“Your problem is that you are trying to understand something that makes no sense,” my wife says to me as I slide the fork across my plate. I push a bite of crispy chicken milanesa and a slice of charred deli ham across a sugary cloud of creamed corn. I struggle to balance peas, floppy red bell pepper, and a wedge of fried banana atop my miniature mountain of food. She raises her eyebrows and makes a grandiose gesture with both arms outstretched over our textbook Suprema Maryland, half a dozen shoestring french fries gripped in one fist. “The whole point is that it is ridiculous,” she says. From the other side of the window frame, an older man stops in his tracks, bounces on his heels and squeals loudly at our food before quickly disappearing into the downtown foot traffic.
We are at El Globo, a 100 year-old restaurant in Buenos Aires’ historic Monserrat neighborhood. This is the epicenter of old-school bodegones, idiosyncratic Argentine restaurants that blur the borders between Spanish and Italian cuisines. Here, waiters dressed in black vests and bowties address me in the formal “usted” if they aren’t calling me “caballero” (despite being at least 40 years my senior). It’s a strange setting to eat something so ostentatious, and I feel a little guilty about wiping the grease off my fingers with crisp, monogrammed napkins.
I came to El Globo, known mostly for their Spanish puchero, hoping one of the city’s oldest restaurants could shed some light on the hazy origin story of this decidedly weird dish. I mostly came out empty-handed. “It is a dish that has the dessert built in,” explains owner Jorge Dutra. “You’re supposed to eat the banana last, although most people don’t do that. Where all this comes from, who knows.”
My first brush with La Maryland was five years ago in one of my favorite neighborhood dives. The whiff of fried milanesa and french fries immediately perked me up, but the sight of breaded bananas and creamed corn left me short of breath. I was apprehensive to order my own, but against all odds, the flavors made sense. The parsley-flecked bread crumbs, smoky bell peppers and pancetta, and saccharine-sweet banana and creamed corn build up to an intensely satisfying greasy-spoon umami.
I’ve spent the subsequent years ordering it as often as I have a willing eating partner, and I have tried a dozen versions all over the city. Despite being a staple menu fixture in traditional porteño restaurants, La Maryland isn’t really a specialty at any particular restaurant. It’s just there—and no one really knows how it arrived in its peculiar form.
Argentine diners revel in exaggeration and abundance. Pizzas are measured by their weight of gooey cheese, and the rule of thumb to throwing a good asado is to cook a pound of meat per person. The milanesa is no different.
In Argentina, milanesa yearns for excess and personal invention. It isn’t unusual for old-school restaurants to adorn milanesas with esoteric toppings unique to their kitchen. Beyond La Maryland, you might find a Cubano topped with pancetta and plums, or a “Durazno,” which means “peach,” which for some reason is topped with blue cheese and pineapple—no peaches. Still, most people immediately think of less complicated options like the always-popular “napolitana,” crowned with tomato sauce and charred mozzarella, or “al caballo,” loosely translated to “on horseback,” served with jiggly sunny-side-up eggs that ride atop.
The Maryland probably arrived at the French-obsessed high-end restaurants of Buenos Aires around the 1930s by way of chef and restaurateur Auguste Escoffier’s cookbook, Ma Cuisine. Escoffier’s “Maryland chicken” was most likely adapted from a regional dish originally hailing from the State of Maryland. In the 1940s, Doña Petrona, a legendary Argentine cooking personality akin to Julia Child and Rachael Ray, included the dish in her own seminal cookbook, El Libro de Doña Petrona, with a drastically different preparation. She swapped out the French chef’s bone-in chicken pieces and potatoes for breaded breast meat, blanched spinach, and peas.
Recipes evolve as they migrate, so it’s no surprise that once the Maryland milanesa arrived in Argentina, it continued to change form and significance right alongside the restaurants that embraced it. Although the crisp tablecloths and fine-dining service remain intact, restaurants like El Globo have metamorphosed into icons of the middle class. Their menus have become more populist, and classic dishes have trickled down to more casual neighborhood joints. No matter where you eat it, this outsized style of food—vaguely upscale pan-European, bastardized over a century—is a time machine to a long-gone era of opulence that we crave another taste of today, even if for just a moment between mouthfuls of fried banana and creamed corn.
La Suprema Maryland has a life of its own, so much so that the inspiration from the United States is both totally unrecognizable and completely irrelevant. I think that’s its charm: iconic not only for its bizarre ingredients, but also for the fact that every restaurant seems to have its own version—each convinced theirs is the definitive recipe.
At Los Orientales, the kitchen is known for keeping the drumstick attached, and they stack their Maryland on a bed of french fries to obligate diners to include every single ingredient in each bite. German bodegón Gambrinus is the only place where I found chicken and bananas coated with the same mix of breadcrumbs, heavily seasoned with fresh parsley and served with a thick cut of pork belly.
At La Central, a barrio dive in the neighborhood of Villa Insuperable in the city’s dense urban sprawl, owner Manuel Sambade scoffed at the idea of seasoning milanesa with fresh herbs, though he does serve a particularly ambitious version: It’s so big that it is served on a pizza tray, with all the regular trimmings and the addition of two runny fried eggs.
Heads turn as Manuel’s daughter Johanna carries out our order. She sees our eyes widen. “Everything we make is exaggerated,” she quips before skipping off. We hadn’t expected anything less.