OK, I admit it – beginning a taxi adventure knowing exactly what I want to eat undermines the spirit of going where the taxista takes me. But on this day, my longing for kebab and baba ghanouj is more powerful than my willingness to surrender to the whims of just any driver.
Seized with this craving for Middle Eastern food, I wander into the Armenian quarter, hoping to find a cabbie who shares my appreciation for the explosive flavors that originate from the Holy Land.
I pass the Confitería del Medio Oriente, an Armenian deli on the corner of Cabrera and Malabia that transforms into a madhouse on Friday and Saturday at lunch when they serve up the best shawerma in Buenos Aires. I squeeze through the crowd in the doorway, greedily sniff the sumac and cinnamon and garlic coming off the spit roasted beef, and force myself to turn around and walk out.
A block away, on Avenida Scalabrini Ortiz, I come face to face with Panadería Armenia, a bakery/general store that makes the cheese and onion empanada arabe that has become one of my favorite post-milonga snacks. Again, I hold back.
But my resolve crumbles when I spot Confitería Damasco, a grocery store founded by a Greek and an Armenian who literally met in the middle when they named their business after the capital of Syria. After over fifty years, Damasco is still going strong. On any given day, you can find all three generations of the family behind the counter.
“What can I get for you today?” asks a grandfather in a red apron.
I’m helpless before his exotic bounty: spice bins brimming with cinnamon, cardamom pods, and peppercorns in three colors; floor to ceiling shelves stuffed with orange blossom and rose water, tahini sauce, ouzo, candied orange peel and Turkish delight; glass cases of date shortbread and honey-filled filo pastry; counter tops piled high with bags of their signature lavash and pita bread; and a refrigerator full of tubs of homemade yogurt, bricks of sheep’s milk feta, and Damasco’s fabulous ensalada belen (with roasted eggplant and red peppers, toasted cashews, and golden raisins).
Starving but determined to stay true to the taxi quest, I leave Damasco with a sack full of goodies to go.
Before I can reach in and rip into a piece of baklava, I spot a cab driver with a pair of Ray Bans, a thick head of salt and pepper hair, and what looks to be a well-fed pot belly.
He stops in the middle of the street – oblivious to the furious honks of the Fiats behind him – and welcomes me into his Renault with a nod.
I bid him good afternoon and wait for him to turn down the techno-pop on the radio. He doesn’t.
“Where do you want to go?” he shouts, keeping his Ray Bans on the road.
“A good place to eat,” I shout back.
He turns down the radio.
“I’m looking for a good place for lunch.”
“Oh. Well. Of course I can help you with that,” he snorts, turning the radio up and coasting from the Armenian quarter into Palermo Hollywood.
I have a feeling he’s taking me someplace I’ve never heard of, so instead of asking him where we’re going, I decide to let myself be surprised.
“Is that you’re grand-daughter’s?” I ask him, pointing to the hot pink tennis shoe hanging from the rear-view mirror.
“How old is she?”
We slam into a pothole after passing the Plaza Serrano and drive in silence for several blocks.
“I’m waiting for her to turn 1,” the driver says, “Then I’m leaving.”
“Where are you going?”
“Backpacking,” he answers, “All over Argentina. I’ll start in Cordoba, in Rio Negro, working the apple harvest for a few months. Then I don’t know where I’ll go. I just take it as it comes.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“Two years – maybe three.”
“Are you serious? And you don’t have a route in mind?”
“No. Never. I just go wherever I can find work, stay for 3 or 4 months, then move on to the next spot. The only place I can never find something is Jujuy [Argentina’s poorest northern province]. Otherwise, I can always figure out a way.”
“Do you ever drive cabs?”
“It’s been thirty years since my last backpacking trip,” he continues, “It’s time for me to go again. Plus, since I’m separated from my wife…”
He retreats into silence, and I let him stay there.
I toy with the idea of inviting him to lunch – wherever it might be – but decide against it. Today I forgot to put on my grandma’s wedding ring.
