Category

argentina

Buenos Aires’ Kosher McDonald’s

By | argentina, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Hold the cheese, hold the sauce, at unique McDonald’s in Argentine shopping mall

December 26, 2019

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – There are nearly 40,000 McDonald’s restaurants around the world that serve 68 million customers each day.

Kosher McDonald's

The lunch rush at the kosher McDonald’s in Buenos Aires’ Abasto Mall

That’s a lot of cheeseburgers, milkshakes and special sauce.

But in the central part of Buenos Aires, in the Oncé section of town known as “the Jerusalem of Argentina,” you’ll find a unique McDonald’s at which none of those items is served.

Welcome to the only kosher McDonald’s in the world outside of Israel, a restaurant that does a booming business to meet kashrut dietary regulations – while satisfying the fast-food appetite – of the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world.

I recently had lunch at the kosher McDonald’s at the food court on the third floor in the Abasto Mall, where I met with several restaurant employees and an official from McDonald’s corporate offices in Buenos Aires.  I was in Argentina’s capital city for one day, the final stop on a 14-day cruise on the Holland America Zaandam that circumnavigated the southern portion of South America.

Given the noteworthy nature of this particular Golden Arches, I hopped on an Uber from the cruise ship terminal and took a 30-minute drive through the busy streets of Buenos Aires to see the kosher McDonald’s for myself and sample some of its cuisine.

kosher certification

The restaurant’s official kosher certification

The metropolitan area of South America’s second-most populous city is home to about 15 million people.  While estimates vary, there are approximately 200,000 Jews living in the city.  Most of the country’s Jews are Ashkenazi whose families fled to South America to escape persecution in Eastern and Central Europe.

Abasto used to be the city’s central wholesale fruit and vegetable market.  The area is also well-known for being the home of Carlos Gardel, the world-famous tango singer.  Abasto was converted into a multi-story shopping mall in the late 1990s.

At that time, the mall had two McDonald’s.  But the mall’s owners, two Jewish brothers, decided they wanted to offer a product that would attract families from the surrounding area’s large Jewish community.  Indeed, I was told there are 30-40 synagogues within walking distance of the Abasto Mall.

So in 1998, the mall opened its third McDonald’s.  This one, though, was labeled with signage next to the Golden Arches as being “kosher.”  And the use of that word is not just a marketing ploy.

The McDonald’s is under the strict supervision of Rabbi Daniel Oppenheimer, one of Buenos Aires’ leading rabbis.  The restaurant has a “kosher supervisor” on duty at all times to ensure every rule pertaining to kashrut is closely followed.

kosher supervisor

Tamara Herscovich, the on-site kosher supervisor, proudly displays a box of kosher beef patties outside the restaurant’s freezer

For starters, all the beef served in the restaurant is from cows raised in Argentina – known for its world-class beef — is certified kosher.  There are no dairy products on the menu, including cheese, milkshakes or ice cream-cones or sundaes.  For dessert, there is a non-dairy sundae on the menu, which I was told tastes more like mousse than ice cream.  It comes in strawberry and caramel.

And what about the iconic Big Mac, which recently celebrated its half-century anniversary?  Yes, it comes with two all-beef (kosher) patties, lettuce, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.  But you can’t get cheese or special sauce (a mixture of mayonnaise, relish, mustard and other ingredients).  The restaurant experimented with importing a non-dairy kosher sauce, but it was discontinued due to the prohibitive costs involved.  Now, the sandwich is served with no sauce, which greatly reduces its production costs, not to mention its caloric count.

The restaurant closes at 3 p.m. every Friday for Shabbat and doesn’t reopen until Sunday at 10 a.m.  I asked about Passover.  Are hamburgers served on matzah instead of bread?  No, the McDonald’s shuts down completely for an entire week during the holiday.

Florencia Santucho, who works in communications for McDonald’s in Argentina, said that while most of the restaurant’s patrons are local Jews, there is a large contingent of Israeli tourists who visit.  Some Argentines, who aren’t Jewish, also frequent the restaurant to consume fast-food that’s a bit lighter and heart-healthier than non-kosher fare.

kosher big mac

A kosher Big Mac — no cheese and no sauce — served at the McDonald’s at Abasto Mall

I was there for lunch on a Tuesday afternoon and the place was packed.  Many of the customers were wearing kippot.  The clientele looked like a mix of families and local business people on their lunch breaks from work.

