Someone who was researching Buenos Aires restaurants found my blog recently. Emma sent me an email asking me my opinion on where she and her friends could have the best steak in Buenos Aires. She had heard about Cabaña Las Lilas and wanted to know what I thought since I always recommend my favorite, El Mirasol. When my father-in-law heard this, he invited us to dinner at Cabaña Las Lilas so we could do a comparison study between the two restaurants.
The last time I was in Cabaña Las Lilas was in May 2000 with my mom and my sister on their visit to Buenos Aires. I remember being impressed with the concept and having a fantastic meal with efficient service.
The restaurant was opened in 1997 as a showcase for the meat taken from cattle reared at one of the largest estancias (ranches) in Argentina. It was also one of the first places to open in the then newly-gentrified Puerto Madero. Ten years later it has remained one of or probably the busiest parrilla restaurants in the city.
Arriving at the restaurant, we were led through the already overcrowded bar to our prime table on the terrace overlooking the Rio de la Plata. It was 8 p.m., there was a imminent rainstorm and the evening was humid. The restaurant was not that busy but was filling up slowly with large groups of tourists, mostly Brazilians and Americans getting ready to eat some meat.
As soon as we sat down, an appetizer platter of roasted peppers, slices of cold roast beef and sauteed mushrooms was set down in the middle of the table. Freshly-baked pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread) was also served with bread sticks and Melba toast. The cheese bread were very good but we were surprised to be served something not typically Argentinean. A large bread basket selection was also offered while we perused the two page menu and made our choices. When we had finally decided, it was difficult to get someones attention. There were lots of busboys and servers bustling about but for some reason getting a maitre d’ to take our order was taking longer than we expected.
Finally, he came around and we ordered chorizo, morcilla, empanada de carne, mollejas and an arugula salad. For our main course, we chose asado de tira (short-ribs), matambre de cerdo (pork flank steak) and ojo de bije (tenderloin). A 2005 Malbec Grande Reserve from Alta Vista in Mendoza was chosen by my husband to accompany our meal. We asked about having a copy of the menu for a souvenir and were informed that the menu was for sale and could be purchased on our way out.
While we waited for the starters to arrive, I went inside to take some photos of their impressive grill. This glass-enclosed area has two large grills separated in the middle with a coal starter. On it were numerous sausages cooking while hunks of raw meat were being prepared for the grill.
By this time, there were no more tables to be had and there was a still quite a large crowd waiting at the bar to be seated. Our starters were served and we were confused to see two pieces each of morcilla and chorizo when we had only ordered one of each and found out that contrary to most parrillas, at Las Lilas one order is two pieces. We accepted them anyway and were not particularly impressed with the quality of the sausages. The empanadas were a disaster – soggy dough that was reheated and burnt (see the photo below if you don’t believe me). The mollejas were thickly-sliced and not seared enough on the grill to make it crispy on the outside so ended up being cloying instead of just rich.
The main courses arrived soon after and the waiters were preparing to set down a piece of meat per person which is again a deviation from the norm. In most parrillas, meat is offered to everyone and portioned out unless otherwise indicated. More often than not, the whole table shares the order of different cuts of beef family-style. This request threw the waiters off completely as they hadn’t prepared to split up the order so they went off to one side and brought back these charcoal-based serving dishes and piled the cut-up pieces of meat all mixed up on this hot plate which was another big mistake. The whole point of ordering meat jugoso (medium rare) is to have the meat bloody in the middle and cooked on the outside and this sizzling hot server cooked our previously rare meat to well done before we even had a bite. The asado de tira was chewy, the matambre de cerdo was tough and impossible to slice even with the special Cabaña Las Lilas steak knife (also for sale) and the French fries and Pommes Soufflé (soufflé potatoes) were cold and soggy. My in-laws who shared an ojo de bije said that their steak was lukewarm.
The atmosphere at the restaurant changed from bustling to cruise-ship dinner chaos with waiters running back and forth and a different server coming to our table every time we needed something. We didn’t finish the meat and left quite a lot of short ribs and most of the pork flank steak on the serving dishes.
Once our plates were cleared, the dessert list was placed on the table and a tiramisu was ordered by my mother-in-law to share with our five year old. The rest of us ordered espressos and infusions which were served with a platter of petits fours. If not for the company, the dinner would have been a disaster. At the very least, we completed our research on steak places in the city.
So, what’s the verdict? Was it the best steak I had in Buenos Aires? Definitely not, but it seems to be the best steak for foreigners because for some reason the place is packed for lunch and dinner daily and do about 400 covers a night. The Puerto Madero location is very nice but the atmosphere is not typically Argentine. There is none of the local flavor present that one gets at La Brigada (because of the atmosphere and San Telmo location) or at El Mirasol (because of the locals who frequent the place). Las Lilas is a steak factory and undoubtedly a moneymaker, especially with the prices they charge, but I wouldn’t recommend it to my friends. Come to think of it, I’m not sure who I would recommend it to. (Emma, if you’re reading this, don’t say you haven’t been warned. )
(N.B. We found out later on that Cabaña Las Lilas was recently sold to a Brazilian group hence the appearance of cheese bread and lots of Brazilian diners.)
Cabaña Las Lilas
Alicia Moreau de Justo 516
Tel: +54 11 4313 1336
* Food (Overpriced and below standard, you’d be better off buying some Cabaña Las Lilas raw meat and grilling it yourself)
*** Atmosphere (The terrace is pleasant especially in the summer when one can watch the sun set before dinner)
** Service (Frenzied to say the least; the waiters somehow get the order right but never have the time to connect with the client plus there is always that feeling that they need to turn the table and seat the next group of hungry tourists)