After it was clear that our first cab driver of the day couldn’t guide us beyond the fancy restaurants in Puerto Madero – and that he wasn’t quite ready to take us to his house for milanesas – we climbed out of his taxi and hopped into the yellow and black Fiat behind him.
My co-adventurer and I sized up our second taxista before we launched our request. Beating a pair of chopsticks against his lips, he sported a shaved head and a pair of silver sunglasses. I wondered whether someone so young – and so slim – would know much about where to find something good to eat.
“We’d like to go to a real neighborhood restaurant,” my co-adventurer, a reporter from Texas, said, “Someplace bien de barrio.”
“I can take you to this place I like near Parque Centenario,” he said, “The entrees cost about 60 or 70 pesos…”
“We’re looking for something a little cheaper,” I said, “Someplace you’ve been before where you know the food is good.”
The taxista eyed us in the rear view mirror and turned on the meter.
“I know where I can take you,” he said, easing out of the shade in front of the House of Congress, “Lots of taxi drivers go there. You can eat sandwiches at the window outside if you’re in a hurry, like most taxistas. Or you can sit down inside. They only have a few tables.”
“What’s the food like? Have you eaten there recently?”
“I was there yesterday,” he giggled, “I had a sanduche de vacio. But I can’t eat there today.”
“I’m on a diet.”
“Yes, look at my belly.”
I leaned between the driver and passenger seats to get a closer view.
“I don’t see a belly,” I said. I wasn’t trying to flatter him.
“Well, it’s there. And summer is coming. All I’ve had today is a fruit salad. Later I’ll have a yogurt…”
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked him, alarmed.
“No. I just take my mind somewhere else.”
We nodded, impressed.
“How long have you been driving a cab?” I asked him.
“About a year and a half.”
“And what did you do before that?” My co-adventurer chimed in.
“I was a sculptor.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“A sculptor. I still am. I used to work in jewelry stores, making jewelry and traveling around Latin America and selling it. But I never made long-term plans. I just lived, took things day by day.”
We nodded some more. Fascinated.
“Look at me,” he said, “I’m 42 years old. But I don’t look it.”
It was true. The man had no wrinkles. But his youthfulness went beyond that. He radiated. He was luminous, emitting an inner light that reminded me of Buddhist monks I’d met in Bangkok.
“What’s your secret?” I asked him.
“I look at things objectively. I don’t let people and things get under my skin, you know?”
No…I didn’t know.
“By the time I’m 50, I want to have my own shop. But I may not get there. I have kids, you know. My son – he’s 14 – and he lives with me. My other kid lives with my ex. My son is so great. So great…”
Rene grinned. And there was his secret. He didn’t resent the fact that he couldn’t make a living as an artist. Nor did he feel trapped by having to drive a taxi to support his kids. These were his cards, and he’d found a way to transform them into a perfect hand.
Rene drove around the block after missing a turn, immune to the madness of the Friday afternoon traffic. Eventually, he parked on the corner of Moreno and Pasco and gestured toward the crowd on the sidewalk, “There’s the place. I wish I had a piece of my work to show you…”
So did we. But the journey with the wise taxista had come to an end. We left the him with goodbye and good luck, sensing that he could feel the gratitude beyond our tip, and walked into El Litoral.
One whiff of the smoky aroma floating through the air – and one look at the multitude of men inside and out of the run-down steak house, and we intuited that Rene’s knowledge of life extended to food.
Feigning indifference to the curious stares directed our way, we snagged the last empty table, brushed the bread crumbs off the vinyl tablecloth, and wondered which incarnation of beef we were going to try.
I went for Rene’s sanduche de vacio (flank steak sandwich) and my co-adventurer ordered the daily special: bife de costilla (t-bone steak) with French fries.
A few minutes later, we were waxing ecstatic over our cheap, tasty lunch. Piled high with slices of tender, fatty vacio, my sandwich went to another level with the addition of a little salsa criolla (with tomatoes, onions, garlic, oregano, peppers, oil and vinegar). Meanwhile, my co-adventurer’s expertly cooked t-bone was enough to impress a Texas girl; her thick-cut fries were fresh and crispy.
We lingered over a classic sweet-savory dessert: queso y dulce de batata (cheese and sweet potato paste), also known as postre vigilante and famous for being Jorge Luis Borges’ favorite after-dinner treat.
In the end, El Litoral, like Rene the taxista, bowled us over with its spirit and sincerity.
Moreno 2201 (esquina Pasco) – Balvanera