Latin America is one of the world’s trendiest new foodie destinations—and for good reason. From Mexico City to the Tierra del Fuego tip of Argentina, the Latin nations boast rich rainforests, a biodiverse Amazon, soaring Andes peaks, abundant ocean and river fish and volcanic ash-enriched soil. Latin America also enjoys culinary fusions that merge indigenous dishes with European and sometimes Asian influences. In the past 20 years, the economic and security situations improved in these countries, which led to Latin chefs studying in top kitchens and culinary schools around the world and returning home to apply these innovative techniques to the land’s local ingredients.
To put the rise of Latin American cuisine in perspective, consider Restaurant magazine’s influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2015. European countries naturally dominate the list, but Latin American restaurants claim the next-most positions, edging out the United States, Asia, Africa and Oceania. In 2013, the organization created a separate Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list, which can provide culinary adventurists with a guide for the best foodie cities south of the Rio Grande. The third Latin America edition issued its 50 Best awards last Wednesday, and the results highlight the ideal stops for individuals considering a gourmet trek through the other Americas.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
The Argentine capital dominated the 50 Best list once again with 10 entries, tying Mexico City for the most. The famed tango city is known for steaks, empanadas, Italian-influenced milanesa (breaded beef) and the wine varietals malbec, bonarda and torrontés, and the restaurant La Cabrera (No. 19 on the list) epitomizes the classics with massive steaks (e.g., bife de chorizo sirloin) served on gigantic slabs with starters that include grilled provolone-style cheese. Other high-end steakhouses include Don Julio (No. 45) and Elena (No. 37), but hot spots like El Baqueano (No. 15) push the envelope for more daring foodies. Chef Fernando Rivarola, rated the No. 1 Argentine chef by Travel + Leisure in 2014, serves dishes like carpaccio of llama, alligator dumplings, chinchilla (i.e., rodents) and a faux-bife de chorizo made with a piranha-like river fish called pacu. El Bulli vet Dante Liporace similarly innovates at Tarquino (No. 48) with a top-to-tail cow tasting menu as well as daring dishes like parmesan cheese serum ice cream and suckling pig with curry granola. Tegui (No. 7), the highest-ranked in Buenos Aires, leans toward tradition-based progressive plates with a food-as-art style.
Like Venezuela, the Argentine government instituted an official exchange rate that means credit- and bank-card transactions get less bang for the buck, but an unofficial “blue dollar” rate is available through black market exchanges easily found throughout the city. As of September 2015, the official exchange rate is around 9.4 pesos to the dollar, while the blue dollar rate is 16, and traders often give better rates for crisp $50 and $100 denominations.
Nestled between the Andes Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean, long and narrow Chile is a trending foodie destination with exceptional seafood, olive oil, fruit and wine, particularly its carménère reds from a grape originally planted in Bordeaux, France. As the cosmopolitan capital, Santiago is the epicenter of the foodie scene, and Boragó (No. 2) is currently its star restaurant. Rodolfo Guzmán, who won the coveted Chef’s Choice Award (voted on by other top chefs), is a culinary innovator who sources obscure Andean herbs, wild berries, rare seaweed and other oddities for dishes like squid ink-battered fried eel, Patagonian deer tartare and wild pine mushrooms prepared in a risotto style. Culinary adventures in Santiago should prioritize seafood at restaurants like Osaka (No. 25), but the city embodies numerous culinary styles with chef Kurt Schmidt (formerly of Noma, Azurmendi and Boragó) offering fresh spins on everything from street food to mushroom textures (e.g., raw, cooked, pureed and pulverized) at the restaurant simply called 99 (No. 46).
