospitality at Buenos Aires Café.
Disclosure, I was provided food and beverage samples at no charge during a media tasting.