Not 60 seconds after picking me up in front of a tire store in the far reaches of Belgrano, the cabbie with the aquamarine eyes knows exactly where we’re headed for something good to eat.
“They’ve got everything at this place,” he says, “Really good pastas, steaks, even pizza. But the great thing is their daily special. Every day it’s something different. So you can keep going there and have a different experience every time.”
This sounds hopeful. A rotating menu is usually a good thing, after all…
“I don’t go there every day – there’s no way I could afford it. But I take my family there when I can.”
Visions of a tasty neighborhood hideout dance in my head.
Two pesos and a few kilometers later, we pull in front of Plaza Carmen, Buenos Aires’s answer to Applebee’s. Visions bite the dust.
“There you go,” the taxista pulls over, “Don’t forget to order the special.”
I start to pull out my pesos to pay him, struggling to suppress the memory of a recent mediocre meal at Manhattan Café (a restaurant that could easily pass for Plaza Carmen’s cousin). On this day, my hunger is unwilling to surrender to another overpriced, forgettable plate of food.
“I’ve actually been to Plaza Carmen before,” I say, flashing back to the rubbery grease-fest of a pizza I’d eaten there with my ex-novio, “I’d rather go somewhere you eat every day.”
Juan Pablo turns his ocean-colored eyes on me, “I eat at the YPF [gas station] two blocks away. It’s all taxistas. Fast food…Standing up…It’s not a place for a girl.”
I’m having the same conversation with Juan Pablo as I had with Guillermo, last week’s taxista who refused to take me to his favorite YPF for lunch. I take another look at the pink and green Plaza Carmen sign. Right on cue, my stomach throws off a growl of protest that I choose to interpret as: “Ditch Plaza Carmen, hold on to chutzpah, and go to the gas station.”
“Are you sure?” Juan Pablo says.
I nod. Their (understandable) objections aside, I’m obviously going to have to brave a gas station at some point if I want to gain entrance to the cab driver culinary universe.
“OK,” he shakes his head, “But it’s not a place for a girl.”
Refusing to take the extra pesos I offer him, Juan Pablo drops me across the street from YPF without a word.
I march past the taxis gassing up at the pumps and into the fishbowl of the make-shift diner at the back of the station.
I feel the weight of the stares of three taxistas munching on milanesas, who interrupt their exchange of profanities as soon as I invade their space.
The aproned man behind the blue formica counter greets me with a surprised but kind “Buenas tardes.”
I scan the menu – a series of wall-mounted computer printouts in plastic sleeves – consider the quiches and fried empanadas in the grease-stained display case, and sense that I need to come to a quick decision.
“I’ll have a sandwich with cantimpalo [sausage] and provolone.”
“What kind of bread? I’ve got pan de pebete, french bread, pita…”
The taxistas and I fixate on the ESPN soccer highlights as the man behind the counter slices the cheese and cantimpalo (a type of chorizo made with oregano, garlic, and red pepper), piles them on the pebete (sweet white bread made with milk and butter), and throws the sandwich in a plastic bag. Grand total: 3 pesos and 80 centavos (about $1.20).
I grab a napkin, find an empty spot on the blue formica and pull out my sandwich. The man behind the counter rushes out with a plate.
“I assumed you were going to take it to go,” he apologizes.
A safe assumption – and perhaps a wish. The silence in the fishbowl is thick with bewilderment. What is this strange woman doing here?
Acutely conscious of the fact that I’m interrupting lunch hour and testosterone time, I gobble up my sandwich (which is not only cheap but delicious) and thank the man behind the blue formica.
Discomfort for all concerned aside, I’d rather eat at this YPF than half the restaurants that well-meaning taxistas have taken me to in the past. And pssssst…I hear the empanadas are pretty good here, too.
Calle Moldes and Crisólogo Larralde