Every passenger I pick up
Is a strange book I learn to decipher.
People in their own heaven, in their own hell,
With their desire to laugh or cry.
– Rodolfo Taboada, Taxi Mío (Tango)
To Ricardo, the taxista from Villa Devoto, my Australian co-adventurers and I were indeed strange books.
As the three of us piled into the back seat, I asked him to take us somewhere good to eat. He answered with a snicker that suggested we couldn’t possibly surprise him.
“You want to go to Puerto Madero? Or Las Cañitas?”
My co-adventurers laughed.
“Exactly the opposite,” I told him, “We want to go someplace with good food, but someplace cheap. Above all, someplace you’ve been before.”
He turned on the taxi meter and suppressed his bewilderment. The disco ball hanging from the rear view mirror deflected the midday sun. We coasted past the café Roma in Abasto. Buenos Aires was just settling into lunch.
“Ah, well. I know a place where you can comer bien y barato. And the portions are generous. It’s right around the corner.”
“Have you eaten there recently? What kind of food do they serve?”
“Yeah, I was there about 20 days ago. They serve everything. Steaks, pizza, pasta. But you should order the menú del día.”
The ease of the quest disconcerted me. Ricardo had deciphered us too quickly. For the sake of my tango dancing co-adventurers, I tried to draw out the ride.
“That sounds good…But do you have other restaurants you’d recommend?”
“Sure, you’ve got a lot of very good parrillas in the microcentro. One on Tucumán…One on Lavalle…I can’t remember what they’re called…”
“But this place I’m taking you, it’s right around the corner. And it’s good.”
Before we could convince him to prolong our journey, Ricardo pulled in front of Pablin’s, a yellow and red monstrosity of a storefront topped by a sign that read: “Quality and very good prices.”
“There you are.”
Five pesos paid, we reluctantly climbed out of the cab. Ricardo merged into the traffic on Avenida Córdoba. I marveled at the fact that I’d encountered yet another taxista who refused to take advantage of our foreignness.
All heads turned when we swung open the door to Pablin’s steamy dining room and wove our way to a formica four-top near the soda refrigerator in back.
Without a word, the lone server set a single menu in the middle of the table and rushed away. We studied the daily specials and waved him over to take our order: beef empanadas, tira de asado (ribs) with French fries, fish filets with mustard sauce and rice, and revuelto gramajo (a scramble of French fries, ham and peas that was supposedly invented by military attache Artemio Gramajo on a 19th century battlefield).
The soggy dough and bland filling of the empanadas foreshadowed the rest of our uninspiring meal: flavorful but tough tira de asado, fish suffocating underneath thick breading and chemically seasoned rice, and a revuelto gramajo that was little more than a plate of greasy fries.
By the time we dug into dessert (a dry but passable bread pudding with dulce de leche), every table at Pablin’s was full.
“This,” one of my co-adventurers pointed out, “Is just what you asked for.”
Right he was. How could I argue with taxista Ricardo’s literal deciphering of my bizarre request?
Next time, I’m going to frame my pitch a little differently:
“If this were your last day in Buenos Aires, if someone told you that you had to leave the city and never come back, where would you eat your last meal?”
I can hardly wait to see where I end up.
Avenida Cordoba 2574 – Abasto