Along a tiny strip of Freire in the neighborhood of Colegiales it is impossible not to notice an explosion of casual new spots. Pegged one against the other is a warehouse turned restaurant, another warehouse turned cultural center, a pizza chain, a vegan restaurant that sells lentil burgers and a rotiseria that sells real ones. Nothing particularly entices, but a canopy of flashy Christmas lights pull moths to the flame. On one corner is another On Tap, loud and obtrusive, a few steps further is a Taco Box painted in a medicinal pastel blue and a sandwich shop lit like a cheap boliche. The sandwiches are generous, and although not amazing, they’re good enough.
Resist the urge to be entranced by the sparkly lights, follow the faint smell of freshly baked loaves of bread, and you’ll find yourself at the doorstep of Vallegrande. This tiny restaurant painted in cobalt blue with punches of yellow doesn’t plead with you to come inside like its neighbors do; stacks of organic flour bags and the constant smell of frying mandioca or a simmering pot of meatballs should convince you otherwise.
It is a rare restaurant in Buenos Aires–and not necessarily because of the dishes on the menu. Here, there are no roots firmly planted in any single food culture. Latin flavors from the Caribbean and Peru rub elbows with vague nods to the Mediterranean and local comfort foods. What is special is how those dishes are prepared and who it is prepared for. Sourdough bread is baked everyday by baker Gastón Fernández from a laundry list of organic and sustainable flours. In the kitchen, Pilar Rosales builds dishes out of seasonal produce, pasture-fed beefs, organic grains and environmentally friendly cheeses. On Sunday afternoons, the pair builds an improvised brunch menu based on what’s freshest. Suppliers are slowly adapting to bringing products in re-usable tuppers rather than plastic bags, and natural cleaners swap out industrial chemicals.
It isn’t completely unusual to find this sort of approach on the high-end: Don Julio hand picks the pork that goes into their famous sausages and pasture-fed beef at La Carniceria is sourced directly from the owner’s family farm. Narda is a huge proponent of organic produce and sustainable meats, Chila, Proper and Gran Dabbang hype small producers of autochthonous ingredients. But they also tend to grab all of the media’s attention when discussing sustainable restaurant practices. So the Donnets and the Las Damas and the JAAMs and the Vallegrandes, restaurants in more isolated food neighborhoods with great potential for impact because of their wider reach to more average-walleted consumers, tend to get pushed out of the conversation.
Seasonal menus mean that in the summertime, juicy tomatoes are lashed down into hearty shakshuka topped with a gooey egg with yolk so yellow it borders on the cartoonish. I am waiting eagerly for its return. The menu currently boasts eight different dishes, which ebb and flow based on what’s available. Without a doubt, order the tortita de mandioca. A warm puck of yucca root is stuffed with cheesy that oozes out in long strings. Grilled pears add a welcome tang and sweet pickled fennel bring a happy crunch. A triangle of crunchy polenta is topped with a generous ladle of meatballs, cooked medium, soft and gooey and fragrant throughout the restaurant. A homey-looking causa continues to play with familiar flavors, pureed potato is stacked with generous scoops of avocado and green olive quarters. To drink, nearly everything pairs well with a Malbec by Pelihueso. Aguas frutales are also a fine choice, try the lemonade with coconut milk.
Vallegrande is a part of a growing army of environmentally conscious restaurants de barrio. They take a little more searching to find. Follow the smell of fresh bread.
Address: Freire 1229, Colegiales
Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 8pm to close; Sundays 1 to 3:30pm
Price per person: $600-700