São Paulo, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s fast-rising star with restaurants like Olympe (No. 23) and Lasai (the year’s highest debut at No. 16), but São Paulo remains the country’s top foodie city thanks to restaurants like D.O.M. (No. 4). Alex Atala’s landmark restaurant arguably started the trend in sourcing Amazonian ingredients to create wild dishes like one-inch pineapple cubes topped with raw ants. While Atala looks to the Amazon, Maní (No. 8) looks to Europe with a pair of El Celler de Can Roca (currently the world’s No. 1 restaurant) vets creating innovative Brazilian-European fusion like cachaça-steamed crayfish and a gazpacho of jabuticaba fruit. São Paulo, which landed four entries on the list, is a business-oriented metropolis that includes a significant number of Japanese and Italian immigrants creating traditional and fusion dishes from their homeland. As the biggest Japanese city after Tokyo, São Paulo boasts classic sushi joints like Nagayama, while the Italian influence brings world-class pizza at Naples-worthy joints like Bráz Pizzaria. While in Brazil, make sure to sip some aged cachaça—the sugarcane spirit used to make caipirinha—which is largely unavailable in the U.S.
D.O.M. is the definitive Amazonian-themed restaurant, but for a native experience, Remanso do Bosque is located in Belém where the Amazon Rio empties out into the Atlantic. Facing a national park in the rainforest, the restaurant celebrates Brazil’s “cuisine of origins” using only local produce.
Thanks to a massively improved security situation, the Colombian capital is another rising hot spot with five restaurants in the 50 Best. As previously profiled by Paste, the rising Bogotá restaurant scene benefits from access to the Amazon, Andes and both Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. Befitting its emerging food scene, all four holdovers from 2014 increased their position on the current list, and all five have a completely different culinary take. Among the trendier choices, beloved chef Leonor Espinosa at Restaurante Leo (No. 33) famously serves seared tuna with a crust of fat-bottomed Santander ants, while gastronomic genius Juan Manuel Barrientos at Elcielo (No. 30) epitomizes a neuroscientific approach to food that incorporates all five senses. Barrientos, who recently opened a new Elcielo in Miami, actually won an award in the U.S. for a dish called The Mine that included cannabis, poppy and coca leaf ingredients.
Mexico City, Mexico
The oldest capital city of the Americas has a long culinary history, and the host city for the 50 Best awards this year tied Buenos Aires with 10 entries on the list. Leading the way, Quintonil (No. 6) is the pinnacle of Modern Mexican cuisine with dishes like smoked crab tostadas with habanero mayonnaise and string cheese soup with fried pork belly, while Pujol (No. 9) takes it a bit more loco with dishes like candied catch of the day, poached egg with grasshopper salsa and baby corn with pulverized ants. (Don’t cringe yet, a lot more insect dishes are coming!) Both restaurants also made the cut for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (at Nos. 35 and 16, respectively). Highlighting the international influence in Mexico City, Biko (No. 10) is another standout with a pair of Spanish chefs making Basque dishes with Mexican ingredients.
Arguably the top culinary hot spot in Latin America, the Peruvian capital landed nine entries in the 50 Best, including Central (No. 1), Astrid y Gaston (No. 3) and Maido (No. 5). Paste previously covered the Lima scene and created a definitive restaurant guide, but for those unfamiliar with Peruvian cuisine, it is considerably different than most of the other Latin American nations. In addition to different indigenous influences from the Incas and others, Peruvian dishes have significant influences from Japan, China and Spain with touches of Moorish culture. Among the country’s top restaurant, Maido serves Peruvian-Japanese dishes (known as Nikkei) like tempura-style, beef-filled rocoto peppers that are not to be missed.
The World’s Best Female Chefs
It is impossible to discuss foodie cities without noting the impressive rise of female chefs in Latin America. At the risk of stereotyping, women are often the primary cooks in many traditional homes, but they are less likely to run top restaurants in the U.S. and Europe. That is not the case with Latin America. Female chefs helm eight of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants compared with only two on the World’s Best list, with the latter consisting of a Spanish chef and Helena Rizzo of Maní in São Paulo. In fact, Rizzo earned the title World’s Best Female Chef last year and Latin America’s Best Female Chef the year before that. Latin America clearly deserves credit for its gender inclusiveness in its fine-dining restaurants.
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.