Buenos Aries Café celebrates 10 years of delicious Argentine cuisine

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.

Ruca Malen Petit Verdot
Ruca Malen Petit Verdot

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.

Amy Stowers and Paola MG Smith of Buenos Aires Cafe
Amy Stowers and Paola MG Smith of Buenos Aires Cafe

 

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

Un Vagón and PEI Mussels
Un Vagón and PEI Mussels

 

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

Malbec and Empanadas
Malbec and Empanadas

 

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.

Gran Gomero, Santiago and Empanadas
Gran Gomero, Santiago and 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

Chicken Pâté and Petit Verdot
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.

What are you drinking?

Roark Wine Company: A one-man wine (minimalist) empire

In college I wanted to emulate the minimalism of Jack Kerouac in On The Road, sleeping on a rice mat and being able to carry everything I owned in a rucksack. His philosophy sounded so profound when he explained, “everything belongs to me because i am poor”. I romanticized the ideal of stripping away material trappings to focus on the present. Nothing to interfere with the here and now. Well, except for maybe some Benzedrine.

That’s sort of the way Ryan Roark approaches making wine. His minimalistic winemaking philosophy is to let the land and the fruit speak for themselves.  “I work hard to bring the grapes to the winery on the right day, at the best possible time. That way there is no need to mess with the grapes.” While he’s not a strict adherent to natural wine making, he uses neutral yeast and avoids acid or water additions to let the wine reflect the terroir. I bet he doesn’t even go for the occasional dose of Benzedrine.

Roark, a native Texan, studied environmental science at Texas A&M. From there he entered a study abroad program in France, learning about grape growing, the aesthetics of wine and did a viticulture internship where he learned the ropes in vineyard and cellar work at a small family winery. His experience working with a family that managed every aspect of the business from the farming, to winemaking to sales and marketing shaped his approach to the wine industry in a profound way.

After an internship at Etude in Napa and another in New Zealand, Roark moved to Santa Barbara where he wound up at a vineyard management company. Working the fields helped him uncover a forgotten jewel. He found Chenin Blanc grapes in vineyards planted in the 1960s, and decided to purchase the grapes to make about 60 cases of his own wine at a friend’s winery.

Roark Wines world headquarters

That small batch was the first step toward becoming a winemaker. Patterning his approach after the family wineries in France, Roark is farming an acre of his own. He picks the grapes, makes the wine, hand bottles the wine and sells it all by mail order all on his own. He is a one-man show and doesn’t even have a website or the assistance of marketing, PR or distributors to help him move his wine. He relies completely on word of mouth.

In 2010 he rented a 1,000 square foot building and equipment to make his wine. His adherence to simplicity even extends to his facilities. He goes so far as to use old school winemaking basket press and whole cluster fermentation. And he lives in the winery, sleeping enveloped in soft blankets of grape aromas to stain his dreams. Minimalism lets him cut out all the extra costs and keep his wines affordable.

Letting the grapes show what they have with minimal intervention means that Roark is really at the whim of Mother Nature. There was a lot of variability in the vineyard where he’s harvesting. In 2009 he had ripe grapes with plenty of sugar that produced Chenin Blanc with riper, rounder mouthfeel and slightly higher alcohol. He made 100 cases and it sold very quickly.

In 2010 the sugar was lower and the acidity shines through with citrus flavors. Roark says 2010 is typical of the style he wants to make. He is shooting for wine that is similar to Vouvray from the Loire Valley, punctuated with bright acidity and mineral characters to pair well with fresh vegetables, grilled seafood.

How does it taste? Bill Elsey, sommelier and specialist of wine and spirits for the Red Room Lounge and WINES.com, and I opened the 2009 and 2010. Here is what we thought.

