dame un ramo de voz,
así salgo a vender
mis vergüenzas en flor.
give me a strand of voice
so I can go out and sell
my embarrassments in flowers.
So goes the chorus of “Chiquilín de Bachin,” the heart wrenching tango by Horacio Ferrer that chronicles the desperation of a Buenos Aires street child. Two generations ago, the song (ironically) inspired the name of a parilla on the corner of Montevideo and Sarmiento streets that caters to tourists and well-to-do businessmen.
Ferrer penned the lyrics to Chiquilín in 1968. Unfortunately, like so many tangos that expose the dark side of life in Buenos Aires, the melancholy picture this song paints remains a reality for many people who live here. Enrique, the fifty-something taxista who picked up two writer friends and I on a recent Friday afternoon, is one of them.
Unlike Chiquilín, Enrique isn’t living on the street and getting his shoes stolen, nor is he digging in the trash at dawn to find his breakfast. But he is struggling to survive in a country that once prided itself on the strength of its middle class.
“I’ve learned to trick my stomach,” Enrique said when we asked him to take us to his favorite place to eat, “I don’t eat when I’m on the job.”
“You go ten hours without eating?” I asked him.
He wove between the coasting cars on Avenida Callao, still unsure about where we were headed.
“I just have coffee and a medialuna (croissant). That’s it. Except when tourists invite me to lunch,” he winked.
“Do you want to come to lunch with us?”
“No, no. I was just joking,” he said.
“I’m not,” I said.
“No, really. my stomach gets all messed up if I eat a lot and sit for hours in the car. But thanks just the same.”
Despite his fasting and stomach trickery, Enrique had heard about a cheap Chinese buffet in the Congreso neighborhood. We agreed to let him take us there, peppering him with questions all the while.
“Things are really bad right now in Argentina,” he said, “Many people are saying what a great job Kirchner [the current president] is doing, moving the country out of the crisis. But with inflation, many people still can’t live on a basic salary here. “
Enrique works seven days a week – 10-12 hours a shift – to supplement his ‘farcical’ government pension and support his family of five.
“I used to drive trucks – big rigs. I’ve driven all over Argentina,” he said, “But the government blew it for me. In ’84 it was Alfonsin. In 2002, it was De la Rúa. I lost everything. Every four or five years, I expect things to fall apart. It’s been that way my whole life.”
My companions and I nodded soberly, embarrassed by the frivolity of our request in the context of Enrique’s words.
“Aha, you know what?” Enrique said, breaking the silence, “There are tons of good restaurants on Montevideo street. You’ve got the Palacio de la Papa Frita, Pippo, this little Cuban bar…You Americans should like that. Ah, then there’s Chiquilín…”
“Which one do you recommend?”
“Chiquilín,” he said, without hesitation, “I’ve never eaten there, but it’s supposed to be really good.”
“Chiquilín it is.”
He dropped us off and sped away, “I’d better get out of here, in case you don’t like it.”
We stepped out of the harsh reality of Enrique’s cab and into the opulence of Chiquilín‘s dining room. White tablecloths, wine glasses, cloth napkins, and gleaming silverware adorned every table. A wrought iron staircase led to a second floor smoking salon enclosed in beveled glass. Original portraits of tango composers and lyricists hung between mirrors and hand-carved wood paneling. Wine bottles lined built-in shelves. Sides of ham – marked with dates and weights – hung from the twenty foot ceiling. A carefully arranged buffet – with roasted vegetables, cheeses, cold cuts, and five kinds of salad – advertised abundance in the center of it all.
A white jacketed waiter appeared and led us to a table near the window, handing us a set of leather-bound menus.
“Las carnes are our specialty,” he said, “Our pastas are good, too, but people generally come here to eat meat.”
He then proceeded to recommend the most expensive cuts (filet, sirloin) and left us to contemplate our choices. We negotiated and renegotiated our way through long menu and finally decided to share bife de lomo con verduras asadas (filet with grilled vegetables) and rabas a la provenzal (fried calamari with garlic and parsley).
We waited and watched as grey-haired men in dark suits began to fill the restaurant. By the time lunch hour reached its peak at 1:30, every seat in the dining room was occupied. When we tasted our food, we understood why.
Our bife de lomo emerged gorgeously seared and juicy. The grilled zucchini, butternut squash, eggplant, and carrots, with a little coaxing from salt and olive oil, were simple, satisfying, perfect. We politely fought over the last rings of thick, tender squid, scraping up bits of herbs and garlic with every bite.
Though we were less inspired by the pastel de manzana con helado (apple ‘pie’ with ice cream) we ordered for dessert (topped with an unfortunate sprinkling of Hershey’s chocolate syrup), we agreed that Enrique’s suggestion had been spot-on. When our waiter brought our 100-peso plus check, we also agreed that Enrique would probably never be able to come to Chiquilín and taste how right his recommendation had been.