A Family’s Dedication to Beef Lives On at Don Julio in Buenos Aires


BUENOS AIRES — At Don Julio, a much-beloved steakhouse in the city’s low-rise Palermo neighborhood, a 110-square-foot grill dominates the soaring dining room in the way that a grand piano commands attention on a concert stage.

Inside the packed dining room, which seats 87, you can always hear the comforting susurrus of meat cooking over wood fire. The sound whets the appetite as effectively as Pavlov’s clanging bells.

Nevertheless, despite a long growing season and fertile soil, good fresh vegetables are not yet as widely available as they have become in markets in the United States. To ensure a constant supply of seasonal produce, Mr. Rivero harvests a five-acre garden that he planted about 20 miles outside town in the rich soil of La Plata.

In season, he serves fire-roasted peppers, salads of tender greens, and flavorful zucchini charred on the grill and brushed with olive oil, oregano and salt. Plump tomatoes are dressed in olive oil from Mendoza and garnished with brined capers, both berries and leaves.

In keeping with family tradition, Don Julio serves only grass-fed beef, once the rule in Argentina but now more likely to be the product of feedlots.

In contrast to feedlot cattle, which are fed corn and soy and slaughtered at 14 to 16 months, Mr. Rivero’s suppliers raise steers for 24 to 30 months. This longer period on the pampas allows the animals to develop the intramuscular fat, or marbling, that makes for tenderness and deep flavor.

As for dry-aging meat, a popular technique, Mr. Rivero is not a fan. The process allows airborne molds to interact with beef to create a distinctly funky flavor that many people find appealing. Mr. Rivero, in contrast, seeks unmitigated beefiness. “If a steer is raised correctly,” he said, ”it will already have unadulterated, and balanced, beef flavor.”

Letting the meat dry-age and lose about 30 percent of its weight, Mr. Rivero estimates, is costly. Moreover, he sees it as “a crime against the sacrifice of the animal.” In Spanish, the common usage of the word for “sacrifice” rather than matanza — the equivalent of “slaughter” — conveys a more intimate and purposeful attitude toward the death of an animal.

At any given moment in the restaurant, you’ll find Pepe Sotelo, the chef and grill master, working over a panoply of strip steaks, rib-eyes, tenderloins and skirt steaks, as well as plump homemade sausages and a phalanx of sweet breads.

The grill sits about six inches above a bed of hardwood quebracho coals that pulse with an orange heartbeat. If you hold your hand above the grate, you should be able to count to three before it feels too hot. That’s the right temperature for cooking a perfect steak.

Under the supervision of the charcutier Guido Tassi, Don Julio offers a variety of homemade sausages, much of it made from pork and the trimmings of whole beef carcasses.

Like a number of Buenos Aires neighborhoods, Palermo has a social organization that started as a murga (something like a New Orleans second line band). It grew into a year-round club, populist and Peronist in its politics. Julio Cogorno founded the murga in Palermo, where he was widely acknowledged as the garrulous unofficial mayor of the barrio.

“He was a terrific guy who drank a lot,” Mr. Rivero said. “Finally, the doctors told him that he had to stop drinking. He did, and died within a year.”

Mr. Rivero paused. “Maybe he shouldn’t have stopped.”



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