2009 Santa Ynez Valley Chenin Blanc

Look Light gold with great clarity. The ’09 is slightly deeper in color than the 2010 with a copper tinge.
Smell It has aromas of dried leaves, grass and mild lemon zest. The scents are skin driven not like fresh fruit and shows good characteristics of Chenin Blanc.
Taste This approachable wine has springy citrus, bright acidity and is slightly floral. The middle palate has a honey suckle, cotton candy fading to peach pit. The alcohol is zippy on the tongue giving way to a quick finish. It’s a dry style lacking the hefty residual sugar found in some Chenin Blancs in the U.S.
Price $15

2010 Santa Ynez Valley Chenin Blanc 

Look Shimmering light gold with crystal clarity.
Smell This guy is as herbaceous as a fat sack of weed or a basket of Cascade hops. After the kind bud scent, it has a stony mineral backbone and citrus. It’s less aromatic than the ’09.
Taste The 2010 has full frontal citrus that carries through the palette. The citrus dominates as a single note without a lot of variation. It has lively acidity with an under-current of minerality, which is just what Roark is gunning for.
Price $15

Bill’s read? “I wouldn’t have thought these were new world wines. They definitely have an old world aesthetic.”

My read? He hit the mark in 2009, making a wine that resembled one you would find from Loire. However, 2010 lacked the complexity that made 2009 enjoyable. It’s still a decent wine that would be satisfying on a hot summer day.

Roark also started making Malbec in 2010 with grapes grown in the hottest part of the Santa Barbara County, Happy Canyon. He may be the only person in the area making Malbec. Right before he picked, there was an unusually hot spell which ripened the grapes quickly. The resulting juice lacked the acidity he wanted, so Roark purchased under ripe Cabernet Franc grapes to blend in to boost the acidity as it’s done in the Loire Valley. He just released this wine in March 2012 and is confident he’ll sell out the limited production of 60 cases.

I got my hands on a pre-release bottle that was labeled with duct tape. Nice minimalist touch that I’m sure Kerouac would approve of.

2010 Malbec Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara 

Look Opaque midnight purple with fat grapey edges and lush viscosity.
Smell It has aromas of spicy blackberry and funky back woods fruit hanging on the vine late into the chill fall.
Taste The 2010 has powerful fruit showing grape, blueberry and plum flavors, with red licorice intertwined. The gripping tannins cling through a slightly smoky, persistent finish. This is an easy drinking – “gulp-able” even – Malbec that would pair well with Texas BBQ and stout meat.
Price $25


Elsey liked it just fine. He said, “This is varietally correct. It’s like what I get from Argentina with no oak influence, the alcohol is balanced with bright acidity. Fresh.”

Roark is also farming an acre vineyard to make Syrah and Grenache. He’s interested in making a blend that is very acidic and light in style. In the 2011 harvest he picked the grapes and fermented them separately, and blended them to bring out the desired characteristics.

2010 Grenache 60%/ Syrah 40% Santa Ynez Valley Santa Barbara County

Look The wine shows amethyst purple with ruby edges. It has some clarity, but is almost opaque.
Smell It’s a fragrant wine with red fruit, raspberry, white pepper spiciness and lavender scents that blossomed over time.
Taste Roark’s Rhone style blend has flavors of plum and tobacco with bright acidity good tannins. The oak doesn’t get in the way of the fruit. I poured a second glass of this one.
Price To be determined when it is available for sale.

Roark can’t fit everything he owns in a rucksack and he’s soon going to have more to stuff. He has development plans to plant another two or three acres over the next year or two. He plans to build his to 1,000 to 2,000 cases a year. That minimalist philosophy runs deep though. He’ll stay small and keep selling direct by mail order and to local restaurants and shops. He hopes to build group of devoted fans over time.

If you want to get your grubby mitts on some of this wine, you’ve got to figure out how the old-fashioned U.S. Postal Service works and mail order it. Roark takes orders and checks at:  Roark Wine Company, PO Box 1833, Santa Ynez, CA  93460.

Quaint.

What are you drinking?