Ricardo reached over the dashboard-mounted disco ball and turned on the taxi meter.
So absorbed in helping us find a good place to eat, the taciturn taxista forgot to switch on the meter until we crossed Avenida 9 de Julio and entered the Constitución neighborhood.
“Let me see,” he pondered, steadying the hemp thread crucifix that hung from the rear view mirror, “There’s a good restaurant in Congreso that has everything – pizza, pasta, parilla, pescado…I could take you there.”
“We’re looking for something small,” my sixty-something amiga norteamericana chimed in from the backseat, “You know, a neighborhood place.”
“Someplace where you would eat,” I added.
“Aha,” Ricardo smiled, “OK.”
He calmly steered the cab into the thick of the Friday afternoon traffic and told us we were headed to one of his favorite lunch spots.
Thrilled, my companions (the same fun-loving gang that ventured to Parilla 29 a couple of weeks ago) and I relaxed.
We made awkward attempts at conversation with Ricardo, a fifty-something Buenos Aires native who grew up in the Belgrano barrio, but his brief answers suggested that he preferred to ride in silence.
He brought the taxi to a slow stop on the corner of San Jose and Humberto 1°.
“This is it,” he said, “Now what am I going to have for lunch?”
“You could join us,” I offered.
He shook his head and politely declined. Hoping to make up for the pesos he’d lost from forgetting the meter, we added a generous tip to the fare, climbed out of the cab and into Ricardo’s chosen haunt.
With fifteen tables, two waiters, and poster-sized photos of grandchildren hanging in the far corner, Fornos was every bit the neighborhood restaurant we were hoping for.
Heads turned and conversation stopped as we grabbed one of two empty tables. The Channel 9 news broadcast from a muted television in the corner. An autographed picture of Susana Gimenez, Argentina’s platinum haired, plastic-surgeried answer to Oprah, occupied the center of a photo collage that flanked the pass-through window to the kitchen.
Feeling like New Yorkers who’d stumbled into Cheers, we settled into our seats and inhaled aromas of beef stew and boiling pasta. The men behind us jumped back into their debate about the fate of Boca Juniors (a heated soccer discussion that served as a backdrop for our entire three course lunch).
And in walked Ricardo. Our pot-bellied, silver haired waiter greeted the taxista with a back-slapping man hug and led him to a nearby table.
Raising his hand in a shy wave, Ricardo passed our table and sat with his back to us. We weren’t surprised that the taciturn taxista didn’t want to join us. We accepted the simple fact of his presence as reward enough on our quest.
Fornos featured just twelve items on its menu, all of which were scrawled on a wall-mounted chalkboard and none of which exceeded eight pesos (less than three US dollars).
Vicente, the silver-haired waiter, recommended the vacio (flank steak – roughly translated, since Argentines cut their beef differently than we do in the US) with oven-roasted potatoes. We followed his recommendation – and ordered chicken soup with pastina, homemade linguini with estofado (stew meat similar to pot roast), a tortilla española, and a plate of mostaccioli with chicken.
Just after we’d flagged down his teenage helper and put in our drink order, Vicente returned with several plates of food in hand.
“Buen provecho,” he smiled, enjoying our amazement at his speed. Rushing to the door to greet a family of four, he hugged the father hello, kissed the mother, and pinched the children’s cheeks.
“He’s got to be the owner,” the female half of the tango dancing couple from Humboldt observed, digging in to the chicken soup and moaning with delight.
She was right. Vicente radiated all the pride, care and authority of a good restaurant owner.
The rest of our dishes arrived, each of them exuding the same straightforward, stick to your ribs comfort as the chicken soup. No fireworks. No frills. An embodiment of the muted flavors favoured by most Argentine palates.
Except for the vacio. Slow-cooked and tender, smothered with roasted red peppers and onions, the meat and the crispy potatoes that accompanied it easily set themselves apart from the other dishes at the table. The vacio even paired well with the spritzers we improvised (by mixing soda water with a bottle of unspeakable red table wine from Bodegas Lopez).
Content and amused, we progressed to dessert and peppered Vicente with questions every time he whizzed past our table.
We were as enchanted by the caramel and cinnamon infused budin casero de pan (homemade bread pudding) as we were by the man.
“I’m a Spaniard first,” Vicente explained, “and a Galician second.”
Despite coming to Argentina as a boy in 1951, he retained a Spain-Spanish accent, ending almost every sentence with the vale? that one hears all over the Iberian peninsula.
While we devoured the budin casero, we also worked on a trucker-sized portion of flan. Made entirely of egg yolks and covered with a healthy layer of dulce de leche, the dessert bowled us over with sin and richness.
Taking breaths between bites of flan, we asked Vicente about the Friday-Saturday tango show advertised in the window.
“Oh, we haven’t done that for five years,” he laughed, “I had a choice. Either I would end up in the hospital or we would stop the show. So I chose to stop the show. I want a life, too, you know!”
Vicente brought us coffee on the house after we demolished the desserts. And the check? On the honor system. As we recited what we ordered, Vicente added up the prices table-side.
When we asked him to snap a photo, he happily obliged. The men at the table next door egged him on.
“Go photographer!” They teased, “Hey, why don’t you get in there, Vicente?”
While one man nudged Vicente into the picture, another climbed onto his chair to snap the final shot. The entire restaurant applauded.
“This place gets high points for attitude,” said my tango dancing companions.
And high points for embracing a group of strangers from another neighborhood.