July 9 is independence day in Argentina, and I wanted to celebrate by re-sharing the story of a taxi adventure that led to what became one of my favorite things to eat in Buenos Aires: Tucumán-style empanadas at La Aguada, in Barrio Norte.
“Some of us have to work for a living.”
The taxista didn’t actually say it, but I could read the words in his eyes.
“I’m a taxi driver,” he said, “I don’t have a favorite restaurant because I eat every meal at home.”
He bent over, pulled out a binder from underneath the passenger seat, and flipped through the plastic-covered pages until he found a list of restaurants.
I glanced over his shoulder and recognized famous names in the foreigners ghetto.
“What do you want?” the taxista said, “A fine restaurant? An all-you-can-eat buffet?”
“You know what?” I said, “I’m really sorry for bothering you. Maybe it’s better if I look for someplace on my own.”
The taxista snapped the binder closed, “OK.”
I walked to Avenida Las Heras and hailed another cab.
“I just came from the kiosk around the corner,” the taxista told me, “I always eat there. Hot dogs.”
“Oh…” Well, I could eat a hot dog, right?
He could sense I wasn’t so excited about a hot dog, “Do you like empanadas?”
Empanadas are my biggest Buenos Aires food obsession, I wanted to tell him, but all I said was “¡Sí!”
“I used to deliver empanadas for this place. Plus they make locro, humitas, stuff from Tucumán. I can’t remember the name, but…” The taxista shot through a red light and swerved between traffic lanes and bounced over potholes, careening onto a side street off Avenida Santa Fe. I was getting the feeling that he wanted to expunge me from his cab as quickly as possible.
“See the fat lady over there?” the taxista jerked his head in the direction of a statue of a woman in a blue apron with pink lips, “That’s the place. You’re in luck – they’re open.”
I thanked the taxista, careful not to slam the Fiat’s flyaway door, dodging lunchtime traffic as I ran across the street toward the fat lady. She held a chalkboard listing daily specials and pointed to the entrance to La Aguada.
I rang the bell and tried to ignore the fat lady’s eerie smile. A pint-sized waitress came out of the kitchen and swung the glass door open to a brown-and-yellow dining room with distressed wood tables, hand woven tapestries, and two other customers. One woman read the newspaper as she spooned stew from a ceramic bowl. The other woman sat in silence, an empty basket of empanadas in front of her.
A pile of plastic tamales towered over the six packs of Corona and Negro Modelo that crowded the bar. The voice of Mercedes Sosa was the only sound in the room.
I chose a table next to the wall where I could watch the comings and goings from the kitchen and opened the yarn-bound menu. The phone rang, and I listened to the cashier calmly take an order for 200 empanadas for Friday. The phone rang again – 50 tamales for Friday. And again – how many liters of locro did you want, señora?
I noticed a spread from Clarín, the city’s left-of-center newspaper, mounted on poster board a few tables away. Ignoring the stares of the two silent customers, I crossed the room to study its contents. The headline read:
“La Aguada Chef David Rosental Reveals the Secrets of the Perfect Empanada”
The phone rang steadily now, and I studied the menu with happy anticipation, thanking the taciturn taxista for guiding me to the right place.
The pint-sized waitress bounced over to take my order. Before I could speak, she apologized.
“I’m out of tamales, locro and carbonada,” she said, “You know tomorrow is independence day, and we have so many orders.”
I’d forgotten tomorrow was independence day.
“You still have empanadas, right?”
I ordered a beef and a 7-cheese empanada. The waitress nodded and disappeared. The woman with the empty empanada basket paid her check and left.
While I waited for my food, I spotted a handmade guest book at the table next to mine. The cover instructed visitors to “leave your signature, drawings, money, car, gold, husband, wife, kids – whatever you want.”
The first entry read: “Went to the dentist to get my teeth worked on and decided to try them out at La Aguada – it’s the best thing that’s happened to me today.”
Martin from La Pampa wrote: “I have high cholesterol and diabetes, but whenever I come to Buenos Aires, I always come to La Aguada and eat locro. Dr. Bordese will never find me here anyway.”
By the time the empanadas came, I’d discovered that La Aguada’s carbonada cured headaches, that their empanadas had mended more than a few lover’s quarrels, and that Antonia from Córdoba was willing to share her husband with the fat lady statue outside (but not with any other woman).
I closed the guest book and studied the palm-sized pastries in the basket. Brown oven blisters covered the thin masa, and I cut the empanadas in half to let the heat and smells (parsley, scallions, paprika) escape.
I tried the 7-cheese one first: fresh chives and celery checked the richness of blue cheese and mozzarella and five other cheeses I couldn’t name. I had to stop myself from inhaling the entire thing before I tasted the beef – lean, tender, mixed with leeks and sweet peppers, and just as irresistible. In both empanadas, the masa stayed where it belonged – in the background, quietly supporting the fillings that played the starring roles.
I was basking in empanada afterglow when the waitress put up the closed sign – lunch was over. It was time for siesta. The cashier turned off Mercedes Sosa and turned on Cristina Aguilera, singing along to “Ain’t No Other Man” between phone calls for independence day orders.