Buenos Aires: cradle of tango, stronghold of soccer, metropolis of beef. If you’re trying to get a sense of how deep the local passion for meat runs, Lo de Charly might give you some clues.
The grill is perpetually lit at this 24 hour steak house in Villa Urquiza, and Mario, the 40-something taxista who would be a physicist, is one of its many regulars.
“I’ve been going to this place since I started driving a taxi,” Mario said, “But I wasn’t always a cab driver. I wanted to be a nuclear physicist, but not to build weapons. I wanted to figure out a way for people to live less destructively.”
But circumstances forced him to downsize his dream. He found work as a mechanic. Eight years ago, he started driving a cab.
“What’s happening in the world right now is a picnic for us [in Argentina]. We’re always piloting through a storm.”
Recent history in Argentina – from military rule in the 70s and hyperinflation in the 80s to austerity measures in the 90s and the economic crash of 2001 – supports Mario’s claim. Crisis is a natural expectation in this country, almost a fact of life.
“The only way to survive,” Mario said, “Is to live and eat well.”
As a card-carrying hedonist, I didn’t argue.
It was 9:00pm when my co-adventurer and I sat down at Lo de Charly, Mario’s always-open steakhouse of choice. There were few customers. But as 10:00pm approached, we watched porteños fill each and every plastic chair at the sidewalk tables.
Distracted by the growing party, we got lost in pages and pages of meat dishes and overlooked the best buy on the menu: just under 3 pounds of beef and offal for 24 pesos. For about eight U.S. dollars, chorizo sausage, blood sausage, chitterlings, T-bone steak and cross-cut ribs could have been ours. No wonder Mario was a fan of this place.
A friendly server in a black baseball cap took our order: sausage, grilled vegetables and a platter of pork that included a pork chop, pork flank steak, and pechuga de cerdo (a pork rib with a generous amount of meat attached).
The sausage arrived just after our Styrofoam-encased bottle of Brahma made it to the table. Given that Lo de Charly started out as a sausage sandwich stand in 1991, I was surprised that the chorizo tasted like a greasy dishrag in crispy coating.
Thankfully, the grilled vegetables – red and green bell pepper, russet potato, butternut squash, Spanish onion, and sweet potato – were nothing that a squeeze of lemon and a little salt couldn’t bring to life.
But it was the platter of pork that made me understand why Mario had steered us there. Actually, it was the pechuga de cerdo. While the chop and the flank steak were good (not too dry, just enough salt), the pechuga was moist and fatty in all the right places. I watched my co-adventurer gnaw the final bits off the bone. An alley cat sidled by, searching for scraps. There was no pechuga for her.
Meanwhile, walking vendors hawked pirated CDs and lottery tickets. Buses and taxis roared past. A car struggled to start. An infant fussed. The voices around us grew more animated as people satisfied their hunger and thirst. We ordered flan with dulce de leche.
As we tore into the tasty, caramel-flooded dessert, I felt – as I so often do when I sit down at a steakhouse here – as if I’d stumbled into an intimate ritual. Ten or twenty years from now, I could imagine locals gathering on the sidewalk at Lo de Charly, treating themselves to all that’s cheap and meaty.
And maybe Mario, the clever, pleasure-seeking taxista, would be living in a different dream.
Lo de Charly
Alavarez Thomas y Donado – Villa Urquiza
Open: 24 hours