“I never eat in the capital,” he explained as he maneuvered through the madness of downtown Buenos Aires and merged onto Avenida 9 de Julio, “But I can take you to a great place in Avellaneda.”
My co-adventurers and I hesitated, unsure about whether we were prepared to cross the city limits.
“I’ve been going to this place for about 5 years,” Mario said, running a hand through his carefully arranged gray-brown hair, “There’s always a big crowd and the food is always good. Lamb, ribs, suckling pig – I can’t afford to go there all the time, but I take my family when I can.”
My co-adventurers and I traded glances. I studied the black and white rosaries hanging from the rear view mirror and the picture of Saint Christopher (the patron of travel safety) taped to the air vent.
Mario straddled the lane lines on 9 de Julio, heading south, anticipating our ‘yes.’
“Let’s go,” I said.
He nodded with the confidence of a practiced negotiator. After 25 years of driving a cab in Buenos Aires, he had learned a little something about human nature. We weren’t a bit surprised when he told us he’d met his wife in his taxi.
“I picked her up one day and took her to work. Then she happened to get in my cab the next day, and I invited her to coffee. She turned me down, of course. But I figured out her schedule and always happened to be around when she needed a ride. Finally she got tired and said ‘yes.'”
“Driving a taxi,” Mario said, “is full of surprises.”
We masked our own surprise when Mario pulled up in front of La Provinciana, an all-you-can-eat buffet cum live show joint on Avellaneda’s main boulevard.
“Are you sure you want to eat here?” Co-Adventurer #1 asked me after the taxista sped away.
“This is where the taxista took us,” Co-Adventurer #2 answered, “We have to go.”
Resigned, we shuffled into a near-deserted dining room of several hundred seats, slid into a table underneath the disco ball, and scoped out the vast and varied feast.
Piles of cheeses and cold cuts gave way to two islands of salads on ice. Pizza, pasta, fish and shellfish stations lined one wall. A grill master in a green beret presided over a 10 foot barbecue at the center of it all, keeping an eye on the slabs of vacio (flank steak) and lechón (suckling pig) roasting over the fire pit in the restaurant’s front window.
We circled the bounty with pessimistic palates. I made a beeline for the grill master, who was just pulling a piece of colita de cuadril (rump steak) off the barbecue.
“Try this,” he said, “and don’t forget the chimichurri sauce. We make it ourselves.”
My co-adventurers followed my lead. And while we agreed that the colita (tender and cooked rare) and the chimichurri were good, they weren’t quite worth the trip to the province.
But the mollejas (sweetbreads) we chose for our second course might have been. Lush and unctuous and tempered with a squeeze of lemon, they smothered our disappointment and incited nods of appreciation.
We raised our glasses to Mario, grateful that our culinary adventure had culminated in something like a happy ending, hoping that fortune would bring the taxista back to his favorite restaurant at some point soon.