My homecoming taxi adventure was starting out with a bang.
“I have colon problems,” the taxista said when I threw out my would-you-please-take-me-someplace-good-to-eat request, “So I haven’t eaten out in months.”
“Besides,” he added, patting his slim belly, “You don’t eat what we eat.”
“Excuse me?” I said. Who was ‘you’ and who was ‘we’?
“You don’t want to eat at a place I’d go to. I eat steak. Hot dogs. Sandwiches. Simple stuff – ”
“Yes, I do! That’s exactly what I’m looking for!”
“No,” he said, turning on the meter, “Someone like you is looking for a nice place. Someplace like that.”
He pointed to a leafy sidewalk cafe where women in stilettos and Ray Bans smoked and sipped sparkling water. Here in Belgrano (my new, well-heeled neighborhood on BA’s north end), such places abound.
“I’m not interested in going somewhere like that,” I insisted, “I want to go someplace you’ve been, a place you went…before you started having colon problems.”
“Aren’t you from this neighborhood?”
“Actually, I just moved over here three days ago.”
“Ooooooooohhhhhhh, I see! Now I get it. You don’t know anything.”
Now we were getting somewhere.
“Well, Belgrano is a very nice neighborhood. See that pizzeria? San Cayetano. It’s really good. I’m not sure about the rest of their food, but I know the pizza’s good.”
We rocketed past San Cayetano before I could suggest that we stop.
“And I can also tell you where to find great ice cream. At Saverio. On Avenida Cabildo, the 1600 block, I think.”
“Excellent.” I was taking copious notes, thrilled that Mario’s puzzlement had transformed into the hospitality I so adore about this city.
“Don’t bother going to Pompeii for pizza,” he pointed to a restaurant with an enormous banner sign that I’d walked past many times, “Their prices will kill you. And look at all these gyms! I’m assuming you go to the gym? You can do pilates there and work off your lunch. Ah, but you don’t need to worry about that.”
We continued coasting down Avenida Cabildo toward the center of Buenos Aires while Mario chattered away, brainstorming our destination.
“I know where I can take you!” he cried, “Manhattan! You can order anything there.”
“And you’ve eaten there?”
“Yes, I was there a few months ago. I went with my daughter.”
“Perfect,” I said.
“Here we are!”
We lurched to a stop in front of a three story aluminum replica of the Chrysler building reminiscent of Vegas in the daytime. The red neon sign emblazoned over the art deco entrance read: Manhattan Café.
“Order anything,” he said, “They’ve got it all!”
I heaved an inner sigh as I opened the mammoth menu and discovered that Mario was right. They did have it all, but at least they were on theme. From the Woody Allen (turkey, mushrooms, hearts of palm, mayo and catsup) and 5th Avenue salads (white rice, chicken, hearts of palm, and eggs) to the New York Times and Rockefeller Center breakfasts, there was obviously a lot of ‘I heart NY’ going on here.
However, judging from the nearly empty restaurant, there was obviously not a lot of ‘I heart Manhattan Café‘ going on. A tattered photo of steak and fries above the bar and the withered plants at the top of a staircase leading to a second story smoking lounge added to the feeling of faded hope that hovered over the dining room.
Two vested and aproned waiters glanced my way and continued what they were doing. I toyed with the idea of fleeing to Saverio and eating ice cream for lunch.
Finally, a server approached me without a word, cleared the coffee cups of the diners who’d preceded me, and wiped their crumbs in my lap. Once finished, he shot me an expectant look that I translated as: what do you want?
“I’ll have the roast chicken special and a salad,” I said.
A quick nod, and he was off to the other end of the vast dining room, shouting my drink order to the bar man and busting into the kitchen to do the same.
Not five minutes later, he brought my salad, a sad assemblage of yellowing watercress, pink tomatoes and carrots flecked with brown spots that barely tasted better than it looked.
Thankfully, a walking vendor entered the restaurant and interrupted my misery by selling me a battery-powered stove lighter.
“Just what I needed,” I told her.
“God bless you. And buen provecho,” she answered, lugging her wares back outside.
I turned my attention to the roast chicken that had arrived in the middle of our exchange. Topped with a tomatoes and onions and resting on a pond of its own juice, it actually looked promising.
My first few bites upheld that promise. The chicken was moist, perfectly cooked, and full of flavor. But as I got deeper into the piece of meat, the texture transformed from silky to mealy, the flavor from full to watery. Either the bird had eaten something that had turned its flesh to mush, or it had simply been frozen too long. Alas.
Unfortunate chicken partially consumed, I beat it out of the Manhattan Café, headed straight for Saverio, and ordered a double cone: figs with honey and ristretto granizado (espresso with chocolate chips).
As the mohawked, lip-pierced twenty-something handed me my cone, I held on to hope and took my first bite. This ice cream chain of three stores has been around since 1909, so they must be doing something right.
But not with their figs and honey. Where were those figs? Lost somewhere in disappointing, super-sweet milkiness. Strike two for Mario.
I ditched the figs and dug into the ristretto. Fireworks of coffee and dark chocolate exploded in my mouth and shot between the bitter and sweet regions of my palate. The purity of the espresso flavor was the main event. Remarkably, the chocolate stayed in the background, nothing more than a subtle embellishment. This was synergy.
This was Mario’s home run.
Av. Cabildo 1792 (esquina La Pampa) – Belgrano
Av. Cabildo 1501 (esquina Virrey Arredondo) – Belgrano