Santucho took me back into the kitchen as part of a program McDonald’s has in Argentina called “open doors,” designed to give visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how the food is prepared and demonstrate to the public the fast-food chain’s growing commitment to transparency.

“It’s a good way to erase a lot of myths and fears,” she says.

While I was touring the kitchen, a young woman named Tamara Herscovich, the on-site kosher supervisor, showed me the steps taken to ensure the ingredients are correct and served according to kashrut law.  All the takeout orders are sealed with special tape, guaranteeing the kosher certification of the food.

Herscovich, who also works as a Hebrew teacher at some of the nearby Jewish schools, said she regularly brings her students to the McDonald’s as part of the “open doors” program.

Templo Libertad

The beautiful Templo Libertad in Buenos Aires, declared a National Historic Monument in 2000

I also met Melanie Bialoskurnik, a Jewish hostess at the restaurant.  She told me the kosher McDonald’s has helped instill a sense of pride in the Jewish community, which was decimated by two terrorist attacks in the early 1990s that killed more than 100 people.  The restaurant has become much more than a place to eat hamburgers and french fries.  It’s a meeting point and social hangout.

“It’s so important,” she says.  “It’s a way the Jewish people feel connected to the community of Buenos Aires.”

And what happens when an unknowing customer orders a cheeseburger?

“It happens all the time,” says Bialoskurnik.  She politely sends them across the mall’s food court to a conventional McDonald’s where they can get cheeseburgers and ice-cream sundaes to their hearts’ content.

After leaving the Abasto Mall, I had a couple of hours before needing to return to the Zaandam.  I took an Uber to see the oldest congregation in the city, the Israeli Congregation of the Argentinian Republic, founded in 1862.  The congregation now prays in the beautiful Templo Libertad, inaugurated in 1932 and declared a National Historic Monument in 2000.  The Conservative synagogue can seat up to 700 worshippers.  It is connected to the Museo Judio, a small museum that chronicles the history of Jews in Argentina.

I had experienced a full and enriching day in Buenos Aires.  I had successfully navigated myself across one of South America’s busiest and most congested cities, learned more about the ups and downs of the world’s seventh-largest Jewish community, and seen its most famous synagogue.

And yes, I had eaten my first 100 percent certified kosher Big Mac.

                                                    © 2019 Dan Fellner

Ushuaia: Journey to the End of the World

By | argentina, Chile, Cruising, Falkland Islands | No Comments

Remote Argentine city offers spectacular scenery at tip of South America

The Arizona Republic/USA Today.com — January 12, 2020

USHUAIA, Argentina – If the Flat Earth Society was looking for a place to host its next international convention, they couldn’t pick a more fitting location than this city near the southernmost tip of South America.

Ushuaia

Ushuaia, Argentina, arguably the southernmost city in the world

Ushuaia (typically pronounced oosh-why-yah), a windy outpost of about 85,000 residents in the Andes mountain range, proudly bills itself as “fin del mundo,” the end of the world.

Visitors to this city on the Tierra del Fuego (land of fire) archipelago will find signage and souvenirs for sale throughout Ushuaia boasting of the city’s location on the edge of the planet’s precipice.  The region’s most popular attractions include the “end of the world train,” the “end of the world museum,” and the “end of the world lighthouse.”

Sorry, flat-earthers.  As hard as I looked, there was no giant cliff or abyss anywhere near Ushuaia that would plunge me off terra firma into outer space.

But I did find one of the most scenic cities found anywhere on the planet – north or south.  Ushuaia, which has become a popular launching point for cruises to Antarctica, has a charming and easily walkable downtown, a fascinating history as a penal colony, and the spectacular Tierra del Fuego National Park, just a 30-minute drive from the city center.

At 54.8 degrees latitude south, Ushuaia is about the same distance – 2,400 miles — to the South Pole is it is to the northern border of Argentina.

end of world sign

Ushuaia bills itself as the “fin del mundo” — end of the world

Getting to Ushuaia is more than half the fun.  While there are a few expensive and time-consuming flights into the city’s small international airport, the most enjoyable way to reach Ushuaia is by cruise ship. I sailed on the Holland America Zaandam, which was packed to capacity with 1,360 passengers from 41 different countries.  Only about a third of my fellow passengers were Americans.

