Underworlds abound in Buenos Aires. In its milongas (tango clubs), in its shantytowns, in its discos, bars, and restaurants. This is a city that wears many masks, a place that houses secret rooms behind simple facades.
Sometimes the city reveals its secrets to me: a signless bakery here, an underground milonga there, a speakeasy here, a ¨closed door¨restaurant there. Other times, I penetrate its bajo fondo only to be tossed out on my bum.
Such was the case on my journey to 2901 with a taxi driver who refused to be named.
Unamused by the premise of my food quest, he gave me two choices for lunch:
a) an all-you-can eat buffet called Charly in Belgrano R
b) a restaurante de barrio/parrilla also in Belgrano where ¨taxi drivers always go to eat¨
Naturally, I chose the latter, intrigued by the prospect of breaking bread with cabbies on their lunch break.
¨Taxistas are more concerned about price than quality,¨ the driver warned me, ¨This place isn´t Puerto Madero.¨
Not a problem, I told him.
¨I make between 1300-1500 pesos (roughly 400-500 dollars) a month,¨ he explained, ¨I can´t go to fancy places.¨
¨Right now,¨he continued, ¨With the farmers´ strike, the economy is closed. This hurts taxi drivers, it hurts street vendors…People can´t afford to eat meat every day any more.¨
I agreed that the high cost of beef was a new and tragic reality, especially in a country that coined the phrase ¨if there´s no meat, there´s no food.¨
As we drew closer to his chosen lunch spot, the taxi driver´s diatribe grew more impassioned. Like so many of his compatriots, his love of country was mixed with outrage and resignation.
¨In the U.S. or Germany or Spain, this thing with the farmers would´ve been resolved by now. But Argentina is unstable.¨
¨It´s the same politicans as always,¨ he added, ¨El innombrable [unnameable former President Carlos Menem] sold the country out [in the 1990s], and the people in power now are doing the same thing. We have wheat, soy, meat, oil – everything! And we´re in debt. We work and other countries gain.¨
He stopped at the corner of Cramer and Congreso and cocked his head toward a parrilla below a red awning. When I passed him 12 pesos for the ride, he fed me a final, politically charged morsel:
¨Look at this business with Cristina´s election and the suitcase full of money from Venezuela. If the U.S. can´t get get its way through war, it corrupts things from the inside.¨
What could I say? I nodded (with outrage and resignation), climbed out of the cab, and stepped into the lunch buzz at 2901.
From the looks of things, the taxistas had chosen to eat elsewhere. The dining room was full of twenty-something guys and their mulleted girlfriends, fathers and sons, and men of retirement age flipping leisurely through El Clarín.
I chose a table against the wall and took in the rest of the scene: burgundy curtains worn thin over time and many washings, metal-backed chairs, the TV news (broadcasting the latest from the farmers´strike) on mute, and a Coca-Cola refrigerator resting on a spotless linoleum floor.
Yes, this was a restaurante de barrio, the kind of place that continues to survive in Buenos Aires despite the popularity of McDonald´s and Burger King and the impending arrival of Starbucks.
The menu contained the usual array of local favorites: bifes, pastas, milanesas, merluza (hake fish), rabas (fried calamari). I asked a bow-tied server for his recommendation and was soon face to face with a plate of peceto (a humble cut of beef that tastes like a less fatty version of pot roast) with salsa portuguesa (fresh mint, canned peas, and oven-roasted onions and peppers).
The dish, which also came with soft-ball sized portions of mashed potatoes and butternut squash puree, could have easily fed three people.
I sipped a glass of the house red (fruity and thin and served in a metal pitcher) mixed with soda water as I worked my way through the pile of simple food before me. The mashed potatoes were amazing, but the peceto and the butternut squash bland.
I paid for my solid, nourishing, price-over-quality meal and searched for the bathroom, still wondering where the taxistas could be.
As I wandered deeper into the bowels of the restaurant, I stumbled on a glass-enclosed smoking section and heard a series of masculine shouts that I assumed were coming from the kitchen.
I peeked around a corner and discovered the source of the noise: a windowless room full of smoking, beer-drinking, dice-throwing, card-dealing men who had to be taxistas.
Part of me wanted to go in and talk to them, to do a few interviews and soak in a bit of their lunch break euphoria. But most of me knew that in this instance, my gender and my foreignness were not working in my favor. I was an outsider in every sense.
Sure enough, a grey-haired taxista looked up from his cards and stared at me with surprise and ¨go away¨ in his eyes. Before he could alert his compañeros to my presence, I turned and disappeared, leaving the men in their secret room, satisfied that at least I´d toed the threshold.
Congreso 2901 (Belgrano)
Open: 24 hours