The mid-afternoon sun shines brightly into El Refuerzo and bounces off the bottles and picture frames that hug the walls of this small, comfortably cramped cantina. A handful of couples are sprinkled around five tightly packed communal tables but a beam of light pulls my attention towards an older pair sitting in the corner. Two clay dishes and a tall liter of beer are wedged between them. A ray shines down, as if ordained, onto a plate of pork shoulder and tangerine orange wedges of sweet potatoes. The woman squeaks loudly to no one in particular, Why don’t my batatas ever come out like this?
It is the kind of scene that is looped infinitely at the old school bars that dot every corner of Buenos Aires. Spaces that feel familiar, casual, comfortable. Establishments that feel lost in a time and city that has long but ceased to exist. The nostalgia hangs so thick in the air that even as a foreigner you can’t help but feel a sense of warmth for places like this.
El Refuerzo has all the key elements of a good local. Service is as kind as it needs to be and becomes friendlier the more often you appear. Spanish and Italian dishes roll into one in the form of local comfort foods served in comic abundance. Pans sizzle and crack from the back and the smell of paprika and garlic waft through the air and soil the walls. Relics of the past, like old sifones and a functioning record player, are scattered around the room. In the summertime when fairs take over the neighborhood, it isn’t uncommon for the tables to leave the salón and take over the street.
Here, however, there is one key difference: there is no menu. Dishes pop in and vanish based on whatever is fresh and, probably safe to assume, whatever the head cook is in the mood for. Just four hot plates decorate two different chalkboards. A fifth dish makes up the menu del día which at $200 with a drink and a coffee is an absolute steal. A pair of salads, a half-dozen cold sandwiches and a few tapas round out the menu.
This is exactly what every old school bar should be. Rather than being married to dozens of variations of the same dishes, the menu ebbs and flows with the season with attention to a handful of dishes, particularly fresh pasta, pan-fried meats and sauces.
The bondiola al ajillo lunch special was three slabs of pork shoulder bathed underneath a cherry red pimentón sauce. Touches of slightly sweet white wine and the smooth nutty flavor of olive oil were kicked up with generous slices of garlic. The meat’s edges had a satisfying layer of char that gave way to tender bites. Incongruous cuts of pillowy sweet potatoes slowly soaked up the sauce. Sorrentinos were stuffed with chewy goat cheese and covered with a thick tomato sauce with deep airs of tomato paste and salty cured ham. Arugula and sesame seeds added an unexpected bitterness.
Pollo a la portuguesa over saffron rice was particularly comforting on a cold winter afternoon. A whole leg and thigh are stewed in a red wine and tomato sauce. Bites of red bell pepper and carrot add a welcome sweetness. Rice marinates and absorbs the sauce and is best consumed with tears of chewy country-style bread. The bread is cooked each day and used for a dozen cold sandwiches generously stacked with high-quality cold cuts. A good selection of wine with everyone from bodegón favorite Nicasia and harder to find pinots and cabernets pair well with the platos fuertes although the house specialty is a small selection of vermouth-based cocktails.
El Refuerzo is open for lunch and dinner. Lunch is considerably easier to grab a table. Wednesday and Thursday happy hours are also a solid choice. Order the negrossi, a classic negroni with grapefruit juice, and a side of raciones and ask the waitress to hit the record player.
Address: Chacabuco 872, San Telmo
Open: Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 2am; Sunday 10am to midnight (reservation recommended for dinner)
Price per person: $200 menú del día (main, drink, coffee); $400 regular meal