Inside Argentina's Best Illegal Restaurant
Casa Felix is a <i>puerta cerrada</i> (closed-door) restaurant in Buenos Aires, located inside a residential neighborhood at a secret location.
Photos by Reilly Ryan.
Arriving at Casa Felix in the early evening is no easy feat—for locals and travelers alike—but this outlaw restaurant in Buenos Aires is well worth the trip. Patrons only get the exact address of the building, which is hidden in the middle of a residential neighborhood, upon booking. But once you ring the doorbell of a nondescript house in Chacarita, the gentle glow of candles, the sweet strum of Latin music, and the hostess's beatific smile embrace the evening's diners, warmly welcoming each of them.
What the restaurant's fortunate patrons experience today is the grownup brainchild of Diego Felix, a chef who molded his vision of cuisine into a collaborative and decidedly artistic environment. More than just an illegal puerta cerrada (closed door) restaurant, Casa Felix is a collective of talented members with an array of multidisciplinary skills —from photography to gardening—linked through a common passion for great food.
Álvaro Zapata, the head chef manning the Buenos Aires kitchen of this transcontinental collective, describes today's version of this evolving idea as a colossal "two-headed monster." There is Casa Felix in the US—a touring culinary troupe that alternates between the East and the West coast, run by Diego and his wife Sanra—and the original Casa Felix that spawned the collective here in Buenos Aires.
Why a collective? "It just happened, based on a need and desire to keep experimenting within gastronomy," Álvaro offers. "This is what unites us: a love for gastronomy in all its forms." The menu, which changes monthly, is an extensive multi-course meal inspired by dishes found across Latin America, all made with locally sourced ingredients. "We want everybody to leave happy, with a full tummy," Dina, the hostess, confides. "And a bit drunk, too," she smiles.
The secrecy of the puerta cerrada is neither for fear nor show, Álvaro says. Since its inception, Casa Felix has always been a closed-door restaurant. The illegality of the venture means very little in Argentina, where laws don't just bend but contort to incredible extents—and punishment for minor infractions is rarely doled out. "It's illegal because there is no legislation for such a place just yet," the chef explains. "Given the lack of legislation, people think it's illegal. It's not that—it's just that it hasn't achieved mass proportions yet. Once it does, legislation will follow."
Even though the location is kept secret and the chefs work outside the law, they don't hide. Quite the contrary: They are often present at local food fairs and gastronomic events.
The collective feels that running a restaurant in Argentina can be done better within the privacy of the chef's home. "We chose to be a behind-closed-doors restaurant," Álvaro reminds. It's to preserve the special aura that characterizes the Casa Felix experience, influenced by the Slow Food movement, along with what they refer to as "the troubadour lifestyle" and the sheer delight the collective's members take in hosting small numbers of guests, to whom they carefully explain each dish they serve.
Everything is paced and made with care, from the fruity pisco sour aperitif served to guests upon arrival to the sweet tart and handmade fig leaf ice cream that delicately ties up a succulent meal, six courses later. "We yearn to transmit a love for the pachamama," Dina notes, employing a word indigenous tribes in Latin America use to refer to Mother Earth. "We transmit love for what is natural. All that is artificial is ephemeral in nature."
A feast of massive flavors and proportions follows, taking the palate on a complete tour of Latin America with flavors reminiscent of every corner of this vast land: Peruvian tamales, Mexican mole, local ingredients as varied as sunflower and papaya, and an array of roots, grains, beans, manioc, and pickles.
The spirit of this collective is essentially an embrace of cultures and traditions they've encountered during their far-flung travels, particularly across Latin America and rural Argentina. "There are some things that you must experience anthropologically in order to learn them," Dina explains.
Álvaro takes on food preparation both as a creative endeavor and an intrepid experiment. He speaks of the close, almost intimate relationship with the producers from whom he sources many of his ingredients. But locally sourced products are not always organic—particularly in chaotic Argentina, with its lack of food legislation. "In the US, organic is an easy-to-understand concept; not so much in Argentina. We focus on respecting the plants' natural processes, but above all, we aim to work with small-scale producers." Those producers don't always grow organic produce, but Casa Felix does not mind: "We like to work with people who exhibit the same respect and dedication for their craft as we do," says Álvaro.
The collective emphasizes both experimentation and learning, while keeping Álvaro and Diego quite busy at opposite tips of the American continent. To stay in touch with each other's culinary evolution, they have set up an independent chef exchange program: they each train a chef for several months, also learning from them, and then they swap. "There is a Mexican pastry chef working with Diego now, who will come here," Álvaro reveals, excited at the prospect.
Day and night, there's an ongoing flurry of activity at Casa Felix. Other projects like PAM—a sort of collective that encompasses gastronomy, music, photography and graphic design—holds its events at the venue on Wednesdays, seamlessly squeezing all these artforms into one evening. The MAFIA photographic project also has its corner within Casa Felix. Dina explains that they've also opened up the space to host a series of talks, classes, and workshops on topics ranging from culture to natural birth control methods.
"We're always full of new ideas. We get easily bored, so we're always pushing for new ones," Dina says. A Sunday brunch will be inaugurated soon—just in time for the South American summer—and Casa Felix Buenos Aires is getting ready to travel once more for learning and experimenting, this time to Puerto Rico in 2016. Meanwhile, Casa Felix USA has finished a successful dinner tour across LA and New York, and is gearing up for a series of events in Ojai, California.
"We're just trying to find an alternative path away from big food," Álvaro humbly offers.