Across the street, tourists snap pictures of the Esquina Homero Manzi, the now famous cafe where tango composer Homero Manzi wrote “Sur,” an ode to his adopted neighborhood on the south side of the city.
Despite its fame and landmark status, its plaques, and its carefully manicured facade, the spot retains much of its mystique.
You tear your eyes away from tango history, remember your hunger, and stop a taxi heading toward San Telmo on Avenida San Juan. Your hope? That the driver can take you someplace in this romantic neighborhood, someplace authentic, someplace relatively secret.
12:10pm: You and the taxi driver with the spiked silver hair are inching down Cochabamba street. He’s just finished lunch at his usual spot in Palermo. On the other side of the city. Miles away from San Juan and Boedo and all your gushy fantasies.
“But I can take you someplace where the food is always, always good,” he tells you, “It’s not far from here.”
“Have you eaten there? What kind of food do they serve?”
“I was there a couple of months ago. To celebrate my wife’s birthday,” he says, “They serve everything. I had pasta, but everything they make is great.”
“OK, let’s go.”
12:15pm: You notice wrinkles on the taxista‘s hands expand and contract as he adjusts his hold on the steering wheel.
“How long have you been driving a cab?” you wonder aloud.
“Since 1956,” he says, “On November 1, it’ll be 52 years since I started driving. Back then, the city didn’t have any traffic signals. Just trolley cars. Can you imagine?”
“Before I started driving a cab, I drove trucks. And before that, I delivered ice in the morning and bread in the afternoon. I started working when I was 8. Can you guess how old I am?”
“Do the math,” he says, “You had to be 21 to get your drivers’ license back in those days. And on October 1, I’m going to celebrate my 50th wedding anniversary.”
Amazed, you congratulate him. He dismisses your awe.
“Yo soy del ’30,” he says, “Just like the tango. You know that tango, right? I was born in 1930, I was born in 1930, when they smeared [Argentine President] Yrigoyen…”
You don’t know that tango.
12:20pm: Alberto the 78-year-old taxista brakes in front of an industrial-sized storefront that looks more like a big box warehouse than a restaurant.
You don’t want to get out of the cab. You want Alberto to tell you more about driving a taxi in a Buenos Aires without traffic signals.
“Good luck,” he says, “You always, always need good luck in this city.”
12:22pm: You size up the steel and glass entrance at Maizales, wondering how a taxista with so much character managed to guide you to a place so apparently soulless – and so far away from the corner of San Juan and Boedo.
Your pessimism grows when you swing open the door and discover that Alberto has delivered you to a food institution you’ve managed to avoid after 3 1/2 years in Buenos Aires: the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Your eyes widen as you weave between super-sized mountains of food – cheeses, cold cuts, salads, rolls, sheets of focaccia, platters of pizza, steaks, lechón (suckling pig), chivito (goat), paella, stir fry, grilled trout, seafood stew, tacos (!) and fresh pasta.
The bounty is beyond bacchanalian. And, unlike so many all-you-can-eat buffets, most of the food appears to be made to order. You ask the waiter where to begin.
“Seafood,” he says, “The calamari stew and the paella are excellent.”
You try the calamari stew and the paella and have a hard time tasting anything through the insane amount of salt and cooking oil.
You’re much happier with brick oven-baked focaccia and pizza, creamy slices of muenster cheese, smoky salamis, delicate crab and chard tureen, and vegetables so fresh they practically glow.
You avoid the tacos.
1:03pm: Just in time for dessert, your anti-buffet food snobbery starts to melt away.
You sidle toward the impressive display of traditional sweets: flan, bread pudding, rogel (thin pastry with layers of dulce de leche and meringue), tiramisu, rice pudding, pears braised in red wine, isla flotante (soft meringue with sabayon sauce), ice cream, and fresh fruit.
“What can I get for you, reina?”
The pot-bellied chef behind the dessert counter meets your eye as he flambées a crepe in a cast iron skillet. Keeping a close eye on his six burner stove, he resumes a flipping, juggling, flame taming dance of pancakes and dough that he could probably do with his eyes closed. You wonder how many times he’s watched “Cocktail.”
You order a crepe.
1:05pm Acrobatics on pause, the chef hands you your dessert.
“I also do weddings and parties,” he says, reading the amazement in your eyes and passing you a card that reads: Daniel Ortega, El Panquequero Loco (the Crazy Crepe Guy).
You taste the apple, dulce de leche, and rum crepe he cooked up for you. Your teeth ache as your tongue delights in buttery, caramelized bliss.
The dessert is as decadent as the performance. As fiercely local as Alberto the taxista. As soulful as the corner of San Juan and Boedo.
Daniel Ortega – El Panquequero Loco
Note: My sincere apologies to those who commented on the lead in to this entry – I erased your comments by mistake when I erased the teaser. I value your words and thank you for reading my blog!