From the outside, La Reverde looks like any other Buenos Aires grill house. You order at a glass counter stocked with cans of lager and fizzy drinks, and signs painted in the flowery fileteado style adorn the walls. It’s not the grubbiest place out there, but it’s a long shot from being the fanciest.
The customers spilling out of the door on my visit to La Reverde are the first sign that all is not as it seems. Many have come from a nearby animal rights protest, wearing t-shirts with slogans like “Check your species privilege” and “Violence is eating animals.” But they’re not here to protest, they’re here to eat. La Reverde is Argentina’s first vegan asado, and tonight, it’s packed.
The menu offers everything from choripanes (chorizo on bread) and matambrito (pork steak) to grilled tempeh—all cooked on the grill in the traditional asado way; all entirely plant-based. When the food arrives, the British friend I’m eating with immediately gets her camera out to document the experience. “I don’t think people would believe this was vegan,” she says.
She’s not wrong: from the sheen of grease to the charred marks from the grill, the dishes at La Reverde look so authentically meaty, it’s disconcerting. The sausages not only taste like the real thing, they have a weirdly stretchy texture that even the most expensive meat substitutes in the UK don’t manage.
La Reverde was opened in May 2017 by Vanina Compagnet, who spent a number of years selling vegan food at street fairs and organising vegan barbecues. She became interested in preparing food that looked and tasted like Buenos Aires’ traditional asado dishes, because these were what she missed the most when she first went vegan.
“I started experimenting and it came out better and better every time,” Compagnet says. Once she had worked out how to prepare food just the way she liked it, she started serving it to others.
Most of the “meat” at La Reverde is made from seitan, a versatile wheat gluten that can be flavoured and moulded to appear very similar to animal products. Compagnet and her team make it on site with gluten powder, which they carefully season and cook on the grill like a regular Argentine asado.
“It was trial and error a thousand times over,” she says. “You can’t do a course in this stuff.”
Seitan doesn’t behave like meat; it doesn’t have meat’s natural grease, so it has to be grilled with plenty of oil to stop it sticking. The main downside of seitan is that it isn’t suitable for people who can’t eat gluten, so La Reverde also offers dishes with tempeh (fermented soybean) and mushrooms. The vegan meats are served with a side of chips or salad and chimichurri or salsa criolla.
Not everyone enjoys eating meat substitutes that looks so similar to the real thing. “To be honest, I prefer normal vegetarian food, not imitation meat,” says Yanina, who works round the corner from the restaurant. “It’s not bad but if you compare it with meat, it loses by a long shot.” Some people have even complained to Compagnet because the dishes at La Reverde look too meaty.
Nonetheless, the response to the vegan asado has been overwhelmingly positive. La Reverde’s reviews average 4.6 stars on Google and 4.8 on Facebook. Franco, who has been vegan for seven years and is a regular customer, says: “It satisfies your cravings for the taste. I think it’s really useful for people who are just getting started [as vegans] and are still into the old habits, because it offers a bit of everything.
“Anything that contributes to ending animal suffering is welcome,” he adds.
That a vegan grill house exists in Buenos Aires at all may come as a surprise to outsiders. Argentina is known as a nation of meat lovers. In 2017, meat consumption averaged 118 kilograms per capita and 2009 data from the Food and Agriculture Organization data showed that the country had the eleventh highest meat consumption in the world. Asados are a common sight—and smell—in Buenos Aires. Often, groups of friends will pile charcoal onto a piece of corrugated iron and get grilling right on the roadside. It’s a social thing, and the news that I’m vegan is often greeted with crestfallen expressions.
Despite this, the capital has a thriving vegan scene. You can find seitan sandwiches, lentil burgers, and other vegan options anywhere from low-key takeaways to food outlets at the University of Buenos Aires. The cafeteria of the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, introduced vegan Mondays in 2017.
The city’s growing vegan trend isn’t just for the benefit of tourists, either. La Reverde’s menu is in Spanish and most of the customers are locals. It’s also pretty cheap: although we’re right in the heart of Buenos Aires, just half a block from the square that’s home to Argentina’s national Congress building, most dishes work out cheaper than pizza or pasta.
“It’s like a typical neighbourhood grill house, but vegan,” Compagnet explains. The slogans on the walls are twists on the usual asado mottos. One popular quote from the Martín Fierro poem about Argentina’s famed gaucho cowboys reads “All beasts that walk go on the spit.” At La Reverde, the sign instead reads: “All beasts that walk, may they keep walking.”
Compagnet believes the rise in social media has played an important role in promoting veganism in Argentina, for instance by making it easier to find videos of how animals are treated in the meat and dairy industry. “When I started out, I would get PETA magazines by post!” she says.
Most of La Reverde’s customers fight for causes besides animal rights. Compagnet estimates that around half the people who eat here belong to the LGBTQ community, while others have criticised her for selling Coca-Cola, due of the company’s role in deforestation.
“If you’re going to get into that, there are a thousand things that aren’t vegan,” Compagnet says. For her, it’s important to make veganism unpretentious and accessible to working class people in Buenos Aires, and that means not insisting they drink only artisanal lemonade.
Judging by the packed tables and the queue at the counter, La Reverde has found an approach that works.