I do believe we get everything we ask for – whether we’re conscious of it or not. Which is why I’m not surprised that after a week of wondering about the pasta at El Español, taxista José granted my unspoken wish and delivered me there last Thursday. No fooling. I have witnesses to prove it.
José is from Quilmes, a working class suburb south of Buenos Aires where the Quilmes Indians were ‘relocated’ from the Tucumán province centuries ago.
He worked for Dupont until he was 28 (“I’m still in love with that company. Working there, I felt like a man.”), where he met his girlfriend. After the factory packed up and moved to another country, José started driving a taxi.
Despite 20 years behind the wheel, he knows little about restaurants in Buenos Aires.
“But every now and then,” he said, “I meet los chicos [i.e. other cabbies] at El Español.”
After picking Jose’s brain and assuring ourselves that he didn’t have other treasures hiding in his taste memory, we said ‘yes’ to El Español.
¡Café de los Angelitos!…
Yo te alegré con mis gritos [I made you happy with my shouts] en los tiempos de Carlitos [in the era of Carlos (Gardel)] por Rivadavia y Rincón. [on Rivadavia and Rincón]
Two blocks later, he braked in front of El Español, wished us luck, and returned to the night.
It was 10.30pm – peak dinner hour. Every single table at the two story restaurant was occupied. My co-adventurers and I lingered in the doorway, waiting for a spot, and scanned the Quilmes-swilling crowd. We were the only foreigners.
A sign on the wall read:
“On busy days, we ask for your consideration and request that you don’t stay too long. You’ll be rewarded when you’re the one waiting.”
They seated us in five minutes.
A waiter in a red polyester vest flashed us an amused smile and handed us a menu of many pages. On his recommendation, I ordered sorrentinos (round pasta stuffed with ham and cheese) with pink sauce. My co-adventurers went for beef cannelloni with Béchamel and tomato sauces, chorizo sausage and French fries.
Our feast took longer to prepare than I anticipated, and judging from the size of the hungry crowd, I guessed that the kitchen was backed up. I could picture the infernal frenzy behind the swinging door – burners on high, ovens seething, cooks moving at industrial speed – and I was glad I wasn’t part of it.
When the sorrentinos arrived overcooked, split and missing much of their filling, I thought there might be some truth behind the kitchen scenario I imagined.
Thankfully, the chorizo – smoky, tender and not too fatty – saved the meal. The cannelloni held its own, too. Despite being too heavy on the Béchamel, the paper-thin pasta was delicate, the beef filling carefully seasoned with fresh parsley and red peppers. The three of us ate all of this, and washed it down with soda and water, for less than $20US.
No, El Español may not serve cuisine for the guidebooks. But in a city where turbulence often rules, and where posted prices and official inflation rates are fictional, it’s easy to see why the restaurant draws such a large, loyal clientèle. Honest, fiercely local, ridiculously cheap food will win you fans any day of the week.