“Some of us have to work for a living.”
The taxi driver didn’t actually say it, but I could read the words in his eyes.
“I’m a taxi driver,” he said, “I don’t have a favorite restaurant because I eat every meal at home.”
He bent over, removed a binder from underneath the passenger seat, and flipped through the plastic covered pages until he reached a list of restaurants.
I glanced over his shoulder and recognized famous names in the foreigners ghetto – precisely the kinds of establishments I hoped to avoid on my taxi-guided food expeditions.
“What do you want? A fine restaurant? An all-you-can-eat buffet?”
“You know what?” I said, “I’m really sorry for bothering you. I think it might be better if I look for someplace on my own. I appreciate you trying to help me, though.”
The taxista snapped the binder closed, relief flooding his face, “OK.”
I walked a few blocks toward Avenida Las Heras wondering how could I have neglected to factor the cruel reality of a cab driver’s salary into my frivolous experiment.
When I’d fantasized about these food pilgrimages, I’d had visions of munching on street food in neighborhoods far from the tourist circuit, of discovering 10-table cantinas with a single cook in the kitchen, of finding the perfect empanada, and of sharing great meals with drivers I grew to trust.
Caught up in these visions, I’d never thought about the fact that many of the men driving the thousands of cabs in Buenos Aires can’t even afford a hot dog.
I flirted with the idea of giving up on my short-lived culinary quests…Was there a more respectful way to do restaurant reconnaissance? Probably. But I still wanted to test my hypothesis: that cab drivers are the keepers of a city’s greatest secrets, especially its culinary ones.
I hailed another cab.
The driver grunted a reluctant ‘good afternoon’ when I got in. His rapid-fire Spanish lacked the sing-song cadence of the city’s locals.
Instead of, ‘Can you take me to your favorite restaurant?’ I asked him if he could take me to his favorite place to eat (A subtle change of phrase I hoped would elicit at least some response).
“I just came from the kiosk around the corner,” he answered, “I always eat there. Hot dogs.”
“Oh…” Well, I could eat a hot dog, right? Of course I’d eaten hot dogs before, but I’d never had a Buenos Aires superpancho.
Much as I tried to suppress my food snobbery, the cabbie correctly sensed that I was searching for something a little more up-market than a superpancho.
“Do you like empanadas?” he asked.
“Sounds great! I’m obsessed with finding the best empanada in Buenos Aires.”
Oblivious to my enthusiasm, he said nothing and shot through a red light. As he swerved between traffic lanes and bounced over potholes, I asked him where he was from.
“I was born here, but my parents are from Corrientes (a province in northwest named after the rivers that dominate its economy and landscape),” he said, “That’s where I grew up. I don’t like living in Buenos Aires, but there are no jobs in Corrientes. Here, on the other hand…Well, you can always find something to do in this city.”
I nodded and held on as we careened onto a side street off of the Avenida Santa Fe. I was getting the distinct feeling that this man wanted to expunge me from his cab as quickly as possible.
“See the statue of the fat lady over there?” he jerked his head, “That’s the place. You’re in luck – they’re open.”
I thanked the taxista, careful not to slam the Fiat’s flyaway door, dodging lunchtime traffic as I ran across the street toward the fat lady. She held a chalkboard listing daily specials and pointed toward the entrance to La Aguada.
I disregarded her eery funhouse smile and rang the bell. A pint-sized waitress materialized and swung the glass door open to a brown-and-yellow dining room with distressed wood tables, hand woven tapestries, and two other customers. One woman read the newspaper as she spooned stew from a ceramic bowl. The other woman sat in silence before an empty basket of empanadas.
A pile of plastic tamales towered over the six packs of Corona and Negro Modelo that crowded the bar. The voice of Mercedes Sosa, Argentina’s most famous folk singer, was the only sound in the room.
I chose a table next to the wall where I could watch the comings and goings from the kitchen and opened the yarn-bound menu. The phone rang, and I listened to the cashier calmly take an order for 200 empanadas for Friday. The phone rang again – 50 tamales for Friday. And again – how many liters of locro did you want, señora?
I noticed a spread from El Clarín, the city’s left-leaning newspaper, mounted on poster board a few tables away. Ignoring the stares of the two silent women, I crossed the room to study its contents. The headline read:
“La Aguada Chef David Rosental Reveals the Secrets of the Perfect Empanada – Follow his Recipes for the Ideal May 25 Celebration”
Suddenly the soul food hot spot’s practically empty dining room made sense. Tomorrow was May 25 – the anniversary of the first revolution that led to Argentina’s independence – and one of the few days during the year when many people in Buenos Aires feel compelled to eat the ‘peasant food’ of the provinces that is La Aguada’s specialty.
