Flirtation is a fact of life in Argentina. Whether you’re walking down the street, buying a pack of gum, wrangling with the bureaucrats at immigration, or getting you’re teeth cleaned, the men in this country openly exercise their right to pour on the charm.
Taxistas are no exception – in fact, I’ve grown so accustomed to their insinuations that I become disoriented in their absence. At some point along this journey, I decided to embrace taxista flattery the same way I take in the sweet talk of tangueros at the milonga: with a smile and a pile of salt.
The way I look at it, any man who spends 12-13 hours in the vortex of maniacal drivers that is Buenos Aires deserves a bit of comic relief. Especially a man like Roque.
I’d gotten into his cab near the Plaza 1º de Mayo in Balvanera. After spotting him pull a bag of snacks out of his trunk, I figured Roque was a man who enjoyed his food. Sure enough, the slight, sixty-something Lanus native jumped straight into the spirit of the taxi adventure when I asked him to take me to his favorite place to eat, leaving the meter off while he pondered our destination.
“How would you like to go where they serve the best empanadas in Buenos Aires?” he said.
Ten days of feasting on empanadas in Tucumán and Salta (two provinces in the Argentine northwest that are justifiably famous for their empanadas) had only intensified my empanada obsession, so naturally I was curious about where Roque wanted to take me.
As we cruised past the cupolas in the Plaza Congreso, he said, “Why is it that whenever I have a nice, pretty passenger in my cab, the trip is always short? I guess God knows what he’s doing.”
“I guess so.”
“So what are you doing here anyway? Do you have an Argentine boyfriend? If you tell me you don’t, I’m going to slit my wrists!”
“Because I can tell that besides being cute, you’re a muy buena chica.”
“And how can you tell?”
“God given wisdom. There are a lot of weird people in this city, and I’ve learned how to spot them,” he said, “I’m an evangelical pastor, you see. My wife and I have a church out in Lanus. ”
Roque did exude that particular cleanliness unique to men of the cloth (he wore a perfectly pressed, blindingly white short-sleeved dress shirt, and his silver hair was closely cropped). What was he doing driving a cab, then?
“It’s difficult making a living as an Evangelical Protestant in a Catholic country.”
Obviously well-acquainted with the pleasures of the flesh, he commanded me to think of him “when you taste that empanada and the juice runs down your chin” as he dropped me off at La Americana on Avenida Callao.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d been there a year ago. And that – based on that first and only visit – La Americana was not in fact “the queen of empanadas” she claimed to be.
Nevertheless, being fresh off the judging panel at the National Empanada Festival in Tucumán (a series of serendipitous events I’ll detail in another entry), I was eager to exercise my empanada snobbery and put La Americana through her paces.
Snobbery aside, it’s difficult to deny the place’s charm. Founded in 1935, the corner restaurant/cafe/pizzeria does a fantastic job hanging on to its history. Gilded mirrors, faux brick, white tile, and stainless steel counter tops decorate the bar area, where customers in a hurry eat standing up. Magnified photos of pizza, empanadas, and tarts frame the wall-mounted menu.
Desserts (flan, pastelitos, multi-layer cakes, pies piled high with soft meringue) tempted me from the window. The heat from the pizza ovens enveloped me as soon as I walked in the door. A legion of cooks and counter staff in red and white boat hats bustled and banged in the open kitchen.
When the cashier shouted my order behind him – an empanada salteña (spicy beef with potato and egg) and chipa paraguaya (white bread made with cheese and yucca flour) – the legions set their well oiled machine in motion. Less than a minute later, I had my empanada and chipa on a metal plate, along with a coca-cola in an old-fashioned bottle.
I found a place beside a pixie-haired woman at the bar and tore into the Paraguayan bread.
“Is that chipa?” she asked.
“Oh, I didn’t even know they had it here!” she said, “I’m Paraguayan. I make that at home.”
“Do you want to taste it?”
“Oh, no,” she said, embarrassed.
“Please,” I said, breaking off a piece, “I’d like your opinion.”
We each took a bite, and she shook her head, “Nada que ver with what it’s supposed to be. This is way too hard.”
I liked the mixture of the cheese and the yucca flour, but agreed that it would’ve been better if it were softer. I moved onto the empanada.
“What do you think?” she asked me.
“The filling is good – really well-seasoned and juicy, and there are nice big chunks of meat,” I said, “But this dough is so thick it masks the flavors.”
“That,” she said, “is why I always order pizza when I come here.”
With that, she flounced out the door, promising to call me if she found her recipe for chipa.
After I gobbled up my empanada and gathered my things to go, a busser approached to clear my plate, “You didn’t like the chipa,” he said, eyeing the unfinished bread with obvious dismay, “Let me bring you something else. How about an empanada to go?”
How could I refuse? She may not be the queen of empanadas, but La Americana certainly knows how to treat a lady.