I hop off the bus near the train station in Constitución, a southern Buenos Aires barrio that’s a dumb place to explore at night and a fantastic place to eat Paraguayan street food by day.
But I’m not looking for lunch.
In light of the fact that Starbucks is scheduled to open its first Buenos Aires store in the Alto Palermo mall by the end of May, today’s quest is all about coffee. All about a search for one of those atmospheric BA cafes that defies standardization – and fits neatly into my romantic stereotypes of this city.
Despite global trends, a quickening city pace, and the success of local chains like Havana and Café Martínez, Buenos Aires café culture is largely intact.
But now, with the advent of the U.S.’s mightiest coffee giant, even the local chains are shaking in their boots. Case in point: both Havana and Café Martínez have recently started offering coffee to go in paper cups with sippy lids.
Meanwhile, expat forums are abuzz with anticipation. While some are rejoicing at the prospect of sipping a frappuccino beneath the Southern Cross, others are classifying the arrival of Starbucks as one more sign of the end of Argentina as we know it.
In the spirit of a pseudo-anthropologist, I’m sitting on the fence and trying to come to terms with all of this coffee-related fury. On the one hand, my heart breaks at the idea that this city is embracing the kind of homogenization that Starbucks symbolizes. On the other hand, why should Buenos Aires remain stuck in the mud of my romantic stereotypes? Doesn’t this place have a right to engage the global economy as it sees fit?
I ponder these questions as I hug my purse and explore the streets around the Constitución train station, where cumbia pumps out of open storefronts, where kioscos crowd the sidewalks, where the informal economy rules, and where Starbucks (or any coffee chain for that matter) is worlds away.
I approach the first taxista I see and ask him where I can find a good cup of coffee. He stares at me with understandable bewilderment and points to a block-long pizza parlor.
“They have coffee there,” he says.
“But – ”
“I’m on my way home, niña. I can’t take you anywhere right now.”
Unphased, I hail a cab on the corner of Salta and Juan de Garay, climb into the backseat, and make my coffee pitch to a driver about my age.
“I drink coffee at the gas station,” he says, “But we can go somewhere nice and tomar algo if you want.”
I glance at his wedding ring and hop out, deciding to try my luck with the cabbies on Avenida Entre Rios.
I wave down taxista #3 after noticing the faded Argentine flag mounted to his driver’s side door. Sliding to the middle of the back seat, I tell him of my café quest. He turns down the Boca-Racing game that’s playing on the radio.
“I drink my coffee at the gas station,” the grey-haired cabbie says.
Of course you do.
What was I thinking? When would a taxista have the luxury to sit down with a newspaper at some culturally-correct café and wile away the hours with his thoughts?
“Boca [Juniors soccer team] is playing, you know,” the taxista says, reading my dismay, “The kind of place you want isn’t even going to be open.”
Right he is. And suddenly, I rejoice.
Yes, my café escapade has failed. No, I have not discovered the hidden neighborhood jewel I was after, but I have stumbled onto something that no amount of Starbucks will ever change: the local passion for football and the rituals that surround it.
Taxista #3 stops the cab on the corner of Córdoba and Callao and wishes me luck in my search. As luck would have it, I happen to be half a block from Clásica y Moderna.
Founded in 1938 and declared a cultural heritage site by the city of Buenos Aires in 2004, this coffeehouse cum book store started out as a gathering place for writers and politicans.
The place has all the accoutrements of an emblematic cafe: exposed brick, low lights, tango music in the background, distressed wooden tables, an undulating floor, ancient waiters, and a dusty book store in back.
I step into the bubble that is Clásica y Moderna. Happy to dive into a café con leche and spend the rest of the afternoon immersed in my fantasies made real, I’m also trying to decide which disturbs me more: the fact that taxistas are limited to gas station coffee or that fact that this place is open during the Boca-Racing game.