South America steaks: Who has the best steak in the world?

Are the big slabs of meat that are served up for dinner in South America all they are cut up to be?

"Las Vacas Gordas: we're going there."

My mate Dan is adamant. The best steak in South America can be found in Santiago, Chile, at a restaurant whose name translates to "the fat cows". Dan has been given the tip from a work colleague in Sydney, a meat fiend who travels to Chile annually just to eat beef, and has decided that South America's best slab can be enjoyed at Las Vacas Gordas.

That's fine. Except I'm pretty sure that the best steak in the world is sold in Buenos Aires. There's a place called Don Julio that is legendary, with tales of its meaty goodness having stretched across the globe. 

And we'll get there, in a week or so. This whole South American sojourn, in fact, is going to be something of a steak-off, a search for beef perfection, a battle to decide the world's best cookers of cow. It's Dan's workmate versus my working knowledge. In the immortal words of the Iron Chef: let the battle begin!

I'm not even that big a fan of steak. I don't usually order it at restaurants. But when in South America, particularly the southern part, you owe it to yourself to eat beef. 

And that beef will only be cooked one way in countries like Chile, Uruguay and Argentina: grilled, in large pieces. It has to be salted to within an inch of its life, then singed over hot wood embers, cooked low and slow, the juices sealed in, the meat given a smoky flavour, the middle all tender, the outside charred.

This lovely piece of cow will arrive at your table unadorned by any salad item or vegetable, as if it would be an insult to the "asador", or cook, to sully his offering with anything else. You can have some potatoes on the side if you like. But it's not necessary.

And so on to Las Vacas Gordas, the first stop on our adventure in South American meat preparation. The restaurant is a local favourite, a place of simple wooden tables, of waiters wearing cow-print ties, and of an open kitchen that consists of a huge "parilla", or grill, and a couple of very sweaty and serious asadors. 

Dan and I place our orders, both going for entrecote cuts, because they sound enormous. They are, too: the finished products, when a waiter struggles over to our table with them, cover an entire dinner plate each.


The taste, we agree, is good. It's not amazing. It's not life-changing. But it's very, very good.

And the tour continues. Next up: Don Julio, a jam-packed place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a restaurant with its own branded steak knifes, huge wood-handled weapons that look like they could spark a police raid back in Australia.

Dan and I are excited about Don Julio. If Las Vacas Gordas was good, we figure, Don Julio is going to be even better. The place is legendary, and it must be for a reason. 

This time we order "ojo de bife", or eye fillet, the house specialty. We order fries on the side. We sit back and admire our steak weapons and wait for the beef to arrive.

It eventually makes it to the table, and you know what? It's disappointing. "I know 10 places in Australia where I could get better steak than this," says Dan, every bit the carnivorous connoisseur. 

He's right: the steak is chewy; the flavour not quite right. So we walk away thinking that maybe the world's best steak really can be found in suburban Santiago. Or even Australia.

But hang on. There's one stop left. It wasn't supposed to be part of our "tour de carne" but we're now travelling to Cordoba, smack in the middle of Argentinian cowboy country, so we figure it can't hurt to sample the local product.

We've got one night in town, so we take a local tip and head to a restaurant called Alcorta, one of the most expensive parrillas in town. Whatever. Price is not an issue when you're chasing the best steak in the world.

Here we order "bife de chorizo", or sirloin, and sit back with low expectations. Our steak knives are just normal steak knives. There's no queue of tourists out the front. In fact no queue of anyone.

But then the meal arrives, two enormous 500-gram hunks of blackened beef, and we cut into what are without doubt the best steaks either of us have ever tasted. These aren't mere hunks of cow – they're works of art. They're salty, smoky, tender and delicious. They're beefy perfection; they're killer bits of cow.

We eat in reverential silence. Forget Las Vacas Gordas, and don't worry about Don Julio: South America's best steak is at Alcorta. Dan's workmate should get there now.

The writer travelled as a guest of LAN and Chimu Adventures