Postcard from Argentina, part eight continued: behind closed doors

By | Category: Travel destinations

Continued from yesterday

Kaye discovers a secret world of dining in Buenos Aires

Closed door restaurants first started springing up in Buenos Aires during the Great Argentine Depression (1998-2012), which wiped out people’s family savings and life plans and resulted in Argentina devaluing the peso and defaulting on US$140 billion on foreign debt – the world’s biggest-ever sovereign default.

Argentina descended into chaos after the financial crisis, going thorough its second default in 2014, and it’s only now – thanks to the recent election of the pro business Mauricio Macri as president- that Argentina’s beleaguered economy looks to be entering a new era.

Subsequently as a result of the country’s constant economic crises, entrepreneurial Argentine chefs were forced to find ways of making money that didn’t involve the high overhead costs that come with running a restaurant.

The creative way they came up with to pay the bills? Puerta cerradas – closed-door restaurants which soon started popping up all across the city. Fast forward to 2016 and closed-door restaurants are an established part of the BA dining scene: there’s estimated to be more than 100 puerta cerradas in the Argentine capital alone, although only a handful are actually legit.

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If you’re reading this back in Britain and wondering how the (ever resourceful) Argentines are able to get away with running closed door restaurants that violate the law, all I can say is: this is Argentina. Laws here are rarely enforced. Case in point? The country typically grants gringoes (foreigners) a tourist visa that’s valid for three months. Want to stay in Argentina a little longer? Officially you’re supposed to to apply for a visa of some kind at the immigration office. However I’ve met many perma-tourists who can’t be faffed to do the paper work, and favour catching the ferry to Uruguay every 90 days so as to obtain a new entrance stamp. Some don’t even do this, opting instead to overstay their tourists visa – often by years! – and simply pay the AR$300 fine when they finally leave.

But back to BA’s (not so) secret dining scene…  Economic reasons aside, puerta cerradas have  been embraced by BA’s chefs as they allow them to do something a little different – they’re able to devise their own menu, free from the pressure that a traditional restaurant owner, keen to follow a certain formula, may insist on.

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It’s a school of thought that the team behind Casa Felix ascribe to. “We chose to be a behind-closed-doors restaurant,” says manager Dina Cantoni. “Closed-door restaurants offer a much more personal, intimate and authentic dining experience than a traditional restaurant.”

They’re also a good way for budding bakers like Emily Farmer, the brains behind Queen of Tarts – a British tea room – to find their feet. Prior to settling in the Paris of the South, the English expat worked as “an independent IT contractor in the UK” but “always loved baking, having been taught to bake by my mother at a very young age.” Her passion for baking combined with the fact that Farmer had previously run a restaurant in France and “so had some experience in industry, and knew it was something I could do” and the popularity of puertas cerradas in Argentina, prompted Emily to take the plunge and open her own. Emily opted to go down the puerta cerrada route partly because “the rent on restaurants is prohibitively high – one landlord even demanded that I spend US$100,000 on renovations!” She adds: “However I also wanted to work at home, in order to be able to get the correct work-life balance and have total control over the decor and so on.”

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For others – like American, Christina Sunae – closed-door restaurants are a stepping stone to opening a conventional restaurant. Christina, a New Yorker of Korean origin, together with her Argentine husband Franco, originally opened Cocina Sunae in their Colegiales casa (home) back in 2009 as a way of bringing a taste of Asia to Argentina.

It turns out that Argentina has quite the appetite for Asian food: the Sunae’s living room was perpetually packed with diners – despite the fact that they only marketed their puerta cerrada by word of mouth and wouldn’t reveal the menu or location until the last minute.

The success of their puerta cerrada prompted Christina and Franco to take bite the bullet and open a traditional restaurant in the heart of Palermo Hollywood: say hello to Sunae Asian Cantina. Situated on trendy Humbolt Street, the restaurant serves up Buenos Aires’ best Asian food (expect to find dishes from Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia on the menu).

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Sunae Asian Cantina seems to have been another hit for the Sunaes , judging by the packed tables and pleased faces I spotted, when I stopped by on a random Tuesday night in February. But I can’t help but wonder if the couple regret closing their secret supper club where, over spicy food, strangers begin to feel more like friends?

“Absolutely not,” says Franco with a smile. “We prefer to keep our work and home life separate. While we enjoyed running a puerta cerrada at the time, I can’t say that we miss the constant cooking, cleaning and revolving door of complete strangers in our home.”

Yet while Cocina Sunae is no longer underground there are plenty of puertas cerradas for Porteños and foreigners alike, who want to dine in the home of someone you don’t know, with guests you’ve never previously met.

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And Buenos Aires’ fondness for supper clubs shows no sign of abating… Since arriving in BA, I’ve been befriended by Peunggii Titinan, a beautiful, bubbly twenty-something female from Thailand, who is planning on opening a puerta cerrada offering Porteños the chance to sample authentic Thai cuisine – without the need to travel thousands of miles.

Does Peunggii ever worry that Buenos Aires may loose it’s taste for eating home cooking at a supper club? “Not really,” she smiles. “After all, who doesn’t love a good secret?”

Quite.

Talk to you in two weeks,

Kaye

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To read part one of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here

To read part two of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here

To read part three of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here

To read part four of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here and here

To read part five of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here  and here

To read part six Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here  and here

To read part seven of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here and here

To read part eight of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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