He stops in front of a corner restaurant with floor to ceiling windows and sidewalk tables set with wine glasses and cloth napkins.
“This is where my friends and I come on weekends,” he says, jerking his head toward La Dorita.
“What’s good to eat here?”
“Everything’s good. You know – it’s parrilla. I’d go in, too, but today the whole world is going to be there. Too crowded for me.”
I wish him luck on his journey, thank him for his help on mine, grab my Greek groceries, and enter the restaurant.
The server flinches when I request a table for one, but fortunately it’s half an hour before the lunch rush, and there’s space by the busing station on the way to the kitchen. Just as I sit down, Madonna begins to sing “Who’s That Girl?”
I am in the middle of a dining room covered in Boca Juniors soccer paraphernalia: blue and gold Boca flags hanging from one end of the ceiling to the other, Boca mugs in glass display cases, and a Boca emblem mounted above the bar.
Fans of River Plate, Boca’s fierce uptown rival, have their own parrillas (Case in point – shortly after arriving in Buenos Aires in 2005, I ate at Manolo, a San Telmo grill whose owner gives every new patron a River Plate key chain).
I eavesdrop on the servers gossiping beside me (Did you know Victoria spilled wine on some soccer player last night? He was on a date with a blonde and she totally lost her temper) while pretending to study the menu.
La Dorita’s menu is classic parrilla: 17 cuts of beef, the usual array of organ meats, grilled chicken, empanadas, grilled vegetables, homemade ravioli and gnocchi, and potatoes prepared seven ways.
Distracted by the menu’s entertaining translations (raw ham, kid goat), I’m having a hard time figuring out what to order. At 12:30, there are too few people in the restaurant to discern what the most popular dishes are.
Finally, I opt for the lunch menu – 4-courses, a beverage and coffee for only 23 pesos. When my salad arrives – a fresh but forgettable combination of arugula, potato, carrot, and hard-boiled egg tossed with olive oil and balsamic – the restaurant begins to fill up with well-dressed twenty and thirty-somethings.
I finish the salad and move on to a half burned beef empanada, which still manages to taste good, thanks to the well-seasoned mixture of green onions and hand-cut beef hiding in the charred crust.
A fleet of college-age servers clears my plates with wordless efficiency. I wait anxiously for my chicken stew, watching wooden planks of steak, chinchulines, riñones, and blood sausage travel from the kitchen to all the yuppie tables. I have the sneaking suspicion that I’ve ordered the wrong thing.
My suspicion is confirmed when I take my first bite of chicken stew. I can barely find the chicken in the ill-conceived mass of cheese, mashed potato, and unseasoned butternut squash. When I do discover the meat, it punishes me with an aftertaste reminiscent of a Rice-a-Roni spice packet.
I make it a third of the way through the stew and finally push the mush away from me. Thirty seconds later, a server swipes the nearly full bowl (with no comment on how little I’ve eaten) and recites the dessert menu.
“Flan, ice cream, arroz con leche, or quince paste with cheese?” she asks.
“What do you recommend?”
“The flan is great,” she gushes.
Flan it is.
But great it isn’t. And I know before I taste it – the custard bears the dreaded pock marks of curdled milk. Sure enough, the flan is grainy and bland. I force half of it down before I ask for the check and beat it out of La Dorita, leaving the yuppies to enjoy their steak.
This is the last time I knowingly order something that goes against the grain of what a restaurant does best.
And, if I learned anything from the free-spirited backpacker cabbie who brought me here, it is also the last time I go on a taxi adventure with a pre-conceived food craving.
Confitería del Medio Oriente
Cabrera esquina Malabia (Palermo Viejo) – Cuidad de Buenos Aires
Scalabrini Ortiz 1317 (Palermo Viejo) – Cuidad de Buenos Aires
Scalabrini Ortiz 1283 (Palermo Viejo) – Cuidad de Buenos Aires