The classic beginner's mistake in Argentina is to neglect the first steak of the day. You will be tempted to just peck at it or even skip it altogether, rationalizing that you need to save yourself for the much larger steak later that night.
But this is a false economy, like refusing to drink water in the early parts of a marathon.
That first steak has to get you through the afternoon and half the night, until the restaurants begin to open at ten; the first steak is what primes your system to digest large quantities of animal protein, and it's the first steak that buffers the sudden sugar rush of your afternoon ice cream cone.
The midnight second steak might be more the glamorous one, standing as it does a good three inches off the plate, but all it has to do is get you up and out of the restaurant and into bed (for the love of God, don't forget to drink water).
The afternoon steak is the workhorse steak, the backbone of the day. It's the steak that gets you around the city, ensures a successful nap, steers you into the bar and (most importantly) gives you the mental clarity to choose the right cut of meat in the restaurant that night.
Misorder the first steak and you will either find yourself losing steam by eight o'clock, when no restaurant is open, or scampering to find an awkward third bridge steak, to tide you over until dinner.
All you need to know about the quality of pasture in the pampas is that cows went feral in Argentina. You can still see them grazing pretty much anywhere there is a horizontal patch of grass, all now firmly back in the hand of man, but still with a happy grassy glint in their eye.
This most docile, placid, and passive of large herbivores stepped off the boat, took one nibble at the pampas and made a run for it. It knew that it wanted to spend the rest of its life eating the pampas grass, without outside interference.
And the settlers, once they caught some of the early escapees, began to feel the same way about the beef.
Eating steaks in Argentina feels like joining a cult. You find yourself leaning on friends to come visit, and writing YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND in all caps more often than feels comfortable.
Argentine beef really is extraordinary. Almost all of this has to do with how the cows are raised.
There are no factory feedlots in Argentina; the animals still eat pampas grass their whole lives, in open pasture, and not the chicken droppings and feathers mixed with corn that pass for animal feed in the United States. Since this is the way of life a cow was designed for, it is not necessary to pump the animal full of antibiotics.
The meat is leaner, healthier and more flavorful than that of corn-fed cattle. It has fewer calories, contains less cholesterol, and tastes less mushy and waterlogged than American meat.
And the cows spend their lives out grazing in the field, not locked into some small pen. You can taste the joy.
When the meat is cooked, it is roasted in thick pieces over open coals by obsessive meat chefs who have been cooking meat all their lives, for other people who have been eating meat all their lives, in a country that takes its meat extremely seriously. You are not likely to be disappointed.
Steaks here are ridiculous - not so much in diameter, since they rarely overhang the plate by more than an inch or two - but in thickness, having roughly the proportions of an American canned ham. But what the Argentines have really mastered is flavor.
Strange cuts of meat that would be ground into flavorless paste up north come to your table here infused with a delicious texture and flavor, provided they are cooked right. And they are invariably cooked right.
The waiters are solicitous about asking (in English) how you want your meat done, but if you let them make the call, you get a two-inch thick of meat that transitions seamlessly from carbon to bright pink and back.
As you would expect, there is a forbidding amount of terminology around beef-eating - bife de chorizo, asado de bife, churrascos, [...], lomo, vaco, bife de costilla, ojo de bife, various more exotic portions of the animal. However the basic principles are simple.
Meat is prepared in two ways, either on a parrilla (charcoal grill) or an asador (a system of iron crucifixes circling an open fire). The crucifix shape is suggestive and amusing. An excellent essay on Argentine history by Martín Caparrós may give a clue to its origin:
Juan Díaz de Solís, a Sevillian and a gentleman, arrived in the Freshwater Sea in February of 1516, when none of this existed yet. He voyaged in three ships, as is fitting, and when some shameless natives made him a signal of welcome, he readily leaped onto the shore with his cross and his sword, only to land without further ceremony on the coals of a banquet: he was to be the main course.
His companions, who watched him slowly tranformed into a dish from the boat, then told the world of those who bury their dead that Argentine history had begun as an asado of their captain, skin and all.
I spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how meals work in Argentina, and they remain a mystery to me.
Dinner is clear enough: people tend to go to restaurants beginning at ten o'clock (for those with small children), with the main rush around eleven, and dinner is pretty much over at one or so in the morning.
And breakfast - or rather, its absence - follows as a logical consequence of eating a steak the size of a beagle at midnight.
But I have yet to figure out whether people eat some kind of meal in the afternoon, and if so, when.
Wander into any bistro or restaurant between eleven and six and you will be served a delicious lunch-sized meal, but you are likely to be the only person there, with the waiter mopping floors in the corner and the parrilla stacked with raw meat for the midnight dinner rush.