Almost all the expats and foreigners I’ve spoken with so far in Buenos Aires, especially those from bigger cities like Sydney, San Francisco, London, or New York, tell me there isn’t a lot of options for ethic foods here. It’s true. While there is a parrilla on every block and one might find a sushi or Peruvian-Japanese restaurant easily enough, it’s difficult to find a decent Thai or Mexican place. So when I booked a last minute table at Cocina Sunae last Thursday, I was excited to have a spicy Southeast Asian meal at a puerta cerrada, a closed-door restaurant.
There is a good number of these closed-door restaurants here in Buenos Aires and Cocina Sunae is well-known enough to be mentioned in the local restaurant guide (BA’s version of yelp called guia oleo) as well as a few English travel guides. Chef Sunae is a New York transplant who came to Buenos Aires as a visitor for three months and ended up staying for 7 years. Once I made a reservation, she e-mailed me the location of her house where dinner would be served at 21:30. An absolute downpour had me arrive at her single family home in Colegiales a bit late but her husband who was standing outside inviting the guests in; a nice welcoming sight for a solo traveler on a dark and stormy night.
My dining companion was already seated at our table, which was set in what I imagine is her living-dining area. The room was dimly lit with just a few tea lights at each table, but I could see that there were at least a half dozen tables and I’m sure on a pleasant evening dining al fresco would have been offered in the small patio area. We already knew the four courses Chef Sunae was going to serve and we were very much looking forward to the Thai inspired meal. She publishes the week’s menu on her website and when we confirmed our reservation we told her which of the two main entrees we wanted. The only other decision we needed to make was to choose from a small list of Argentine wines she offered. We went with a bottle of Coiron Malbec Reserva 2007 from Bodega Palo Alto in Maipú, Mendoza.
Before the first course, Chef Sunae came by our table to bring us a small dish of red sauce, which she said was Sriracha that she made from Jalapeños that day. As someone who has a real soft spot for Sriracha, I was more than excited by the appearance of this fiery goodness at our table. Our first course came quickly thereafter, which was crispy shrimp cakes with sweet potatoes, carrots, bean sprouts, achuete, and scallions served with a shallot-garlic vinaigrette dipping sauce.
This starter from the Philippines was served piping hot. The plump and soft shrimp was a nice contrast to the crunchy bite of the batter, and the acid from the vinaigrette sufficiently cut the oiliness of the dish. But after a bite or two, the dish lost some of the initial excitement as the flavors of the deep fried shredded vegetables became hard to distinguish. I ate the rest of it just for the texture and as a vehicle to consume more Sriracha.
Our next course was Nuea Num Tok, a Thai beef salad tossed with red onions, mint, cilantro, and crushed roasted rice.
I liked that this salad wasn’t over-dressed. There was a good balance of sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and bitter, the five essential tastes in Thai cooking. I did wish for more kick in the dish but that’s my general preference, one which I could easily fix with some more hot sauce.
The third course was also Thai: Gaeng Gung, shrimp red curry with coconut milk, bamboo shoots, grapes, and cherry tomatoes. It was served with steamed rice.
The smooth and rich coconut milk and the pungent fish sauce were both strong Thai ingredients I was looking forward to tasting at Cocina Sunae, and I was happy to find both present in this dish. The shrimp was cooked perfectly but I found the curry itself a little bit sweet. I think I was expecting it to be a bit more aggressive and have more sharpness, but I enjoyed the dish.
Our dessert was Asian-South American fusion; ice cream alfajor made with taro root ice cream and coconut cookies served with tropical fruit.
This for me, was the worst dish of the evening and a disappointment. I don’t really have a sweet tooth but it’s always nice to end a meal with something special. The cookies were like crunchy bricks and I couldn’t get a hint of taro from the ice cream. The size of the alfajores were large enough to require my cutting it with a knife but the cookie was so hard that when I attempted to slice it a piece almost flew across the room. I think it would have been better if it were either smaller so that one can just pop it in the mouth or the cookie is softer and spongier so that it can be easily cut into pieces. And while we were told we’d have tea service at the end of the meal, we weren’t offered any.
We realized that when we finished, we were the last ones left in the room. Chef Sunae came out of the kitchen and we had a quick chat before she walked us out. She’s very sweet and gentle, and I think her food is a good reflection of who she is and what she loves to do. For 130 pesos (~$30 USD before wine and tip) I thought it was a pretty good meal and an interesting experience, but far below the expectations I had of a closed-door restaurant that came so highly recommended. I expected the flavors to be brighter and punchier; I expected more creativity and see more of the chef’s interpretation of the classic dishes.
Having made Thai curries from scratch myself, I know it’s not an easy thing to do and I don’t even know if all the ingredients can be found in Buenos Aires. I also realize that Asian food is not readily available here and I’m not in Bangkok or New York; I need to adjust my expectations accordingly. What I did appreciate was a chance have a lovely evening in Chef Sunae’s gracious home and experience a part of Buenos Aires‘ culinary scene.
* all photos are from Cocina Sunae’s website and photo credits go to Cocina Sunae