This post is dedicated the memory of Alberto Paz.
Though I never had the pleasure of meeting Alberto in person, I learned about him and his partner Valorie Hart through their website, Planet Tango, where Alberto also posted his many translations of tango lyrics into English.
A few weeks ago, when I contacted Alberto and Valorie to ask permission to re-print a few lines from Alberto’s translation of Balada para un loco (Ballad for a Crazy Man), my favorite Astor Piazzolla tango, in the final chapter of Driving Hungry, Valorie let me know that Alberto had passed away in February, at age 70.
You can read more about his remarkable life here. In the meantime, I hope you don’t mind reading this story – about tango and nostalgia and the joys of tira de asado – one more time.
Gime, bandoneon, tu tango gris
quizas a ti te hiera igual
algun amor sentimental…
– “Nostalgias” (1936) tango lyrics by Enrique Cadicamo
It’s very common for Argentines who never gave the tango a second thought to become obsessed with it once they leave their country.
I can understand why: tango is mostly about loss and longing and impossible love. Thousands of miles from Buenos Aires, the lyrics take on an extra layer of significance.
I never expected the same would happen to me. After 3 1/2 years in the Buenos Aires, I thought I’d listened to enough tango and eaten enough steak to hold me over for the rest of my life.
But on Sunday, when a tango I couldn’t name came on while I was looking over the list of bifes at El Gauchito Restaurante in Queens, I had to fight back tears.
Tears like this had never fallen when I was eating hamburgers and listening to Britney in Buenos Aires.
Something strange was going on, and I had Daniel – Argentine native, former New York cabbie and current cashier at the Team Systems taxi garage – to thank for leading me to nostalgia I hadn’t been willing to acknowledge.
“El mundo es chiquito, ¿no?” Daniel said when I was cashing out at the garage a few weeks ago. It’s a small world.
It seemed even smaller after I discovered that he’s from Buenos Aires – from Villa Devoto, to be exact.
Daniel came to New York over 10 years ago, settled in Queens, and drove a cab at night for a decade. Eventually, he said goodbye to the stress of being in the driver’s seat to start working in the office at Team Systems: “I like life here [in New York] better. You can plan. There aren’t so many ups and downs. The currency is stable. It’s calmer.”
Every year, he goes back to Buenos Aires to visit his parents, who are in their 90s.
The Argentine community in New York isn’t very united, Daniel says. This is why there are no really good Argentine restaurants here. Except for El Gauchito, a restaurant/butcher shop where they make good chorizo and where he buys flank steak that he barbecues in his East Elmhurst backyard.
On Sunday I finally got up the nerve to hop on the Q58 bus to Little Argentina – where Junction Blvd. intersects Corona Ave. in Queens – to taste what Daniel was talking about.
Walking through the door at El Gauchito felt like jumping into a bowl of condensed Argentine soup. The only language was sing-song Spanish. The only music: a mix of folklore and tango.
Soccer jerseys, mate gourds, and tubs of dulce de leche were on sale at the butcher shop, along with sausages, cheese, and Argentine cuts of beef. Customers greeted each other with right cheek kisses and shook hands with the butcher.
The menu was a faithful re-creation of the food you’d find at a typical Buenos Aires steak house: empanadas, grilled provolone cheese, tortilla de papas, milanesas, house-made pastas, chorizo, blood sausage and other offal, and bifes, bifes, bifes.
I took it all in, struggling to keep my composure after one of the cooks came out and kissed me on the cheek: “Hola, ¿como te va?”
Did he mistake me for a regular customer? No. I watched him move between the 15 tables in the dining room and greet everyone this way. There’s a reason El Gauchito has been around for 30 years.
Their beef empanada isn’t one of them, though. The one they served me tasted like it was straight from the microwave. But even if it’d been freshly baked, I think the flavorless dough would have still been disappointing. The filling – ground beef and onions and maybe a little cumin – wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t enough to make me want to order another.
It was the kind of empanada you’d find at a corner kiosco in Buenos Aires, nowhere close to the unforgettable versions I’d tasted in Salta and Tucumán.
But El Gauchito’s tira de asado [side cut ribs] were as delicious as the steaks I’d learned to love in Buenos Aires. Even though the beef wasn’t from Argentina (the restaurant does offer grass-fed Argentine beef, but it costs $35), it was grilled to pink, perfectly salted, and beautifully marbled.
I ordered chorizo on Daniel’s recommendation, slathering it in El Gauchito’s amazing chimichurri sauce, which was loaded with basil, oregano, flat-leaf parsley, vinegar and more garlic than would ever be allowed within the Buenos Aires city limits.
Blood sausage was next. I spread it – rich and dark and slightly bitter – over two wonderful round rolls that came from a Brazilian bakery in New Jersey whose name the server couldn’t remember.
The entire platter of meat and two sausages cost $13.90. I still wasn’t ready to leave by the time I polished it off, along with a glass of the fruity house red from Mendoza, so I ordered the tres leches cake dessert special, which turned out to be too sweet. I scraped up all of the dulce de leche on the side, though, and vowed that next time I’d try the house-made flan.
There will be a next time at El Gauchito. Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that we’re done with a place, with a person, with a certain time in our lives, with a genre of music, even with certain foods.
The deception works – until something triggers a memory and we’re forced to admit the depth of our feelings, to dive deep into our nostalgia, to recognize that going back doesn’t have to keep us from moving forward.
El Gauchito Carnicería y Restaurante
94-60 Corona Ave. – Elmhurst, Queens
Tel. 718-271-1917 (restaurant); 718-271-8198 (butcher shop)
Open: Mon, Tues, Thurs & Sun, 12pm-10pm; Fri & Sat (12pm-11pm); closed Wednesdays
How to get there: Q58 bus