“You’re not from the neighborhood, are you?” The tall waiter from Tucumán province eyed me with triumph and a hint of suspicion.
Amused by the assumption that I was a) Argentine, but b) still somehow foreign, I revealed my origins – and got the usual ‘what the hell are you doing here?’ stare in response.
“Ah, but California must be beautiful,” he said, “You know, Argentina would be as well off as you if it weren’t for the corruption. I mean, look around. You throw a seed anywhere in this country, and it grows. But we need stricter laws. We should be like the United States – we need the death penalty so people understand they can’t break the law.”
Before I could refute his logic, he rushed over to a table of six pot-bellied men, disappeared into the kitchen, and returned with my first course.
“Things were better when the military was in power,” he said, handing me a plate of revuelto de gramajo.
I answered him with a bewildered stare.
“80% of what the military did was good,” he continued, “If they hadn’t laid down the law, we’d be like Colombia right now.”
I remained speechless.
“20% of what they did during the dictatorship was bad,” he went on, “but people don’t want to forgive them for that 20%. The thing is, we need stronger laws. We need to start punishing people for their crimes. It’s the only way things are going to change.”
“Perhaps,” I said, feeling the heat of a flush travel from my neck to my cheeks, “the culture around corruption also has to change. Stronger laws don’t automatically change the way people behave.”
He raised an eyebrow and bolted to a group of ten women dressed in a rainbow of pastels.
I’d read about people who longed to return to the illusion of stability the military provided in Argentina, but I had never met anyone who’d expressed this longing.
Shell-shocked, I began the assault on the revuelto de gramajo, a kitchen sink combination of french fries, ham, peas, chopped tomato, and scrambled eggs.
It took a few bites before I could actually focus on the fact that the greasy mishmash was surprisingly tasty. Salty, satisfying and simple – I could see why it remained firmly entrenched on menus at places like Pueyrredón Restaurante.
According to Cándido, the reticent taxista from Flores who’d brought me there, Pueyrredón was a “family restaurant” where “everything is good.”
He’d picked me up in Once. At first, he misunderstood my request to be taken to a good place to eat.
“If you give me the address,” he said, “I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
I could barely hear him over the reggaeton on the radio he refused to turn down.
“No, no. Actually, I’d like to go someplace you like to eat.”
He retreated into a mystified silence, sighing deeply into his protruding belly and running his palm over a receding hairline. We scooted north on Avenida Rivadavia until he finally admitted, “I don’t have the faintest idea about restaurants around here.”
“Where are you from?” I coaxed.
“I lived in Flores for a long time.”
“Do you know any places there?”
“Actually, there’s a place on the Plaza Pueyrredón that’s pretty good. They have everything – pasta, chicken, fish. I take my daughters there on the weekends…I went last week with my girlfriend. You mind going all the way to Flores?”
Flores is a traditional middle class neighborhood in the geographical center of Buenos Aires. Until it became part of the capital city in 1888, its quintas housed the landed gentry. Today, it’s known for some of the most authentic Korean food in the city.
The ride to Flores would be the longest I’d taken on these adventures so far. But I wasn’t about to reject Cándido’s suggestion. My entreaty had obviously stumped him.
We exchanged no words as he slammed into the potholes that scarred the streets of Almagro and Caballito, ignoring the worn-out shocks on a cab he probably didn’t own. Finally, we bounced into Flores, where the sidewalks teemed with Saturday afternoon shoppers and sycamores lush with spring green.
When we reached the southeastern corner of the Plaza Pueyrredón, he stopped, pointed to the football field sized restaurant on the corner and said, “That’s it.”
At 12:30, most of the hundred plus seats at Pueyrredón Restaurante – which looked like cross between a 70s-era cafeteria and an army hospital – were empty. Except for large groups of middle-aged women, overweight men, and a twenty-something who breastfed her baby while her husband tore into a milanesa con papas fritas. I grabbed a table in the corner, pushing aside an orange and green curtain so I could watch the scenes in the plaza unfold outside.
The tall waiter from Tucumán approached, “You know how it works here?”
I shook my head.
“It’s all you can eat. 33 pesos. You just tell me what you want, and I’ll bring you as many dishes as you like. Plus you get a drink and dessert.”
Nothing on the menu surprised me: milanesas, steaks, potatoes prepared ten ways, chicken salad, ham roll-ups with eggs and olives, and pasta with four cheese, pesto, marinara or bechamel sauce. I was uninspired and suddenly devoid of appetite…until I spotted the revuelto de gramajo.
Legend has it that revuelto was invented by Colonel Héctor Gramajofor a last-minute dinner party for General Julio A. Roca (Besides serving two terms as Argentina’s president, Roca is also known for the “Desert Campaign” that wiped out the majority of the Mapuche Indians in Patagonia).
Revuelto had endured the Desert Campaign and evolved into a staple at many of Buenos Aires’s most traditional restaurants. Despite living here for more than two years, I still hadn’t tasted it.
If nothing else, Restaurante Pueyrredón turned out to be the a good place to sample the classic, which was far better than the (overcooked) tagliatelli with tomato and (dried) basil sauce, fried empanadas, and burgundy poached pears I tried.
Halfway through the syrupy plate of pears, I paid and escaped the peculiar poetry of that lunch. For some reason, I felt compelled to leave a generous tip for the man who had served me a dish that was born on a battlefield – and who wanted to return to the days of dictators.
Yerbal 2495 (esquina Artigas) – Flores
Tel: 4612-4858 or 4612-5599
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner 7 days/week