We started the cruise on the Pacific Ocean port of San Antonio, Chile – about a 90-minute drive from the country’s capital city of Santiago – and sailed south.  We cruised through the Chilean fjords and explored Patagonia, one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world.

In Patagonia, which encompasses parts of both southern Chile and Argentina, sheep outnumber people by a ratio of seven-to-one.  Along the narrow straits and fjords, we passed active volcanos, glaciers, snow-capped mountains, fields full of colorful wildflowers and several shipwrecks dating back decades.

After stops in little-known Chilean ports such as Puerto Montt and Puerto Chacabuco, we sailed into the Strait of Magellan, discovered by the Portuguese explorer in 1520.  Farther south, we reached the Beagle Channel, famous for its “Glacier Alley,” a series of six glaciers.  Five of the six glaciers are named after the European countries whose explorers first mapped the region in the 19th century.

The Zaandam was able to sail up-close to the glaciers, giving us stunning views of the blueish ice and waterfalls cascading into the sea from the Andes above.

Beagle Channel

One of six glaciers in the Beagle Channel near Ushuaia

Later that morning, we reached Ushuaia on the island of Tierra del Fuego, which is divided almost evenly between Chile and Argentina.  Most of the Zaandam’s passengers took a tour to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, on the Argentine side of the island.  Some went by train – the famous “train at the end of the world.”  Yes, it’s the southernmost functioning train in the world.

The narrow-gauge steam railway originally was built in the late 19th century to serve Ushuaia’s prison, where some of Argentina’s most hardened criminals were sent due to the city’s remote location.  The prison was closed in 1947 and converted into a naval base.  The train was rebuilt in the 1990s and now transports tourists to the national park.

I took the bus – it was cheaper.  On the drive, we passed the world’s southernmost golf course before reaching the park, where I explored its many streams, lakes, hiking trails, wildlife and mountain views.

In addition to billing itself as the end of the world, Ushuaia also claims to be the southernmost city in the world.  That’s debatable.  Puerto Williams, a nearby town in Chile with about 3,000 residents, is indisputably farther south, by about 10 miles.  The question is whether Puerto Williams is truly a “city,” a designation it recently received from the Chilean government.

Holland America Zaandam

The Holland America Zaandam anchored in the fjords near Puerto Chacabuco, Chile

I asked Adrian Ayala, our Argentine guide in Ushuaia, about which place can rightfully make the claim.  He scoffed at Puerto Williams’ assertion that it – not Ushuaia – is the world’s southernmost city.

“It’s not fair,” said Ayala.  “To be an official city, you need to have at least 5,000 inhabitants, according to international law.”

None of the Zaandam’s passengers seemed overly concerned about the controversy.  Many of us stood in line at the Ushuaia Tourist Information Office to receive a certificate recognizing our visit to “the southernmost city in the world to live an unforgettable experience.”

Afterward, with a stiff southerly wind making temperatures in the upper 40s feel much colder, I walked back to the ship.  The next morning, we awoke at 5:30 a.m. as the Zaandam sailed past Cape Horn at the southern tip of the continent, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans collide.

Discovered by a Dutch explorer in 1616, Cape Horn used to be a major shipping route until the Panama Canal was built in 1914.  It was known for its treacherous waters – and many shipwrecks.  A small monument was visible on the cape dedicated to the estimated 10,000 seamen who lost their lives in the area.  During our cruise, we had unusually calm seas and the Zaandam had no difficulty rounding the cape.

Falklands penguins

A colony of Gentoo penguins on the remote Falkland Islands

Once in the Atlantic, we stopped in the Falklands Islands, a British overseas territory where we had a chance to observe several species of penguins in their natural habitats.  I chose to visit a colony of orange-beaked Gentoo penguins.  After leaving the Falklands, we cruised back north to warmer weather and ended the trip with stops in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Parkas and gloves were replaced with tee-shirts and shorts and the retractable roof over the Zaandam’s swimming pool was reopened.  The change in climate from warm to frigid and back to warm again made it a tricky trip for which to pack.  The cruising season for Patagonia spans from October-March, the South-American spring and summer.

In two weeks, we had circumnavigated the southern portion of the continent.  We never quite reached the end of the world, but sure had a fun adventure trying to find it.

                                      © 2020 Dan Fellner

Important links:
Ushuaia Tourism Office
Holland America Cruises