Argentina is a country of three-hour meals, which at first can be distressing to visitors who aren’t used to sitting still so long. Diners at hang out at their lunch tables for inhumane lengths of time, dinners don’t start in earnest until 10 P.M., and glasses of wine cost as much as a bottle of water. Which, let’s be honest, is not something that encourages people to hurry. This is not a grab-and-go sort of place.
“This is not a big street food culture like Asia,” says David Carlisle. “Choripán is the only exception I can think of for that.”
And he should know. Originally from Oregon, Carlisle and Argentina native Santiago Palermo have run Parrilla Tour Buenos Aires since 2011, taking visitors through the city and gorging them on porteño (a.k.a. local) classics like steak, bondiola (pork shoulder), grilled provolone, and choripán, a simple sandwich of grilled and butterflied chorizo sausage inside a soft but crusty roll.
Steak is the king of Argentine cuisine, but the choripán may be the real national food of Argentina; on any given day, porteños are more likely to eat the sandwich than a full steak. They’re the most popular pick at any lunch counter; people grill them in backyards; and they’re devoured en masse before soccer games. “If there’s any protest or gathering,” says Carlisle, “someone sets up an improvised grill.”
It’s a very simple thing—just chorizo (that’s the “chori*) and bread (that’s the pan). If you’re inclined, you can dribble on chimichurri or a vinegar-onion-pepper mixture called salsa criolla, but otherwise we’re looking at a two-ingredient meal. The spicy fat soaks into the bread to both bind things together and make your hands messy, and you’ll eat it quickly, and it will be very good.
Finding the best choripán is daunting, but you can’t really go wrong, just like you’re not going to find an awful hot dog on the streets of New York City. Most of the successful greasy spoons, many with cooks who have been working the grills their whole life, don’t even have names beyond their cross street. But as with some restaurants in Buenos Aires are giving choripán a makeover, like Los Infernales, with chorizo made from the tiny ostrich-ish rhea, and Chori, dedicated to modern takes on the sandwich. By contrast, the Feria de Mataderos is a sausagefest of traditional choripán. A street fair that showcases gaucho culture, Mataderos is, for now, more crowded with Argentines than visiting foreigners. And the air is smoky from homemade grills practically sagging under the weight of sausages as people crowd into lines around the dozens of tents scattered across the streets.
Then there’s the first choripán I ever ate. It was frigid and windy, and I was stuck at the Andes border crossing for three hours while my bus from Chile lumbered in line behind three identical ones to make it through Argentine customs. Luckily, there was a corrugated tin shack set up next to the checkpoint, with signs boasting sandwiches and instant coffee. The sandwich was, I’d later learn, totally untraditional, and unlike any choripán I’ve encountered since: the sausage was out of its casing, it was covered in chopped lettuce, the thing came pre-sauced.
But choripán and urgency go together. They’re sandwiches that seem best when you’re a tiny bit desperate, like on a lunch break or stranded on a frosty dirt mountain. Times when something warm and meaty is a blessing, but a practical one. That hot, filling, slightly weird sandwich set the standard, lettuce be damned. And without that level of desperation behind it, no other choripán came close.