There’s a reason puerta cerrada Cocina Sunae has been written up in international and local publications, Chef Christina Sunae has been featured on El Gourmet channel, and it’s become one of the most well known closed door restaurants in Buenos Aires: flavor-packed, well executed Southeast Asian food. It’s not difficult to do a search and finds tons of positive reviews, but I thought I’d jump on the wagon (or off the wagon?) and give my own take on the Cocina Sunae closed door experience.
US native Christina Sunae and Argie husband Franco opened up their Colegiales home in mid 2009 to bring the Buenos Aires food scene a taste of Christina’s Asian heritage and culture. Appealing to a whole community that dearly craved spice and rich flavors, Cocina Sunae became (and continues to be) one of the only restaurants in Buenos Aires to offer Southeast Asian food that has a whole lot of soul. Every week the four course menu changes, highlighting dishes from different Southeast Asian countries. You can expect to see treats from Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines.
Cocina Sunae has changed a bit since my first visit a few years ago. Before, it was more like a traditional restaurant with separate tables for each party. Now you get the mix of a traditional supper-club vibe with communal tables, but there is also the choice to opt out if you aren’t into sitting next to strangers – sometimes the luck of the puerta cerrada just isn’t on your side and you could get stuck next to a total creepo.
Unlike other closed door restaurants, this menu doesn’t come with wine pairings for each course. Instead, wines are sold by the bottle and in-house cocktails are also available. I tried both cocktails, one made with lychee, the other lemon grass – a good trago is a nice way to start a meal.
This particular night, the menu featured dishes from the Philippines and Thailand. To start, Lumpia, a Filipino appetizer that is similar to a spring roll, is filled with vegetables and shrimp. I’m all about dipping sauces, and these little fried, crunchy bites were served with garlic-shallot and sweet chili dipping sauces. I completely doused the perfectly fried morsels in the sauce for ultimate dipping sauce action. It came out hot, not too greasy with a great crunch – I only had wished the insides packed a bit more filling.
Move on to Thailand and the second course. When eating Thai back at home, Laab makes the B team order: for the hot minute when I decide to order something healthy-ish (the A team is: pad thai, satay chicken with extra peanut sauce, red curry with chicken, pad see ew, mee krob, tofu and broccoli delight).
Perfect timing for a hot summer day, Sunae’s Laab had really bright, fresh flavors – highlighting the specific ingredients in the dish: diced, almost ground, chicken, fresh mint, cilantro, crushed roasted rice in a light citrus-lime dressing. Even though I normally strongly dislike cilantro, and most dishes are ruined when they contain the deathly herb, I didn’t hate this dish. I actually liked it, especially when rolled up and messily eaten as a lettuce wrap. On the menu it was advertised as spicy chicken salad, and although I didn’t get much spice in mine, luckily Sunae dropped off homemade sriracha – a few spoonfuls of that did the trick.
Sunae usually cooks up two main courses, and prior to arrival, guests need to pre-order which main they’d like. Naturally, I chose one of each to share with my eating partner, making it clear that I get dibs to keep the plate that I like the best. First up, Pancit Guisado, reigning from the Philippines, thin vermicelli rice noodle that is stir fried with chicken, mushrooms and vegetables in a light soy lemon sauce and topped with perfectly cooked shrimp. Recently I’ve stopped ordering prawns, as it’s mind boggling how many restaurants can really F it up – but I had a feeling Sunae would know how to cook it right. The rest of the dish was nice, light, good for a humid Buenos Aires night. I wanted a bit more sauce in the bowl for some extra flavor, but once I added the table sriracha, it was mighty fine.
The second main course, a Thai specialty from Northern Thailand, Gaeng Hang Lay became the easy winner for me. This pork curry was BOMB. Braised and cooked with cumin, tumeric, peanuts and ginger, it was pork perfection with the meat falling off the bone. Absolutely an awesome plate of food that would convert any Kosher crazed Jew over to the dark side.
I learned from a wise friend that by rule of thumb it’s not a good decision to order desserts when dining Asian. But since it was part of the meal, I wasn’t going to turn down a plate of postre. In the case of Sunae, my friend was wrong, and these cute miniature homemade Key Lime pies were absolutely adorable and positively delectable. Made with a ginger crust, I wanted to give this little guy kisses before I evilly devoured the whole thing. It was served with Sunae’s signature green tea ice cream and a dollop of meringue.
Since I’m also an aspiring urban gardener, I can appreciate a good herb garden. Sunae has an impressive rooftop filled with thai basil, chiles and more fresh herby goodness. She also makes her own hot sauce, which has an extra picante kick winning over just any old sriracha.
After gasm-ing over the food photos from Christina’s recent trip to Southeast Asia, I’m looking forward to my next Cocina Sunae experience to see what other Asian culinary delights will be whipped up.
AR$130 per person, 180 pesos, excluding drinks
Colegiales, exact address given upon reservation
Tel. 15-48705506, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thurs – Sat: 9pm – 11.30pm