Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Helado Brain Freeze

This is part of a series of reports recapping my recent trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Check back every Monday and Tuesday when I’ll be giving you a taste of my food adventures in this South American metropolitan city.

While I was blogging from this city, I posted about my love of helado—the popular local ice cream that resembles Italian gelato. You can’t walk five or six blocks without finding someone selling helado, whether it’s a chain store or a mom-and-pop stall. (It’s also found on the dessert menu of most restaurants.)

It’s no wonder, given how hot it gets here. Everyone agrees that ice cream is a quick fix for the heat. But there’s something special about the Argentine helado, with its creamy, foamy texture and its multitude of flavors.

NOTE: In all heladerias, you stand in line at the register to pay first, then you stand in line at the counter to order your flavors. But it’s worth the wait.

Here are the highlights of my adventures in helado consumption:

Nonna Bianca—This folksy looking spot in the heart of the funky San Telmo neighborhood sells artisan helado. (Artisan really just means home-made, and doesn’t necessarily always reflect the quality of the ingredients.) It’s part café and part heladeria.

I ventured here after checking out the popular Sunday antiques fair at a nearby plaza. There were tons of flavors, but the service was awful. I had looked over the flavors and decided I just wanted to get the melon, which I assumed would be something like cantaloupe or honeydew. The woman behind the counter just would not listen to me when I kept pronouncing melon (which is how it was spelled on the board). I tried pronouncing it like limon (lee-MON), which is lemon, thinking it was close. Mee-LON I would say, but she still didn’t get it. I tried to point to the board, and she wouldn’t turn around to look. Instead, she made me wait until the other server was free so he could take my order, which he did after one try. Sigh.

Anywho, the melon was less creamy than most helado I had in town, and was more like a sorbetto. Despite having a bright orange color, it tasted more like watermelon than cantaloupe. It was still good, but not amazing. (Small cup: AR$5, or $1.75)

Vessa—Also in the San Telmo neighborhood was this shop, which I felt had the least flavors offered. Many of the flavors were slanted toward the chocolate category and Italian desserts. I ordered something called Tramontana, which is a foamy scoop of vanilla flavored helado with a whole bunch of stuff, including caramel swirls, candy bits and chocolate chips. It was like eating a light sundae, and the helado had the most air than the others I’ve tasted.

I also got the tiramisu, because that’s one of my favorite Italian desserts. It wasn’t very special, tasting almost like plain chocolate. (Small cup: AR$8 or $2.75)

Side note: Nonna, Vessa and another favorite Freddo are all walking distance of each other in the San Telmo neighborhood. Of the three, the chain Freddo was consistently packed.

Froilan—Another artisan helado spot, this café is in the heart of Palermo Soho, the shopping district. This is one of the largest heladeria where you can sit inside and hang out. (They sell coffee and other stuff too.)

I ordered something called the Fruita 9 Semanas y Media just because it sounded mysterious. It turned out to be like some kind of strawberry and marshmallow concoction. I also got the Crema de Marni, which was thicker than the fruita and had flavors of peanut butter and bits of toffee bar.

Froilan’s helado is more gooey, definitely more like gelato. I loved how they pile on the ice cream, even in a small cup, and the staff is young and super friendly. (Small cup: AR$7 or $2.40)

Volta—This is like the high-end helado spot. The place I visited is on Av. Pte Quintana in the Recoleta district, just a block away from the luxurious Alvear Palace Hotel and the various foreign embassies/mansions. It has the sleekest look and actually has a counter selling a variety of chocolates in addition to helado.

I ordered something called the Durazno Tropical and the Café Italiano. The Durazno had a definite tropical fruit flavor, like papaya or passion fruit. (A Google search seems to hint that it’s a peach flavor.) I really loved the orange color. The Café Italiano was rich and soooo good. It had a real balanced coffee flavor, but not sweet or strong. What I also like is that it’s served in a cookie cup that was light and crispy. (Small cup: AR$10 or $3.45)

When I look back at all the different heladerias I visited and the many flavors I randomly chose, I have to say that my favorite has to be my very first helado I had at Freddo. Despite it being a chain, Freddo has the cleanest spots, friendliest service and the most interesting selection for your money. The helado is consistently thick and creamy while still airy enough to feel light. And how can you not love ice cream spiked with rum? ;-)

Bueno … life in BA

One of the local treats that you find around town is the alfajor. It’s kind of like a cookie sandwich made with the country’s famous dulce de leche (or caramel spread).

In various bakeries around town, you’ll see alfajors made in various shapes and sizes. The above were some alfajors I saw in the window of one bakery. The center is the dulce de leche squeezed between two cookie pieces. These were huge! Just looking at them gave me a stomach ache from all the sweetness.

Alfajors are also great treats to bring home to the states, and the most convenient place to get them is the Havana stores (I know, you expect to buy cigars or something). This is a chain of stores that you’ll find around town, and their alfajors come in chocolate and powdered sugar and are conveniently air-packed.

I bought a couple of boxes back for my office and they were a big hit. The alfajors from Havana were more normal size for a cookie, and were crumbly good but not super sweet.


Anonymous said...

oh now I am craving Helado... looks like you were very thorough in conducting your research Chef Ben! I would like the one that you said tasted like a sundae for dessert...

Anonymous said...

Oh, I love those cookie sandwiches. I've had them from a Los Angeles bakery. And those scoops of ice cream have to be the most artful ones I've ever seen plopped in a cup or cone. The Argentinans sure have style even when it comes to scooping ice cream.