Argentina was born, literally, from the entrails of the Spanish. The conquistadors who arrived at the La Plata River in 1536 devoured each other in an attempt to survive hunger and the hostilities of the Querandi tribes: “The things that were seen there have never been seen in writing: eating a brother’s own offal,” narated the poet Luis Miranda de Villafañe, who accompanied Pedro de Mendoza in the founding of Buenos Aires. The episodes of cannibalism took place on the banks of the Riachuelo, in what is now the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca.
However, Jorge Luis Borges claimed that the city had emerged further north, in the most picturesque area of Palermo. “A whole block [...] an even block that persists in my neighborhood: Guatemala, Serrano, Paraguay, Gurruchaga,” he wrote in his poem Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires. Don Julio, the best steakhouse in the world, stands at the intersection of Guatemala and Gurruchaga streets, a little over 300 feet from the house where Borges spent his childhood. Approximately 700 people, both locals and tourists, make a pilgrimage to this corner every day to eat half a ton of the most excellent Argentine meat: roast, flank, skirt, rib eye, prime rib steak, strip steak, tenderloin, rump and a dozen other cuts. What a Borgesian synchronicity that the most famous steakhouse in Argentina is so close to where the most famous writer in the country grew up and who, incidentally, was a great connoisseur of the fine art of barbecue.
Barbecue, or asado, is a religion in Argentina, where, according to 2022 figures, some 260 pounds of meat are consumed per capita every year. If Don Julio is a cathedral for carnivores, Pablo Rivero, founder and owner, is the leader of this church. Every day he presides over a liturgy that is celebrated around the fire: he watches over the ignition of the coals (they use white quebracho charcoal from the northern province of Santiago del Estero), he “blesses” the meat that will be served (steers weighing more than 1,100 pounds from their own sustainable breeding program) and examines the wines, a list with more than 1,600 labels that cover the last 100 years of the country’s wine history.
Those mere mortals who cannot reserve a table at Don Julio — the waiting list is more than two months — line up early with the hope of being part of this ceremony, making this corner one of the liveliest in Palermo, an immigrant neighborhood turned into a fashion and restaurant area. The intersection of the streets of Guatemala and Gurruchaga never sleeps. The 100 employees who work here do about 300 covers at noon and another 400 at night. Here, “God” is the only one who does not have to stand in line or wait to eat. Last March, Lionel Messi, the soccer star who won Argentina’s third World Cup title in 2022, went to have dinner at Don Julio; the news about his presence spread like wildfire and after a few minutes the corner was teeming with residents and fans. The captain of the national team had to leave under police escort while the crowd sang Muchachos, Argentina’s unofficial World Cup anthem.
Pablo Rivero has just won a world cup himself. In March — the same week that the soccer star dined at his restaurant — Don Julio became number one in the World’s 101 Best Steak Restaurants ranking, dethroning London’s Hawksmoor. In addition, this week it took 19th position in the most recent edition of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and it just received the blessing of Ferran Adrià himself, the father of molecular cuisine. “If in 10 years there are a thousand Don Julios, there will be a gastronomic revolution in Argentina,” Adrià said during a recent visit to Lima. “It is an icon; that must be understood. It goes beyond eating very well. It has shown that the steakhouse can evolve, the degrees of doneness are wonderful and there is an effort to mature the meats,” explained the co-founder of the extinct elBulli, named five times the best restaurant in the world.
“These lists are a means for the public to learn about the restaurant, but for me they are not an end in itself. The day they become an end, I will stop enjoying my work,” Rivero tells EL PAÍS. It is a hot February morning in Buenos Aires and the grill masters are already starting the fire for the noon services. Outside, tourists from all over the world add their names to an eternal waiting list. “In Argentina, we all know something about soccer and politics, and a lot about asado,” continues Rivero. In fact, no one knows about it more than him. His grandparents Valentino and Lola managed a butcher shop in his native Rosario, in the province of Santa Fe. His parents, Enrique and Graciela, worked in livestock production. For this restaurateur — as for all Argentineans — life simply cannot be conceived without meat.
Don Julio opened its doors in November 1999, on the eve of the biggest economic crisis in the history of Argentina. The Rivero cattle business had gone bankrupt a few years earlier and the family had had to move to Buenos Aires, to the second floor of the 19th-century residence where the restaurant now operates in the Palermo neighborhood. “Under the house there was already a steakhouse. It was called Los Barrilitos and it was quite bad. When my mom got mad at me, she would tell me: ‘Go eat downstairs.’ One day, when I was 19, I told my parents: ‘I can take over the place and I think we can do well.’ Surprisingly, they thought it was a good idea. We didn’t know anything about this business, but we came from the world of meat and we knew exactly what we had to do,” he recalls.
