The Allure of Puerto Cerrados, or ‘Closed Door’ Restaurants
Chicago chef re-creates underground Argentinian-style concept for diners
A steady stream of Malbec, juicy grilled tenderloin cuts, and empanadas stuffed with the likes of chorizo, black beans and scrambled egg is what most diners typically expect to consume while visiting Argentina. But there’s an entire underground restaurant scene serving up progressive fare, and while it’s been popular with locals for years, visitors are now catching on.
They’re called puerto cerrados, or “closed door” restaurants, and new Nacional 27 Executive Chef Cory Morris experienced them during several trips to the South American country. Usually set in people’s homes or unconventional venues, puerto cerrados are hosted by all sorts of food enthusiasts, including bona fide chefs, Instagram influencers and well-respected home cooks.
“Some of the best cooks are the abuelas from these different regions, so sometimes it might be a grandmother cooking your dinner at her stovetop,” explains Morris. “Or it could be a young gun, up-and-coming chef out there trying to prove himself."
The guest list is typically restricted to eight to 10 guests, they’re invitation only and the menu is unpredictable.
“You never know what to expect at puerto cerrados, and that’s the appeal,” says Morris. “[The food] can be specifically anything from what’s in the market to whatever the host has on hand. Most times, it is at someone’s house where they might not have a business license, but they’re really good chefs so they want to invite you in their homes and have a meal.”
He enjoyed them so much that he decided to re-create the concept as a private-dining experience for guests at Nacional 27.
“It’s inspired by some of the dishes that the chefs and I who have been here for the last four months have been working on,” says Morris. “We wanted to feature dishes that were menu-worthy.”
Like the authentic puerto cerrados he attended while in Argentina, he wants his menus to be unpredictable.
“At any one time, we want to focus on several of the 27 Latin American countries,” he says. “I want to take you on a tour, starting with Peru then moving on to Brazil, then on to a pan-Latin sort of dish, then on to Mexico. We’re just showing our culinary flex as far as all these different boxes we can play in.”
During a sneak preview of Nacional 27’s version of puerto cerrados, which was held in an intimate private-dining room for 10, he featured some of his favorite meals from multiple trips to South America.
From salmon-mango ceviche to a Brazilian-inspired seafood stew of scallops, shrimp, salmon, coconut and rice to short rib mole, his menu certainly spans the continent. It also pairs well with South American vino, palomas and caipirinhas—a major draw to authentic puerto cerrados.
For those looking to experience an authentic Argentinian puerto cerrados, Morris offers a few tips on how to get an invitation: “It’s just through connections. And in the age of social media, you can come across anybody. You just throw a hashtag out there, like #puertocerrado, and find some of the local influencers, who are certain to point you in the right direction.”
BRAZILIAN-INSPIRED SEAFOOD STEW
Cory Morris | Executive Chef Nacional 27 (Chicago)
- 3 medium cloves garlic, minced
- 1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 3 lb halibut, cut into 2-inch steaks
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 3 tbsp palm oil
- 1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1 medium green bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 1 medium red bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 2 medium vine-ripe tomatoes, halved, seeded, and sliced
- 1⁄2 cup cilantro leaves and thin stems, coarsely chopped
- 3 medium scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced.
In a large bowl, combine garlic, lemon juice and salt. Add fish and turn the pieces to coat. Cover bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
In a large, high-sided skillet set over medium heat, add olive oil. Once hot, add fish with its marinade and cook until liquid is nearly evaporated, for 15 seconds to 30 seconds. Add palm oil and onion and cook, stirring until onion just begins to soften, for 15 seconds to 20 seconds. Add coconut milk and one cup water; raise heat to bring liquid to a low boil, then lower heat to achieve a gentle simmer.
Cook, stirring and turning fish occasionally, taking care not to break it apart, until onions are tender and fish is cooked through, eight minutes to 10 minutes. Add peppers, tomatoes, cilantro and scallions; cover and cook until peppers are softened slightly, about four minutes more. Season with more salt as needed to taste.