“Where are you from?”
“What are you doing in Buenos Aires?”
“Do you have family here?”
“Are you single?”
If I start talking to any taxi driver in Buenos Aires, I’ll bet my tango shoes that these Four Questions will come up – in that exact order.
This afternoon, I was fortunate enough to get in a cab with Renato, who began The Four Questions after I asked him to take me to his favorite place to eat.
I did what I usually do in response to this Latin line of interrogation: I interviewed him right back – and, as usual, got to hear an interesting story.
Renato is from Misiones (a province in Argentina’s northwest that’s home to Iguazu Falls). He came to Buenos Aires fifteen years ago, started cooking professionally, got fed up with the madness of the restaurant world, and began driving a cab three months ago.
“The money’s better, and there’s a lot less stress driving a cab,” he said, “There was always some crisis in the kitchen – I could never keep good help. I’m much happier now.”
I told him I felt his pain, having spent almost a year getting my butt kicked in a professional kitchen in San Francisco.
And then we began to talk some serious food, especially after I discovered that Renato’s married to a Peruvian woman who also loves to cook.
“So where do you guys go to eat Peruvian when your wife doesn’t cook?” I asked him (overjoyed that I was having the kind of conversation I’d fantasized about when I cooked up the idea for these food adventures).
“All the places in Abasto (BA’s Peruvian restaurant haven) are crap,” he said, “Except one called Mamani. But there’s an even better one, called Tumi de Oro, in Belgrano.”
We were heading to the 10-peso buffet where Renato usually eats lunch, which I was not terribly excited about. As I jotted down his recommendations, I asked him if he could take me to Tumi de Oro instead.
Not only am I wild about Peruvian food, but Renato’s knowledge was even more valuable in light of the fact that Peruvian (a.k.a. cocina novoandina) is slowly replacing sushi as the next local food craze.
“You have to get to Tumi de Oro early – otherwise you can’t get a seat,” he warned, “It’s right by the train station – you have to ask around to find it, though.”
He was handing me the keys to the kingdom, and I thanked him profusely. After listening carefully to his directions, I crossed the train tracks and stared into the shops surrounding the station.
I passed a hair salon with a single customer, a hot dog and steak kiosk, and a santeria store before I finally found a grey-haired man standing watch outside a hardware store. I asked him where Tumi de Oro was.
He looked at me as if I’d asked him the way to Oz.
“I don’t know of any restaurant around here by that name, but there is a Peruvian place around the corner.”
Thanking him, I followed the direction of his pointing finger to a deserted street where the only things open were a steak house and a stationary shop. I marched into the latter and asked if they knew where I could find Tumi de Oro.
The pony-tailed manager jerked his chin toward a closed restaurant across the street, “That’s the only Peruvian around here, and I should know, I’ve worked here for 15 years, and I see all the comings and goings in this neighborhood.”
Not only was it a bummer that it was closed, but even more upsetting was the fact that Tumi de Oro wasn’t Tumi de Oro. No – the restaurant in question was called ‘Contigo Peru,’ a place I’d seen in a number of travel books and food guides.
Had I misunderstood Renato’s directions? Not likely – Contigo Peru was exactly where he’d said Tumi de Oro was located. I moped out of the stationary store.
On this day, there would be no ceviche for me.
By this time, I was starving. Luckily, I was within a stone’s throw of Chinatown, so all possibilities for culinary adventure were not lost. I hurried to a mom-and-pop rice noodle shop that I’d been wanting to check out, where they served 5-peso plates of stir fry at lunchtime. Closed.
Undaunted, I headed for the noodle counter at the spectacularly stinky Asian Superstore on Calle Mendoza. Closed – along with the next four restaurants on my mental list.
What’s going on? I wondered.
Then I remembered: it was Monday. Plus, it was the day after city elections, so many BA shopkeepers were taking a respite from an exhausting political Sunday (in which none of the mayoral candidates won the 50% they needed for victory). I’d be lucky to find any place at all to eat.
Desperate and willing to settle for a superpancho, I passed Fujisan, a Japanese restaurant advertising a four-course lunch for 26 pesos. Sold.
A friendly server led me past the fountain in the entryway and seated me in the empty dining room. Noting the frantic ‘FEED ME’ expression in my eyes, he immediately brought a pot of green tea and a saucer full of cucumber slices marinated in chili and rice vinegar.
I tried to ignore the fake bamboo under orange spotlights and the music of a boy band I couldn’t name that belted through the speakers.
I was still nursing my disappointment about the elusive Tumi de Oro when the rest of my winter feast arrived: a steaming bowl of udon noodles, a fillet of grilled salmon with freshly grated ginger and daikon, a China cup of chawan mushi (egg custard with shitake mushrooms and shrimp), and a tiny dish of palate-cleansing pickled carrots and daikon.
I gobbled up my Japanese comfort food, savoring the clean flavors and appreciating the freshness of everything before me. Was it my hunger that heightened my pleasure?
Nourished and happy, I could not begrudge Renato or the closed Peruvian restaurant. Nor I could I help but wonder whether Renato gotten the name wrong. Was Tumi de Oro actually the well-known Contigo Peru?
Or was Tumi de Oro someplace else entirely? Had I just not looked hard enough?
Not to worry, my fellow food pilgrims, these and other food mysteries will not go unsolved. I’ll go back to Belgrano to renew my search for the Lost Restaurant – just not on a Monday.