If Tony Hawk and Chef Ludo had a love baby, it would probably come out something like Leandro ‘Lele’ Cristóbal of the acclaimed Café San Juan. Sexy Argentine celebrity mega chef, total groso in the kitchen, TV personality, reality TV show star, tattooed
douche bag bad ass, and skater boy playa has made Café San Juan one of the most popular restaurants in Buenos Aires. I’d describe the cuisine as mutt-like modern Argentine with some Spanish sprinklings and a few love-juice squirts of the chef’s Hungarian roots. Café San Juan has gotten lots of hype over the years, and while it’s no longer the hidden treasure it used to be, the food is still pretty damn good.
The dishes really shine.They have bold flavors. They have soul with unique ingredient combinations. They are all winners. The menu? An inventive selection that is always changing depending what’s in season. There are no physical menus, just a portable chalk board that the mozo uncomfortably hovers over the table while you choose what you’ll be eating: tapas-style plates, rustic large dishes to share filled with seafood, meat, more meat, fish, more seafood. Choosing what to eat becomes a difficult task, not only does everything look good, but you have the added pressure of a dude standing in front of you holding this heavy-ish chalk board impatiently waiting for an overly-zealous-food gringa to make her crucial food decisions. It’s kinda stressful.
Let’s get to it. If you like paté, order the paté de conejo con confitura de ciruela or for those who zon’t zpeak ze ezpanish rabbit paté with a plum jam. It also comes with a cool herb-stick in the middle.
Talk about zoo breath, eat the bruschetta-like tapenade appetizer with anchovies and give someone a beso with extra lengua.
CSJ offers a few different escabeches. I’ve seen pickled rabbit, chicken and lamb tongue all on the menu, and while I’ve tried the chicken and lamb, and had balanced nice flavors, I probably would pick something else for another round.
Mejillones are more my styyyyyle. Once at a restaurant I ordered a big plate of what I thought was mejillones (mussels), but I really ordered a massive portion of poorly cooked mollejas (sweetbread). It was a sad day. Luckily, the mejillones are really mejillones at Café San Juan and this massive tray overflowing with the shelled bichos in a totally slurpable earthy broth came out to greet my face. I was so excited with this plate I couldn’t keep the camera steady.
I don’t remember what this was, some sort of fish (really helpful, I know) with a bunch of vegetables in a sweet tangy sauce with crunchy bits. Terrible explanation, great plate of food that I licked clean. Literally. I put my tongue up to the plate and licked it up and down until no drop of sweet sauce was to be seen again.
I bet you wanna reach your hand through the computer screen pop those skrimps in your mouth right now? Langostinos with tomatoes and mushrooms may sound a bit meh, but it was simple, clean, and cooked to perfection. The tiny slivers of garlic gave it the extra umph, and me likes to always get some extra umph acción with fresh shrimp.
Salted desserts are pretty much my favorite thing in the whole entire world. Seriously. Sometimes I bring salt shaker with me and sprinkle it over chocolate or dulce de leche at restaurants. This chocolate mousse cake bomba was covered in salted almondy delights. A total turn on. I got a sprouted a baby hard on.
The only disappointment was the bife de chorizo. The meat, overcooked in some parts, undercooked in others, and the vegetables had pieces of fatty chorizo in the mix which normally I’d be way into (they don’t call me the reina de chori for nothin’) but it was just too greasy <see grease puddle on plate>. I know others who rave about Lele’s bife, so my eating partner was convinced that the poorly presented dish was intentional since we were caught filming inside the restaurant without asking.
For a hot minute, PUTF (yeah I just made Pick Up The Fork into an acronym) was going to go to audiovisual (ya know, like the section in the library), venturing off to BA restaurants and taping the entire food experience. For a test run, CSJ seemed like an ideal place to start, as it’s the only restaurant in Buenos Aires that already has it’s own food reality TV show. Long story short, I ain’t one to be in front of the camera. Awkward and uncomfortable, watching the playback of me eating, slurping, and plate licking was more painful than being forced to endure a childbirth video in Freshman health class, or watch a movie with my dad where there’s an hardcore sex scene.
I’ll get my annoying white whine complaints out of the way: Yes, Café San Juan used to be better in the glory days when it was still somewhat of a secret. And compared to other Buenos Aires restaurants where reservations don’t really exist, they are somewhat reserva Nazi’s with a strict policy. (The horror of a restaurant that actually wants to turn tables, I know.) But it’s still quite delectable for a reason, and not just because their whole door is covered in all the press, or because they are on TV, or because Lele is a major hottie who gets his hands dirty (mmmm sucio).
It’s because CSJ has a killer team of cooks who serve bad ass soulful food, with a lot of onda, energy and honesty, busting out with total wonders in the kitchen.
Café San Juan
San Juan 450, San Telmo
Tuesday – Sunday: 12pm – 4pm, 8pm – close
Note: Café San Juan has opened up a second location, La Cantina (Chile 474). Both serve great food, but the original will always have a special place in my cold, black heart.