Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Those first nights in Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is a funny city. It has that big-city vibe big-city dwellers always love, but it doesn’t have the mad crush of Mexico City or the ghosts of Paris or the constant hum of New York. It has beautiful old buildings with black filigreed balconies, the kind of balcony you can imagine a Edith Wharton character standing on, and then clunky modern buildings with uglier terraces right next door. Their Jardin Botanico is overrun with abandoned cats, who’ve gone feral by the looks in their eyes, despite the baggies of food and water that are put out for them. And most astonishing to me, their bus system is cheap, fast, and frequent, but it’s impossible to get on a bus because there are not enough coins or monedas to be had anywhere in the city, and they won't accept bills. People are literally hoarding them. A girl we met last night told us her friends gave her, as a birthday gift, a roll of ten 1 peso coins. The bank restricts its coins, giving only six pesos per person. There are rumors the bus company is selling the coins they collect on the black market, 100 pesos in coins for 105 pesos in bills.
As the graffiti declares, “¿Donde están las monedas?”
This is Buenos Aires’s way of being a big city. Even though it’s frustrating for porteños, from a tourist’s perspective, the city wears its problems well, with grace, good looks, and lots of very good steak. There has been no surprise there, only in that it has been even better than I expected, and so cheap from a New Yorker’s perspective, we’ve ended up in hysterics with the arrival of each check. We’ve been to two parillas, or grilled meat restaurants, so far with several more on our list.
La Dorita was our first happy surprise, a homey, comfortable place with two locations catty-corner from each other in Palermo Hollywood.
We got a tabla of meat for two, with a choice of three meats—vacio or sirloin, entraña or skirt steak, and asado or short ribs, and then we added half an order of “baby beef,” their funny English translation of “bife de chorizo,” a uniquely Argentine cut of rump and sirloin. I am not a meat connoisseur, able to describe the particular qualities of a supremely good piece of beef, but oh, it was so good! It didn’t matter that they hadn’t actually been cooked “al punto” or medium rare. It reminded me of the chicken in Mexico—only when your meat is crappy do you have to worry about drying it out. Its flavor was there, regardless of whether it was red and raw.
With a good and cheap bottle of Malbec; quite a decent salad with spinach, pumpkin, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and parmesan; and two scoops of ice cream, we ate until we were quite satisfechas for something like $17 per person. I felt almost embarrassed.
The next night, we went slightly more high-end to La Cabrera, another place so popular that it has two locations across the street from each other. We ate at La Cabrera Norte, which looked a little cozier, and sat on the sidewalk on a perfect summer night. We had to wait awhile, though the restaurant provided everyone waiting with free glasses of champagne and bites of sausage or stuffed olives. (We’ve dealt with the late-night schedule of porteños by living on New York time—when you sit down to eat at midnight, BA time, it’s only 9 p.m. in New York!)
The meat here, of course, was also fantastic, with the ojo de bife or ribeye making their bife de chorizo seem almost tasteless in comparison. Their morcilla, or blood sausage, had a crackling crisp casing, a better snap than any hot dog I’ve ever had, and that smooth taste that’s so familiar to me from soondae, Korean blood sausage. They also have provoleta as an appetizer, a grilled skillet of cheese with herbs that is just a salty luxury. But the appetizers were almost superfluous compared to the dozen or more little ramekins they gave us filled with things like tapenade, apple sauce, roasted garlic, green beans, potatoes in aioli. There’s just something so happy-making about a whole array of side-dishes.
We topped off the night with glasses of champagne and lollipops from their lollipop tree. There's so much about this city I still don't understand, but champagne and lollipops, that was easy.