“I have sort of a strange request,” I said, sliding over the ripped backseat of the four-door Fiat, “Can you take me to your favorite restaurant?”
The taxi driver stopped in the middle of the street – oblivious to the honking cars that swerved around us – and turned to stare at me.
“I’m a food writer,” I explained, “I’m trying to find good places to eat that aren’t in the guidebooks. Places where you would take your family, for example.”
The taxista scratched the salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin, took his foot off the brake, and smiled at me from the rear view mirror, “A food writer? Obviously you don’t eat all the food you write about.”
“Actually, I do.”
“I don’t believe you,” he winked, “What kind of food are you looking for, anyway?”
“Nothing fancy,” I said, deflecting his compliment, “Everyday food. Empanadas, steak – things you typically eat here.”
“Hmmm, let me think,” he said, “What about Siga la Vaca? No, everyone knows that place. A good steak, a good steak…”
He pulled over and coasted beside the gutter as he pondered.
“Ah! There’s a place about a mile away, I can’t remember the name, but a lot of people tell me it’s one of the best barbecue places in the city.”
“Perfect, let’s go.”
“Are you going to take me with you?” he asked.
I fingered my faux wedding ring and said, “Sure.”
Right on cue, his cell phone rang.
“Hi, honey. Can I call you back in five minutes? I’m busy right now…Yes, I know, but I’m driving…I’m in the middle of something…Five minutes, okay? Kisses, Bye.”
We cruised the next several blocks in silence.
When we crossed Avenida Cordoba, the taxista sat up straight, “I know it’s around here somewhere…No, not this block…Aha! Here you go.”
He slammed on the brakes and pointed to a glass storefront whose sign was hidden by a sycamore tree. Men in suits crowded the entrance and spilled out of the doorway.
“Looks like a popular place,” I said.
“You see? I wouldn’t lead you astray. Here, take my card,” He dug in his back pocket and pulled out a wrinkled piece of paper that read ‘Taxi Enrique.’
“Here’s my cell phone number. Don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything. Good luck!”
The cell phone call had (understandably) pricked his conscience, and I was going to dine alone. I thanked Enrique, hopped out of the cab, marched past the suits on the sidewalk, and swung open the door to Parrilla Peña.
Fluorescent lights flooded an open kitchen where an asador (grill master) sweated over a 10-foot barbecue covered with steaks, sausage, chicken, vegetables, and innards I didn’t recognize. Wine bottles lined the walls, and hams hung from the ceiling.
Heads turned as I scanned the dining room for an empty seat. I counted two other women in a sea of men who were attacking steaks the size of steering wheels. I approached the host and requested a table for one. From the looks of things, I was the only foreigner in the place.
“Do you mind sharing a table with these guys?” the host pointed to a four-top where two men on the far side of fifty sat across from each other and gesticulated over plates piled high with rib bones.
“Not at all.”
The men interrupted their real estate conversation and eyed me as I scooted into my seat. Ignoring the menus the host set before me, I asked them what they recommended.
“The ribs here are the best in Buenos Aires,” the v-neck sweater next to me said, dimples denting his smooth olive skin, “And the fillet is excellent, too.”
“She has to try the grilled provolone cheese,” his friend insisted, buttoning his cardigan over his belly.
A white jacketed waiter approached, “You’re eating alone?”
“Let’s see,” he looked up at the ceiling with obvious dismay, “You could get 1/2 a fillet, a single rack of ribs, skirt steak…”
“1/2 a fillet,” V-neck said, “That’s what you want.”
“1/2 a fillet then,” I told the waiter, “And the grilled provolone?”
“That’s too much for one person,” the waiter protested.
“Maybe I could take part of it home if I can’t finish it?” I offered.
“Sure, she could take part of it home,” V-neck approved, “She’s got money – she can order whatever she wants.”
The waiter nodded and scurried away. I studied Parrilla Peña’s menu. In addition every cut of meat imaginable (from fillet and sirloin to sweetbreads, kidneys, and tripe), they offered homemade pastas, plates of local cheese and roasted vegetables, salads, milanesas (breaded veal cutlets), empanadas, and blood sausage. I couldn’t find anything over 40 pesos (13-14 dollars).
The all-Argentina wine list spanned pages and included everything from cheap staples (Norton, Trapiche, Lopez) to high-end labels (Lurton, Ruca Malen, Weinert).
I closed the menu when my olive oil-smothered provolone cheese arrived, steam rising off the grill marks. V-neck and cardigan watched me as I tasted it. Cheese, barbecue smoke and oregano comingled on my tongue. I closed my eyes and chewed. They laughed approvingly and went back to talking real estate.
A few minutes later, the waiter delivered a steak half the size of my head. I pushed the provolone to the side and sliced off a steaming piece of meat, realizing I’d forgotten to specify how I wanted it cooked. Apparently, such direction was unnecessary: juice trickling to the edge of the plate, the beef was grilled to a rosy medium rare. Literally melting in my mouth, the barely seasoned meat needed no embellishment.
V-neck and cardigan paid their check and looked on in disbelief as I worked my way through the entire steak, “Now that you’re all taken care of, you don’t mind if we leave you now, do you?”
“Of course not.”
“Here, let me give you my number,” V-neck said, writing his name in my notebook, “Feel free to call me if you need anything.”
As v-neck and cardigan headed for the door, the waiter cleared and set their table, and a bald man in a suit glanced at me and squeezed into the chair next to mine.
Just as I was about to order some empanadas to go and ask for the check, the waiter brought him a plate of fried green pancakes.
“What are those?” I asked.
“Spinach cakes,” the man answered, “They only make them on Fridays. Want to try some?”
“Oh, no, that’s OK.”
“No, here, I insist.” He cut off half a spinach cake and put it on my empty steak plate. I offered him some of my grilled provolone, and we got to chatting.
“If it weren’t for this place, I would be sick and starving,” he said, “I’m a bachelor, and I don’t know how to cook, so I come here every day.”
Over the next hour, the bachelor revealed some of the secrets of Parrilla Peña. He enlisted the staff to teach me about the Argentine way of cutting steaks, complete with a diagram of a cow. He filled me in on the best dishes (skirt steak, kidneys, sweetbreads) and the weekly specials (Thursday is hamburger day, and Fridays always nod to Catholic tradition with breaded codfish and codfish stew). He showed me some of the best bargains on the wine list. Finally, he ordered a tiramisu for us to share, explaining that Parrilla Peña’s rendition of the Italian classic was the best in Buenos Aires.
While we waited for our dessert, he pointed out the round-faced man behind the cash register.
“That’s one of the owners. He’s a really good guy. Unlike most Argentines, he’s committed to good service and good quality at a good price. I consider him a real patriot – most people in this country try to take you for all you’ve got, but not him.”
“Is he always here?” I asked.
The waiter brought the tiramisu. I dug in to the light, coffee rich dessert. Made with real mascarpone cheese, it was equal to or greater than many versions I’d tasted in Italy, I told the bachelor.
Pleased, he paid his check, rose to leave, and handed me his card, “Please call me if you need anything at all. It was a genuine pleasure.”
We exchanged the traditional right cheek kiss, he walked out the door, and I ordered my empanadas. As I approached the counter to pay for them, the owner handed the bag to me.
“These are on the house,” he said, “I hope we see you again.”
“You will,” I said, rubbing my belly and grinning my way out the door and all twenty blocks home