Argentina – Neuquén province – eating and drinking in Neuquén town

Neuquén is the capital city of its own province and the largest city in Patagonia with a population of 340,000. Due to the discovery of huge oil and shale gas reserves nearby, the city is undergoing a phase of unprecendeted growth and is becoming an important business hub, which is why I and many of my colleagues often find ourselves here.

If you look at my map of the city, you’ll see it’s organised on a classic grid pattern with the centre of town being the focus of four diagonal streets which meet at Avenida Argentina. Most of the bars and restaurants below are located in the blocks around this central point.

The only guide that seems to have an entry for Neuquén is Lonely Planet who aren’t particularly known for their good taste in restaurants and I disagree with many of their reviews, many of which seem dated and overly positive. Followers of my blog will know that I’m not a fan of what passes for cooking in many places in South America (with the exception of steaks and barbecue), both in major cities and provincial towns, and unfortunately Neuquén is no exception. So apologies for the lack of information at times but when I’m not eating well, I kind of lose interest.

However, I’m determined that you shall eat as well as possible, so I have enlisted the written help of my colleague and foodie friend Nicky who has been to Neuquén twice before, the last time with another colleague Leslie. Generally she has a more positive outlook than me (having good company helps) as well as a great knack for spotting the best dishes on a menu. She scouted out many of the places below for me, including this first one…

Santino Cafe & Bistro (Intermediate B+), 160 Avenida Argentina,, open daily till 3am

Nicky: We have made Santino our go to for pre-dinner drinks. They pour Torrontés in half pint lager glasses, ice cold, for just 110 pesos for the two!

That was enough for me and I started most evenings here as well. The Torrontés is great. The local varietal, from the neighbouring Rio Negro province, is known as Torrontés Mendocino.

Nicky didn’t make it down to this place though, which was my personal favourite…

El Boliche de Alberto (Intermediate B), 1020 Juan Julián Lastra,

This is the largest and presumably best parrilla (steakhouse) in town. It’s about twenty minutes’ walk out of the centre and the hotel receptionist made a point of saying I should stick to the main roads, such as San Martin and Gatica, for security reasons. I took his advice and didn’t feel unsafe in any way over the course of my two visits.

It’s a big old barn of a place, seating around 100 at a guess. They have the biggest grill I’ve ever seen with bars that could be raised or lowered over the flames at the touch of a button. The parrilleros kindly let me have a go at turning my own sausages.

The first time I came I had the chorizo and morcilla to start (C+) and the Ojo de Bife for my main (B+). The second time I had the lamb chops (B), Patagonia being more famous for it’s sheep than it’s cattle. The bottles of potent Malbec and Cabernet Franc I tried were good (both B). The desserts were different preparations of Dulce de Leche, in pancakes or accompanying ‘flan’ (both B). Everything was simple but effective.

The servers are youthful but pleasant. A good spot that’s worth the walk.

And for something a bit fancier…

Bouquet de Rêves (Intermediate B-), 276 Carlos H.Rodríguez, closed Sunday

Nicky: Bouquet de Rêves [was] the best both times (A). Wine selection is phenomenal and we got very friendly, helpful advice. As an amuse bouche, they brought us delicious home made chicken liver pâté and crisp black bread, and guacamole, the first time and the pâté plus escabeche the second. The first time Leslie had Hachis Parmentier but instead of potato on top it was pureed squash. The meat was a delicious mix of lamb and beef in rich gravy. I had the fish ‘Vicenza’ style which was one of the freshest, finest plates of fish I’ve had in years. With your main course, all individually priced, comes any one of the starters from a choice of about eight on the menu. The first time we shared a goats cheese salad and something sublime on a shell. It was the freshest seafood, in a rich tomato sauce with a parmesan crust.

For our final evening I had to have that again while Leslie had some kind of trout crepe (both A). But the mains were the star as far as taste goes. Leslie had a mixed plate of seafood, none of which had been frozen at any time. Sublime. But my ‘wok’ venison was just so delicious. Nothing pretentious here, just interesting, really really tasty food. I would definitely give this place an A. Our bill last night was just $800 each, which was not our reason for coming here nor why it deserves an A. Under £20 each for a fabulous dinner.