Rivero kept the essence of the place, the flavor of the old Buenos Aires eateries: the walls lined with wine bottles from floor to ceiling, the hydraulic tile floors, the original wooden chairs and tables. He did change its name, to Don Julio, after a neighbor of the family, a friend who helped them when they arrived in Buenos Aires. He says that the name Julio is a way of not forgetting who he is and where he comes from. The financial crisis of the early 2000s not only devastated the Riveros, but also the entire Argentinean livestock sector. The restaurants of Buenos Aires started serving cheaper, less flavorful meat. To eat good meat, one had to go to the French or Basque restaurants of the Recoleta neighborhood. “I grew up watching my father select live animals in the Rosario cattle market. So I started working the heavy steer in a city where only cheap meat was being served. My idea was to offer, in a neighborhood steakhouse, a noble product that had been lost. The success was immediate,” he says. His grandmother Lola, a Spanish immigrant, took command of the kitchen, becoming a key element of this story.
Rivero was clear from the beginning that in his restaurant he had to use meat to tell his story, which is ultimately the story of Argentina, a country with 45 million people and more than 50 million head of cattle. “In the Elkano restaurant, in Getaria, they talk about the sea, the Cantabrian Sea. Here, in Don Julio, we talk about the Pampas, about these latitudes,” he reflects. A cow that is drawn on the restaurant menu offers a lesson in anatomy, showing tourists where the different cuts come from: the flank, the skirt, the rib eye, the tenderloin, the rump. “I wanted to solve the in the most ethical way possible the omnivore’s dilemma, the dilemma of working with the sacrifice of an animal so that another animal — us — can live,” he explains. He solved it by taking advantage of every single part of the cow. The bread is made with the fat of the steer, and the chorizos, blood sausages and sausages are made with natural casings. “We use every last gram; it is our way of honoring the animal,” he says.
The raw material used here is the purest that exists in Argentina: heavy Aberdeen Angus and Hereford steers, peaceful beasts raised in the traditional way, in the open range and fed with natural pastures. They only work with cattle breeders who use regenerative techniques and clean breeding without fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. “In this country there are more cows than people. We can teach the rest of the world how we do it. Our animals graze freely, capture carbon, fertilize the soil and provide noble food,” says Rivero. He does not understand the voices that criticize the meat industry. “We are the only species that doesn’t just think about its own survival. Man made an impressive evolutionary leap thanks to the consumption of animal protein. If we stop eating meat, we will regress in the next 2,000 years.”
Every month, more than 20,000 carnivores eat at Don Julio. The restaurant employs 115 people. Twelve grill masters are in charge of the coals, working in full view. “They are the stars,” says the restaurateur. “But they have to develop a very difficult aptitude: humility. The humility of knowing that your job consists in not ruining the product. Therein lies their greatness.” The two most popular dishes are the tastiest and scarcest: the steer sweetbreads and the skirt. Only a couple of portions of these delicacies can be extracted from a 1,100-pound animal.
Guido Tassi, a student of the French chef Michel Bras, is the consultant chef. Tassi is in charge of preparing the seasonal menus and devising new salads, sausages and desserts. Tomatoes and vegetables (grown on 30 hectares of their own organic gardens) and the wine list complete the menu. The 60,000 bottles that rest in the cellar are a national wine museum. The oldest, from 1923, cost approximately $1,000.
Aside from being a restaurateur, Pablo Rivero is a neighborhood conservationist. One block from the restaurant, he transformed an abandoned square into an urban garden. “The square was destroyed, taken over by the supporters of River Plate [a Buenos Aires soccer team]. One day, the mayor of Buenos Aires came to eat at Don Julio. Pablo approached him and proposed to turn it into a vegetable garden; 15 days later, the permit was signed,” explains Graciela, the businessman’s mother. She is in charge of coordinating a dozen residents who plant tomatoes, lettuce, leeks, eggplants and more. Across the street, Rivero opened a butcher shop during the Covid-19 pandemic; it was an instant hit. “We had a lot of meat, but we had nowhere to offer it because the restaurant was closed. And we had more than 200 employees who couldn’t lose their jobs.” His sister runs this division of the business. “We have eight tons of meat in stock. It seems like a lot, but half a ton is consumed every day,” explains Yamila Rivero, who uses the old techniques of her butcher grandfather.
A little over 300 feet away, in front of the house where Borges grew up, is El Preferido, one of the oldest bars in the city, described by the writer as “pink as the back of a playing card” in his poem Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires. Rivero saved it from bankruptcy and turned it into a local hot spot.
Currently, the Don Julio universe employs more than 200 people in the neighborhood. Rivero plans to open two more establishments in the area. He also fantasizes about opening a steakhouse in Madrid. “But it’s not going to be called Don Julio,” he points out. He has received many offers to sell the brand or open franchises, but he always says no. “This is and will always be the only Don Julio, the one on Guatemala and Gurruchaga,” he concludes. “Here I fell in love. Here my wife’s water broke. Here I said goodbye to my grandmother. My children grew up between these tables and were fed in this kitchen. For me, there is no other fate for this place.” It all starts and ends here.
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