Salta, Argentina • Ahh, so that's an empanada!
A spicy epiphany came over me at an outdoor cafe in the colonial city of Salta, tucked among the foothills of the Argentine Andes. Mountains or not, I was close to heaven.
All across Argentina, but particularly in the northwest region, empanadas -- called saltenas -- have been raised to an art form. Something like the aura surrounding barbecue in Memphis, Tenn., but with a little less braggadocio.
Empanadas aren't always easy to find in Utah. While I'd heard the word "empanada" before my trip, I'd never actually eaten an authentic doughy turnover. They can be filled with most anything; chicken and cheese are popular. But Salta is famous for ?-- and proud of -- its spicy beef saltenas. They will tickle you right down to your dedos.
Having finally discovered empanadas on a recent trip to the stunning South American country -- thank you serendipity -- I was on the hunt for the best of the best. At the Plaza de la Empanada -- which, like much of the rest of Salta, looks like the set from a Zorro movie -- these delicacies are hand-made in front of your eyes and then baked. The inviting aroma arrives at your table before they do. Ooh, man.
To the center of the empanada universe • To find these authentic gems of flavor, you'll have to suffer through all things Argentine; the architecture, the wine, the music and the dance -- Tango. Nobody said it would be easy.
In order to get to Salta, you'll first have to fly to Buenos Aires, the famously sexy Argentine city on the banks of the Rio de La Plata, where the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Buenos Aires is defined as much by its people, who are devoted to an eccentric lifestyle centered on food, wine and music, as it is by its wonderful architecture, which is decidedly European.
At every little cafe or large restaurant in Buenos Aires -- and there seem to be hundreds of them from the art district of La Boca to Evita Peron's tomb in Rigoletta -- you'll find linen table cloths and crystal wine glasses. And there's no rush when eating. But don't go to dinner before 9 o'clock, unless you like dining alone.
Some 15 million Argentines live in and around Buenos Aires. But Argentina is a huge country with plenty of wide open spaces and is home to as many cattle ?-- 40 million -- as people.