According to the legend, late one night in the early 1960s a group of backpackers arrived unexpectedly at a hostel in Chilecito, a small town in the province of La Rioja that hugs Argentina’s central Andes. They were hungry and asked Ferrito, who was working the front desk, if there was anything for dinner. The fridge was full of disparate ingredients: A few pork chops, eggs, potatoes, leftover salsa portuguesa, Swiss chard cream sauce, and peas. He pan-fried the pork chops and eggs, mixed the sauces together, and topped everything with sautéed peas and potatoes, both oven-roasted and fried. Thus were born costillas a la riojana.
Ferrito eventually opened his own restaurant, which still stands today. He refined the dish, getting rid of the herby, tomato-based salsa portuguesa, and watched his creation spread through restaurants all across the country, changing from province to province. In nearby Santiago de Estero, white wine and paprika—a staple ingredient in the bell pepper–producing province—are used to make a thick sauce with the sautéed vegetables and the fat that runs off the pork chops. In Buenos Aires, where the dish is most often found in old-school neighborhood restaurants, pork chops are grilled and topped with sautéed pancetta, peas, onions, and bell peppers, and served with a pair of fried eggs and papas españolas, or thin rounds of baked or fried potatoes.
Here in Buenos Aires, it was never a dish that I was particularly fond of, mostly because of the exclusion of a rich sauce that would add complexity to the grilled vegetables. Plus, the pork chops run the risk of drying out on a hot grill top. And then I gave it another chance at Café Argot, a bakery and bistro that sits on a quiet corner in Buenos Aires’ Villa Santa Rita neighborhood.
“My mother used to make costillas a la riojana when I was a kid,” says Alejo Benitez. “At the restaurant, we used a recipe by local chef Gastón Rivera as our base and I played around with the sauce using my go-to spices: black pepper, Spanish paprika, and crushed red pepper.”
Alejo is the co-owner of Café Argot alongside his partner, baker Kenya Ama. The duo dedicates much of their menu to reviving Buenos Aires’ Hispano-Italo classics for a new generation of diners. The costillas were a solid example: juicy pork chops with a satisfying browned crust and sautéed bell peppers and onions beaten down in his white wine–and–red pepper sauce, which turned to a gravy that sank into the bed of papas españolas they were served with.
The menu changes frequently, and thus, I had to learn to make it at home if the experience was to be repeated. The biggest challenge was the sauce. Alejo couldn’t remember the exact proportions of wine and seasoning, so I first worked off some recipes I found from Santiago de Estero, which use similar ingredients to build the sauce. The final result was a candy-red sauce with a strong peppery taste—tart green bell peppers and sweet paprika and red bell peppers—that reminded me too much of an empanada filling.
I decided to try again with something more herby, and used oregano, thyme, and parsley, along with some freshly ground white pepper. In order to cut down on an overt bell pepper flavor, I cut extra-thin slices and did the same for the onions, in hopes that they’d melt down more and blend with the other ingredients. The long braise broke the vegetables down considerably, they turned sweet and slightly sticky, and complemented the dish’s pork flavor rather than compete against it. Topped with a fried egg with yolk that spills down into gravy, it’s the perfect combination of flavors to sop up with a batch of crisp baked potato slices.
Season pork chops all over with salt and set on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet for at least 40 minutes or refrigerate, uncovered, for up to 24 hours.
In a 12-inch stainless-steel or cast iron skillet or large Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add red and green bell peppers and onion along with a large pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until softened and onions have lightly browned, about 15 minutes; lower heat if necessary to prevent excessive browning. Transfer cooked vegetables to a heatproof bowl and set aside. Clean pot or skillet.
Pat pork chops dry with a paper towel. In the cleaned pot or skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Working in batches if necessary to not overcrowd the skillet, place pork chops in skillet and cook over medium-high heat until evenly browned on both sides, about five minutes per side. Transfer pork chops to a platter and set aside.
Lower heat to medium and add basil, oregano, and white pepper to remaining butter in skillet and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Pour white wine into skillet and bring to a boil while scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook until raw alcohol smell has largely cooked off, then add the cooked bell peppers and onions to the skillet and simmer, stirring often, until jammy, about 20 minutes; add additional water 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time, if needed, to keep vegetables from becoming overly dry. Season with salt.
Nestle pork chops in the vegetables, reduce heat to low to maintain a simmer and cook until pork chops register 130 to 140°F (54 to 60°C) on an instant-read thermometer for medium and sauce has thickened to a gravy-like consistency (add water, if needed, if the vegetables are too dry), about 10 minutes. Add frozen peas and cook until warmed through, about 5 minutes.
Serve pork chops with crispy fried eggs on top (you can serve 2 chops with one crispy fried egg per person or 1 chop each with a fried egg for 4 people).
12-inch stainless-steel or cast-iron skillet or large Dutch oven