It was a precocious 20-year-old Pablo Rivero who threw the few savings he had, along with backing from his grandmother and father, into a humble parrilla (steakhouse) that opened in a sketchy Buenos Aires ‘hood shortly before Argentina’s most devastating economic crisis unleashed its turmoil in 2001.
Today, Parrilla Don Julio tops the bucket list of almost every visitor to the Argentine capital, a restaurant frequented by porteños and tourists alike, the one steak you absolutely must eat when in town, and a name that’s become synonymous with Buenos Aires. Yet, 20 years ago, its first diners were neighbourhood locals keen to devour a decent steak and chips (and many remain faithful patrons today), and it probably didn’t cross Rivero’s mind that Don Julio would mark two decades in the business, never mind be crowned number one in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in this most complex of years, 2020.
Family is key to the Don Julio narrative, the Buenos Aires establishment that has become the first non-Peruvian establishment since 2013 to take the top spot in the regional awards. It’s an accolade that should be celebrated, given that ‘steakhouses’ aren’t usually the recipients of the big prizes. The Don Julio story runs deeper than that – and is an integral element of Argentine culture and heritage.
Restaurateur and sommelier Rivero says: “Our mission has been the same from the beginning: placing value on our traditions and culture. There’s a family behind Don Julio, a family originating from Rosario in the middle of Argentina who laid down roots in Buenos Aires. A butcher and livestock producer for a grandfather, a livestock-producing father, and a son who needed to forge a future, joined forces, bringing their ambitions and relevant experiences to the table, to ensure that I could have a parrilla using the beef we raised.” For many years his mother Graciela managed the till while dad Enrique sourced products from around Argentina: Enrique’s most recent find was goat kid sweetbreads.
Beef has long been one of Argentina’s main commodities and an important facet in Argentina’s culture, he adds, its cattle population outnumbering its human one. “Argentina is one of few countries, if not the only one, that undertakes such vastly extensive cattle farming, and it takes place in a fertile paradise found in Latin America’s southern hemisphere. Many Argentines have a connection with livestock and commercial beef, either because they work in the industry or live close to the countryside. We’re very proud of that heritage – it’s an integral part of our daily lives and we simply can’t imagine a table without grilled meat on it.”
Located on a sunny corner with a bevelled entrance, a classic architectural style in Argentina, in pre-Coronavirus times hungry punters would curve around the ruddy façade, eager to consume off-the-menu entraña (skirt steak) washed down with a bottle of fruity Malbec. Don Julio’s popularity knows no bounds. While grass-fed beef was the original key to the parrilla’s success (that, paired with one of Buenos Aires’ finest wine cellars rigorously selected by Rivero), the goalposts started shifting around 2012, and Don Julio started to take on a new dimension.
Rivero says: “The parrilla has evolved, which coincided with my own growth. From the age of 20, I grew up in the restaurant, and for the first 10 years I lived upstairs. By 2012, I’d gone through a period of learning from colleagues and great masters – I had grown. As we started to apply new ideas, obviously I was filled with doubts and fears like anybody, but Don Julio emerged with a new voice. Nothing has changed – Don Julio has simply evolved. Our expertise, the intensity of our work with cattle and on farms, our wine cellar and our service have all developed. It all represents the growth of a young restaurant, which is a living thing.”
For many years, grill-master Pepe Sotelo was the smiley, ruddy face working the interior parrillas, cooking every prime cut to order. Now he has retired, and today the culinary team is led by next-generation parrilleros Marcelo Troche and Gustavo Caballero, with chef Guido Tassi, a champion of local ingredients, spearheading research and development, and maître Valeria Mesones leading front of house.
In the past three years, Don Julio has gone from strength to strength, picking up Latin America’s 50 Best Art of Hospitality prize in 2018, becoming the best establishment in Argentina in 2019, earning a place on the World’s 50 Best list that same year, and was named the second-best grill house by World’s 101 Best Steak Houses earlier this year. It should also be noted that restaurateur and sommelier Rivero is the force and face of Don Julio, rather than a renowned chef.
As for the immediate future, the pandemic has allowed Rivero and team to drive forward, investigating different cooking techniques, strengthening beef traceability and working with different types of animals in terms of age and weight to take Don Julio to the next level.
Grill-master Pepe Sotelo
And while some may question whether a steakhouse should reach the upper echelons of prestigious rankings, Rivero has this to say: “The parrilla is part of Argentine culture: it’s in our blood. Why shouldn’t a parrilla be in the ranking? Is it not of value? It's our culinary culture.”