My own experience was positive too although I only scored them a B- overall. I went for the Menu Peruano, a set menu for $650. After a hard-boiled egg-based amuse bouche, the starter was a Ceviche Mixto (marinated white fish and prawns), Causa de Ave (lost pic, some chicken maybe?), Tequeños de Queso y Palta (bread dough stuffed with cheese and deep-fried, served with avocado), Cerdo Nikkei con Wok de Arroz y Vegetales (stir-fried pork, rice and vegetables). These were matched to glasses of Chardonnay and Merlot. Finally for dessert; Arroz con Leche y Crema de Choco Blanco (rice pudding with white chocolate sauce).

So Bouquet de Rêves won our award for the best ‘fine dining’ option by common consent.

And at the other end of the scale…

La Casa de Las Empanadas (High Elementary B), 27 Boulevard 25 de Mayo

Empanadas are pasties so great for a snack or light lunch. This popular place specialises in them and has ten different kinds on the menu which can be baked or fried to order.

I can recommend the Carne (beef) and the Cebolla y Queso (cheese and onion), especially with a cold Quilmes.

However, here are three restaurants that I’d rather not go back to, although you might have better luck than me…

La Nonna Francesca (Intermediate C), 56 Diagonal 9 de Julio, closed Sunday evening

Nicky had a much better experience of this popular place than I did…

Nicky: La Nonna Francesca leads so far. I had a goat casserole with spätzle (nothing like the Germans do it!) , which I loved and Leslie had a wonderful steak, which came very rare, hardly touched the side of the pan, absolutely HUGE. The Torrontés there was like wine of Alsace. La Casa de Nonna Francesca (B) is also close to the hotel. It is very popular with locals and fills up soon after opening at 8.00, at least it did the two times we were there. We shared the house salad starter (C) and Leslie had a HUGE steak the first time, which was as delicious as it was large. He had it blue and we both thought of the steaks so far it was the best (A). I had the venison fricassee with spätzle. I don’t like spätzle at the best of times and these were poor (C) but I loved the venison, a low (B). Due to torrential rain we went back to this place a second time as it is close by. The rain fell so quickly and so much that all the roads (even on the hill!) turned to rivers and we literally had to wade home. This time we both had steaks and I had just a glass of Malbec, a poor (C) even though it came at room temperature as I had asked.

I had worse luck unfortunately. Wanting something other than a big piece of meat (I ate beef four times in six days in Neuquén), and craving something simple and Italian, I went for the lasagna which was a mistake. Bland and unappealing it did nothing for me (C), although as ever the Torrontés was good. The second time I went, the service was so inattentive and unfriendly (a common complaint on TripAdvisor) that I walked out, after having waited for more than ten minutes in an empty restaurant without being spoken to. The owner seemed more interested in counting his money than making sure his customers were being served.

Casa Tinta (Intermediate C), 166 General Fotheringham

Lonely Planet loves this little restaurant which is about a fifteen minute walk from the Tower Hotel but the food just didn’t cut it for me (C). Looking at the photos, I don’t even know what some of it was. I can recognise another large chunk of beef and some forest fruits to finish but not much else.

Nicky’s luck wasn’t much better…

Nicky: The other night we went to the Casa Tinta which is supposed to be number one [on TripAdvisor]. We hadn’t booked but when we arrived, after 8.00pm, it was shut up, not a single light was on and it had the air of a place that had closed down. The young woman selling fast food next door shrugged her shoulders and told us it was probably closed that night (Wednesday) but they open when they want, she said. So, try to ring first. I did make it there the first time I was in Neuquen but was underwhelmed.

Casi Rodriguez (Intermediate C), Almirante Guillermo Brown 232

The previous year in 2017 another colleague Judith felt that this was the only good restaurant that she went to. I tried it but was unimpressed, to the extent that I didn’t take any photos and seem to have obliterated it from my memory. I think I’d had enough of Neuquén at this point (my last meal). The lady serving was nice though and it’s near the hotel, so maybe give it a go.

For drinks there seems to be a plethora of bars along the town end of Diagonal 9 de Julio 56, where it forms a triangular block with Gdor. Elordi. I’ve sat at the bar in the cavernous Irish Club at Diagonal 9 de Julio 70 where they do a decent pisco sour (B). There’s nothing Irish about it of course, it’s a huge modern place.

I stayed for six nights at the Neuquén Tower Hotel which was central, functional and fairly unremarkable. I read that there’s a heated outdoor pool but I didn’t notice it. Nicky: The Tower hotel here is a lot better than the previous work choice. It has a decent breakfast and is close to all the major restaurants and bars but here on the 13th floor the WiFi is terrible.

And that, thankfully, is the end of my experiences in Neuquén. Back to civilisation and my beloved Buenos Aires next…

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