This Argentine Market Is One of the San Fernando Valley's Best Secrets
Sandwiched between a notary office and nail salon, Mercado Buenos Aires is a wonderland of empanadas, grilled meats, and yerba mate.
If you didn’t know what was behind the blackened windows of the Mercado Buenos Aires, kept dark to diffuse the piercing rays of the California sun, you’d be unlikely to guess that the restaurant sandwiched between a notary office and a nail salon was one of the San Fernando Valley’s best kept culinary secrets.
Like a smaller Argentina-themed Eataly, the restaurant and market offers a sprawling assortment of foods that only a trip to Buenos Aires really could. A family-owned business since 1989, the space was taken over in 2009 by chef Paul Rodriguez, who is committed to the original mission of showcasing Argentine food, goods, and culture.
The restaurant's menu is vast and varied and, like most menus you see in Argentina, heavy on meat options. Rodriguez says one of the most popular dishes is the "Parrillada Buenos Aires," a spread for two that contains no less than 39 ounces of meats, including grilled short ribs, skirt steak, Argentine sausage, black sausage, sweetbreads, and chinchulines, all served with a tabletop grill to keep cooked components warm. (At $44, including two sides, it's a bargain.)
But the most-ordered dish, Rodriguez says without hesitation, is the empanadas, prepared in the traditional Argentine style (using flour, rather than corn.) They are such a hit that they often sell them by the dozen, or by the hundreds if you count the catering orders.
Also popular are the sándwiches de miga, delicate tea sandwiches with the crusts cut off. While there is some debate as to who introduced them to Argentina—some say the Italians, others say the English—their ubiquity is a given. (Rodriguez reports that the prosciutto ones are his favorites.)
And then there is the bakery counter where lighter-than-air pastries look like they might actually float out from behind the glass. Milhojas, facturas con dulce de leche, puffs of strawberry mousse, and cañoncitos dulce de leche are so beautiful there’s a certain heartbreak in eating them.
Over in the marketplace, the shelves are stocked with hard-to-find imports. Roughly delineated into deli, dry goods, and general merchandise, items range from frozen foods to filet mignon to soccer jerseys, and open a small window into daily Argentine life.
Naturally, there are shelves upon shelves of imported yerba mate, a tea for which the traditions associated with it are just as significant as its taste. As Rodriguez explains, the drink was originally made popular by Argentine gauchos and is traditionally consumed in small, carved-out squashes or wooden cups. The tea is consumed with a bombilla, or metal straw, with a small filter on the bottom to keep the leaves from clogging. The cup is then passed around from person to person. The ceremony is “meant for friends and family," Rodriguez says. "They all drink out of the same straw.”
Oddly enough, it’s neither the food nor the imports that make the biggest impression; it's the sense of community. From raucous viewings of important soccer games that spill into the parking lot, to the celebrations held when Argentina-born Pope Francis, whose picture hangs on the wall, was made Pope, there’s a clear sense that this is not just a restaurant or store—it's a gathering place.
The dining area, which is lined with a giant, Instagram-ready mural of the capital city’s famous 9 de Julio Avenue and hand-painted portraits of beloved soccer players, is generally packed with diners who seem to be ordering by the carload. There is a sense that when you are here, you are also somehow somewhere else. And that's exactly the magic of it.