“They were going to kill me, so I had to leave,” Fernando said matter-of-factly.
“It was during the dictatorship in Uruguay. I decided if they hit me, I was going to hit back, so I got involved in the student movement,” the taxista continued, “I was studying engineering. But I had to leave it all behind.”
That was 1984, and Uruguay was in its eleventh straight year under military rule; just 18, Fernando fled political imprisonment in Montevideo and resettled in Buenos Aires. When he got to Argentina, he found work as a mechanic and an electrician.
Six years ago, he bought the taxi he now drives. Now 43, he has no plans to return to his homeland to live.
“Immigrating is difficult,” he replied when I explained that most of my people are in California, “You suffer a lot. Your family is there, and you’re here. But the important thing is that you’re OK, that you’re doing well.”
After having my sanity questioned by just about every cab driver who learns my origins, Fernando’s words felt like a cooling salve on a stubborn itch.
Somehow, in between relating the details of his remarkable story, counseling me, and sipping mate from a gourd nestled between the front seats, Fernando decided that I should eat lunch at Plaza Mayor in Montserrat.
“I ate there once, and it was really good. Spanish food. You know, stews, seafood, stuff like that,” he said, “I went back a second time, and there was a line, so I left. I don’t like to wait to eat. On special days, there’s always a line.”
Like its namesake in Madrid, the Plaza Mayor was overflowing with color and bustle when I walked in during the middle of lunch.
“You’re lucky,” the hostess said, leading me past a wrought iron staircase and exposed brick, “You got the last free table.”
Still reeling from my conversation with Fernando, I studied the shawls, the fans, and the paintings of provincial flags of Spain on the walls. Even the menu was shaped like a fan; it was a good fifteen minutes before I could focus on its long list of Iberian classics (which was fine, because the wait staff was ignoring me anyway).
True to its Spanish roots, Plaza Mayor lay seafood at the foundation of its menu. However, tranporting Spanish tastes across an ocean to a city that turns its back on the bounty from its river meant that the prices were astronomical.
BA, unlike Montevideo, is not a seafood-loving place, and those who care to defy that reality have to pay dearly (in local terms). The well-dressed crowd at this restaurant was apparently prepared to cough up the cash. Inhaling the aromas of cazuela de mariscos (shellfish stew) and paella that wafted around the dining room, I decided that I was, too.
Tearing into a piece of olive bread (soft, rich and delicious), I flagged down a bored-looking server and ordered the selección de tapas and the Gambas (prawns) Plaza Mayor.
After waiting 45 unapologetic minutes, I managed to demolish the contents of the bread basket and move into a state of delusional anticipation. My gambas arrived. My server had forgotten the tapas.
Mushy and drowning in corn oil, the prawns couldn’t make up for the absence of my first course; their bland red pepper, tomato, onion and dried oregano sauce was unworthy of the bread I wanted to run through it.
Half an hour later (no exaggeration – I timed it), I received an equally unremarkable sampling of tapas: sardines in a watery red pepper purée, offal and garbanzo beans in an under-salted curry broth, tuna salad swimming in mayonnaise on puff pastry, and a tortilla española that managed to be both dry and greasy. The only real source of pleasure on that plate was the silky slice of jamón serrano that melted into saltiness on my tongue.
I know, I know – I sound like a royal snob. But if a restaurant is going to charge its patrons the equivalent of San Francisco prices, its food better be outstanding. Plaza Mayor’s simply wasn’t. Maybe the quality of the food had gone down since Fernando had been there last?
Or maybe he was just an impossible act to follow.