I first met Claudio Kojusner at La Estancia Argentina, his Argentine deli, bakery, grocery store and self-service restaurant in Aventura. It was 2010, and Kojusner was gearing up for World Cup soccer. Since then, La Estancia Argentina has become my go-to spot for empanadas, especially the ones filled with hand-sliced beef. Kojusner also owns Clos Bistro and Café in downtown Miami.
Now, Kojusner has partnered with Andres Starkand in Fort Lauderdale's Buenos Aires Café, where you'll find classic Argentine grilled meats and other dishes from the third most populous country in South America. While it's the kind of menu easily found in Miami-Dade County, the café's August opening means there's now an audience for the wonderful meatcentric cuisine of Argentina.
But as Starkand explained by phone the other day, making people feel comfortable and pampered is his first priority. "Sometimes, the food is secondary," Starkand says.
Indeed, the 50-seat restaurant is housed in the laid-back former D.B.A. Café space, which has a distressed pressed-tin ceiling and a long brick wall, which may very well be made of those thin faux-brick slices. Who cares? It adds instant warmth.
From 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., Buenos Aires Café is all about breakfast: eggs Florentine ($15), French toast ($8), pancakes or waffles ($11) and — the top seller — avocado on toast topped with olive oil, salt and red pepper ($9). Starkand says Argentines don't eat eggs the way Americans do, but the rest of the menu is typical of what you'd find in, well, a café in Buenos Aires.
Per capita consumption of beef in Argentina is more than twice what Americans eat, so I was immediately drawn to the menu's beef offerings. I ordered skirt steak ($17), which was cooked perfectly medium-rare — it was chewy and tender, as this cut always is — and served with two sides. You'd be crazy not to order it with french fries ($6, a la carte), which are fresh-cut, hot, crispy and dusted with an herb mixture.
Other side dishes include green salad ($6, a la carte) dressed with lemon vinaigrette. There are also sweet-potato fries ($6, a la carte), white rice with lime and cilantro ($5, a la carte) and bean salad ($5, a la carte).
Order a side dish a la carte and the serving is humungous. We found that out when we ordered tricolor puree ($10), a bowl of white potato, sweet potato and spinach-white-potato purees. I don't know who wouldn't love this. It reminded me of Thanksgiving.
Back to beef, there's also a strip loin ($22), bone-in rib-eye ($25) and picanha cut, popular in Argentina and Brazil but not so much in the United States, where it's called a rump cover. Cooked with its layer of fat on top, it makes for a very tender and beefy steak.
Order the parrilladas ($28 for two), and you get a mixed grill: short rib, skirt steak, chorizo, sweetbread, chicken breast, blood sausage and house-made chimichurri. For a group, I'd order it with mixed vegetables ($19), grilled just the same way. (On the 22nd of every month, Buenos Aires Café has an all-the-meat-you-can-eat deal. It costs $30, and includes a house salad and one glass of wine.)
Along with meat, there are all kinds of salads, including cobb ($14), caprese ($14) and quinoa ($16). There's also spinach ravioli ($14) with choice of sauce and gnocchi with Asiago cheese. Much of the pasta is made in La Estancia Argentina's Aventura facility.
Sandwiches include a good chicken and avocado ($13) that was a little light on avocado and an almost too sweet citrus aioli. We started our meal with the Mediterranean platter ($18) of hummus, baba ghanoush, Turkish salad, falafel and pita. It's a generous serving, but I found both the hummus and baba to have a little too much tahini. Someone went a little heavy on this batch. My favorite empanadas (two for $6) are also available, although there aren't as many fillings as in Aventura.
Desserts are the highlight of a meal here. Crème brulee ($8) had a truly caramelized crust and an eggy creaminess. I was also impressed with a cake known as Balcarce ($7), which originated in the Argentine city of the same name. Here, it was a combination of pound cake, dulce de leche, whipped cream and peaches. It may be Argentina's best-kept secret.
Café Buenos Aires seems designed for mingling. Even at lunchtime, the gracious server didn't seem to want to rush us. I suspect some will find service slow. But with another 50 seats on the patio, I can see this place turning into a bit of a hangout. They do a daily happy hour with discount drinks. There's also a draft-beer special: $15 per person for guacamole and chips, plus either a 16-ounce glass of beer of a five-draft sampler. Sounds good me to me.
Buenos Aires Cafe
2364 N. Federal Highway, Union Planters Plaza, Fort Lauderdale
Hours: 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.- 1 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Moderate-expensive
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot