I scanned the menu and suppressed my alarm.
Twelve laminated, leather-bound pages sang the praises of dishes that spanned the globe and defied the season: Asian stir fry, homemade pasta prepared forty ways, caprese salad, Moroccan-style chicken in curry cream, and salmon crepes with pink sauce to match.
Los Chanchitos (translation: The Little Pigs) also devoted an entire section to ‘pizzanesas‘: breaded veal cutlets smothered in your choice of pizza-style toppings. (“The possibilities are endless!” The menu declared gleefully, “Choose one of our 25 combinations or invent your own.”)
Reading that menu was like listening to a single musician play all the instruments in a 10-piece band: you appreciate the effort, but the resulting sound is disastrous.
Nonetheless, having sampled the liverwurst, half-frozen pickles and focaccia the waiter had brought for my munching pleasure, I’d already committed to staying for lunch. Trying to zero in on a dish that reflected the restaurant’s dominant personality, I communed with the menu for a good fifteen minutes (while listening to the Village People sing YYY-M-C-A).
How had I ended up in this nightmare?
It was actually thanks to the kindest taxista I’ve ever met – who gave me the shortest cab ride I’ve ever taken.
In an effort to venture deeper into the city’s culinary soul (i.e. outside the tourist ghetto), I’d ridden the #92 bus to Caballito – a down-to-earth neighborhood that’s home to young families (including my tango teacher) and many Buenos Aires natives.
I’d gotten off the bus near Parque Centenario. Standing at an intersection near the bus stop, I peered into taxicabs in search of a driver who might have some food savvy. The signal turned red. I spotted a 50-something man with wild, Einstein-inspired grey hair. I met his eyes and waved. He nodded and pulled over.
After I asked him to take me to his favorite place to eat, he turned around and smiled.
“Do you know that place?” he asked, pointing to Los Chanchitos, just on the other side of the intersection.
“It’s fabulous,” he said, with conviction.
“Really?” I laughed.
“Really. There’s another place a few blocks away, but…”
“But is Los Chanchitos better?”
He nodded enthusiastically, drove across the intersection, and stopped in front of the entrance.
“I don’t want to cheat you,” he said, “Go in and have a great lunch.”
Refusing to accept the pesos I offered him, he shooed me and my amazement out of his cab.
I was still reeling from the taxista’s integrity as I studied Los Chanchitos’s bizarre menu, kicking myself for forgetting to ask him what was good at this restaurant.
In the end, it was the asador (grill master) who determined my choice. Tall and mustachioed, he moved with calm indifference as he tended the beef and blood sausage on his seven foot barbecue. The waitstaff gathered around him to watch, but he barely acknowledged them, keeping his baseball cap pulled low to cover his eyes. I knew I wanted this man involved in my lunch.
I ordered a sirloin steak with black pepper sauce. Somehow the dish was also going to work in pancetta, butternut squash, cherry tomatoes, and mushrooms…I couldn’t begin to imagine how.
A silver-haired server – who carried himself with the elegance of men who’ve been waiting tables their entire professional lives – complimented my order and brought me a tumbler of sweet white wine mixed with hard cider.
“An apertif,” he announced and walked away.
I sipped the syrupy wine, spread a bit of liverwurst on a crostini, and perused the dining room, which was empty except for a couple finishing a bottle of wine and a single man reading the newspaper. Garlic garlands hung from the rafters, gallon-sized tomato cans gathered dust atop cedar shelves, and a surveillance camera hid between bottles of wine in a rack next to a wall-mounted television.
As the Village People gave way to Shakira and Britney, I was almost dreading the arrival of my bife. Nursing my apertif, I tried to ignore the stares of the waiters who wandered between the bar and the asador’s station, restless and apparently bewildered by the presence of a foreign woman dining alone in their restaurant.
The silver-haired server surprised me from behind, moving the liverwurst aside to make way for the heaping plate of strange he set before me.
“Buen provecho,” he said and walked away.
On one side of the dish, canned mushrooms, shriveled tomatoes, and pulverized squash swam in corn starchy brown sauce. On the other, my steak – bordered with a thick ring of fat and topped with a glistening slice of pancetta – held back the tide of sad vegetables. Without question, one of the ugliest plates of food I’ve ever been served.
Sensing the stares of the servers, I put on my best poker face and took a bite of the vegetable stew. Thankfully, garlic and Marsala wine overpowered the corn starch – but they weren’t enough to mask the metallic flavor of the mushrooms or to revive the massacred squash.
What had I expected, anyway? Why should this food surprise me? If the moonstruck menu hadn’t tipped me off, wasn’t the nearly empty dining room an ominous sign?
And what of my hypothesis about the culinary wisdom of taxi drivers? Was their the kindness the best I could hope for?
Wary and disappointed, I carved the fat away from the slab of steak, sliced off a bite…
And the heavens opened.
Juicy, smoky, and smothered in freshly cracked pepper, the sirloin was a revelation on that plate – a testament to the superior purity of grass-fed Argentine beef.
I disregarded the vegetables and devoured the entire thing. The bus trip, the bland liverwurst, the insipid wine, and the canned mushrooms had been a small price to pay – this was a steak that would easily earn a place in any carnivore’s hall of fame.
After I finished, I tried to catch the asador’s eye, but he ignored me. Instead, my server came over and stared disapprovingly at my half-full plate.
“You’re not finished, are you?”
He eyed the pancetta and the vegetables I’d pushed into a semi-circle.
“Actually I am.”
“No! You hardly ate anything!”
“It’s too much food for me,” I apologized, “But that steak was spectacular! Really. Please give my compliments to the asador.”
He grunted and whisked my dishes away. I sat through Rod Stewart and Whitney Houston as I debated dessert.
In the end, I decided not to push my luck. The kindness of the Taxista Who Refused to Cheat – and the skill of the asador – were enough serendipity for one day.