The phone rang steadily now, and I studied the menu with happy anticipation, thanking the taciturn taxista from Corrientes for guiding me to the right place – if a day early.
I flipped to the back of the menu and discovered a page with copies of good reviews from El Clarín and La Nación (the city’s right of center newspaper) – including recommendations for the restaurant’s best dishes.
The pint-sized waitress bounced over to take my order. Before I could speak, she apologized.
“I’m out of tamales, locro and carbonada,” she said, “You know tomorrow is May 25, and we have so many orders.”
“You still have empanadas, right?”
“No problem, then.”
As long as there were empanadas, I didn’t care what they were out of. I followed the lead of the La Nación critic and ordered a beef and a 7-cheese empanada and a humita casserole. The waitress nodded her approval and disappeared. The woman with the empty empanada basket paid her check and left.
While I waited for my food, I spotted a handmade guest book at the table next to mine. The cover instructed visitors to “leave your signature, drawings, money, car, gold, husband, wife, kids – whatever you want.”
The first entry read: “Went to the dentist to get my teeth worked on and decided to try them out at La Aguada – it’s the best thing that’s happened to me today.”
Martin from La Pampa wrote: “I have high cholesterol and diabetes, but whenever I come to Buenos Aires, I always come to La Aguada and eat locro. Dr. Bordese will never find me here anyway.”
The guest book’s feel-good musings only got funnier and more charming – and they kept me company as the newspaper reading woman paid her bill (but not before ordering three dozen tamales for her May 25 party) and left me alone in the dining room.
By the time my empanadas arrived, I’d discovered that La Aguada’s carbonada cured headaches, that their empanadas had mended more than a few lover’s quarrels, and that Antonia from Córdoba was willing to share her husband with the Fat Lady in the doorway (but not with any other woman).
I tore myself away from the guest book and studied the palm-sized pastries in the basket before me. Brown oven blisters covered the thin masa, and I cut the empanadas in half to let the heat and smells (herbs, onions, paprika) escape.
I tried the 7-cheese version first: fresh chives and celery balanced the richness of the roquefort and mozzarella and five other cheeses I could not name. I had to stop myself from inhaling the entire thing before I tasted the beef – which was lean, tender, mixed with leeks and sweet peppers, and equally irresistible. In both empanadas, the delicate masa stayed where it belonged – in the background, quietly (and gracefully) supporting the fillings that played the starring roles.
In that moment, I promised myself I would go to Tucumán in September for their annual empanada festival, which culminates in the election of an Empanada Queen. Not a beauty contest, the election bestows eternal glory on the maker of the best empanada of the year.
As I fantasized about my food pilgrimage to Tucumán and toyed with the idea of ordering a few more empanadas, the waitress brought my cheese-covered humita casserole, sizzling in a ceramic bowl the diameter of a large cantaloupe. All thoughts of empanadas vanished.
After my first under-seasoned taste of corn, red peppers, flat leaf parsley and mozzarella, I regretted my choice and my timing. I sprinkled salt on the casserole when the waitress wasn’t looking, but it wasn’t enough to awaken the sleeping flavors.
The dish had been prepared by distracted hands – hands that had directed their attention to May 25 preparations. I ate it anyway, not wanting to insult the chef – and knowing first-hand how devastating it is to see untouched plates return to the kitchen.
When I made it halfway through the humita casserole, the waitress put up the closed sign. The cashier turned off Mercedes Sosa and turned on Cristina Aguilera, singing along to “Ain’t No Other Man” between phone calls for May 25 orders.
I ate faster and tried to think of something to add to La Aguada’s guest book. I wanted to write an ‘Ode to the Empanada,’ (some clever metaphor exploring the idea that we’re all empanadas: you can’t really be sure what’s inside until you take a bite). But Cristina’s shrieking was distracting me, and I couldn’t capture the wit or irony I was after in the poem.
Finally, I gave up on the casserole and the ode and asked for the check. Hell-bent on leaving on a high note, I wrote the following in the guest book before I dashed out the door:
“All empanadas are not created equal – and yours are enough to inspire a trip to their source. Thanks to you and the Fat Lady for the tasty introduction to Tucumán – someday I hope to meet your (empanada) queen.”