On this day in 2007, I attempted my very first taxi adventure in Buenos Aires. At the time, I never imagined it would become the first of many taxi adventures, that it would eventually lead me to New York, to Berlin, to my own taxi license, to so many people and places I couldn’t have possibly encountered otherwise. Eight years on, I still wonder what might have happened had I not gotten into Enrique’s cab. I hope you don’t mind me sharing this story one more time…
“I have sort of a strange request,” I said to the taxista, twisting my Grandma’s wedding ring with my thumb. I was trying to prepare him for my question. I was trying to prepare myself, too.
“Yes?” he said. His brown eyes were almond shaped, rimmed with faint wrinkles, flecked with gold.
I looked at the clock on the dash. It was after three. Lunchtime was almost over.
“Señorita,” said the taxista, smiling, open-mouthed, as if on the verge of laughter, “where would you like to go?”
I leaned forward, between the front seats, took a deep breath and said,
“Could you take me to your favorite restaurant?”
The taxista braked in the middle of the Avenida- oblivious to the honking cars that swerved around us – and turned to stare at me, his eyes confused.
“I’m hungry,” I said, talking fast, “And I don’t have a lot of money, and I was hoping you might know a good place that’s not too far away.”
He knit his eyebrows, deepening the crease in the center of his forehead. He hadn’t turned on the taxi meter yet.
“Maybe a place you would go with your family?” I said. “For example.”
“What kind of food are you looking for?”
“Nothing fancy.” I pressed my palms against the hollow in my stomach.”You know, typical stuff, empanadas, steak . . .”
“Steak?” He smiled.”What about Siga laVaca?”
“Siga la Vaca?” I had heard the name somewhere. “Don’t a lot of tourists go there?”
“You’re right. Everyone knows that place. Let me think . . .” He still hadn’t switched on the meter. “A good steak, a good steak . . .”
He steered to the right, coasting next to the gutter. I started to wonder if this was such a good idea.
“Ah!” he said, maybe thirty seconds (or maybe five minutes) later,”There’s a place, maybe 15 blocks from here, I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s one of the best steak houses in the city, segúndo me.”
“Really?” I looked at him in the rearview mirror.
“You will like it,” he said, turning on the taxi meter.
My stomach was grumbling loudly enough for him to hear.
“Bueno.” I smiled. “Vamos.”
“Are you going to take me with you?”
I twisted my faux wedding ring, my face going warm, “Sure.” What else could I say?
A few blocks later, 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…Five minutes, okay? Chau, mi amor. Chau, chau…”
We cruised the next several blocks in silence, crossing Avenida Cordoba. “I know it’s around here somewhere,” said the taxista, sitting up straighter on his beaded back rest. “…No, no, no…Aha! Here you go.”
He slammed on the brakes and pointed through the windshield, at a glass storefront whose sign was hidden by a sycamore tree. Men in suits huddled under the awning, smoking cigarettes. I couldn’t tell if they were going in or coming out.
“It looks popular,” I said.
“You see? I wouldn’t lead you astray. Here, take this,” He dug in his back pocket and pulled out a wrinkled business card that read ‘TAXI ENRIQUE.’
“Here’s my cell phone number. Call me if you need anything. I mean it. Good luck!”
I hopped out of the cab. Oh, was I hungry, and, oh, did I like the look of the place: an unassuming glass and metal façade with a blue and white sign barely visible under the trees. I waved goodbye to Enrique, slipped his card in my purse, walked past the men in suits, and into Parrilla Peña.
The first thing I saw when I opened the door was the grill—a six-foot barbecue laden with slabs of beef, racks of ribs, whole chickens, blackening bell peppers, sausages, and sweetbreads.The smell of smoke and steak was everywhere. My mouth watered. My stomach rumbled. I wanted it all.
Heads turned as I scanned the dining room for an empty seat. Men in dark sweaters were spreading blood sausage on white rolls and slicing into steaks that dwarfed their plates. Wine bottles rested in wall-mounted racks. A waiter in a white chef’s jacket approached me.
“Do you mind sharing a table with these guys?” he said, pointing 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 went silent, smoothing their sweaters over their bellies and looking me up and down while I scooted into a chair next to them. I left the menu on the table and asked them what they recommended. The ribs here were the best in Buenos Aires, they said. Grilled provolone was excellent, too.
The waiter in the chef’s jacket came over. “You’re eating alone?”
“Let’s see.” He crossed his arms, fixing his eyes on something on the ceiling.”You could get half a tenderloin, a single rack of ribs, skirt steak . . .”
“Half a tenderloin,” said the man in the V-neck sweater. “That’s what you want.”
“Half a tenderloin,” I said. “And grilled provolone.”
“That’s too much for one person,” said the waiter.
“Maybe I could take it home, if I can’t finish it?”
“Sure, she can take it home,” said the man in the V-neck sweater.
The waiter nodded and scurried away. I studied Parrilla Peña’s menu. There was every cut of meat and every sort of offal imaginable, from T-bone and sirloin and crosscut ribs to chorizo criollo and chitlins and tripe. There were house-made pastas, plates of local cheese and roasted vegetables, salads, milanesas (breaded veal cutlets), empanadas. No dish cost more than forty pesos (thirteen to fourteen 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 the waiter brought the provolone, steam rising from the grill marks, olive oil shimmering on top. The two men watched me take my first bite. Cheese, barbecue smoke, and oregano commingled. I shut my eyes. I felt like I was satisfying a hunger I had had for a long, long time.
A few minutes later, the waiter brought a steak half the size of my head. I pushed the provolone to the side and sliced off a steaming piece of meat. I hadn’t told him how I wanted it cooked. Apparently I hadn’t had to: The asadero had grilled the beef to a rosy medium-rare. Its juices trickled to the edge of the plate. The only seasoning was a little salt, and that was all the steak needed.
The men paid their check and raised their eyebrows as I worked my way through my 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,” said the man in the V-neck sweater, writing his name in my notebook, “Feel free to call me if you need anything.”
The waiter cleared and reset their places, and a bald man in a slate-colored suit walked into the dining room, glanced at my faux wedding ring, 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 bald man said, “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.
“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.”
He called the waiter over and asked him to explain the Argentine way of cutting steaks, complete with a diagram of a cow. He told me about his favorite dishes (skirt steak, kidneys, sweet- breads) and the daily specials (hamburgers on Thursday, fish on Fri- days). After a while, he ordered tiramisu for us to share, explaining that Parrilla Peña’s version was the best in Buenos Aires. “They use real mascarpone,” he said. “Not Philadelphia!”
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 our tiramisu. I waited for him to taste it before I took a spoonful. “Maravilloso,” I said, and it was—cocoa and coffee and ladyfingers coming together in a smooth, resonant harmony.
The bald man beamed, asked for his check, stood up, buttoned his blazer, and handed me his card. He was a lawyer, he said, and his office was a few blocks away. “Please call me if you need anything at all. It was a genuine pleasure.”
We exchanged the traditional right cheek kiss, and he left, saying goodbye to the owner and the asadero on the way out. I ordered my empanadas to go. When I approached the counter to pay for them, the owner handed the bag to me.
“These are on the house,” he smiled, “I hope we see you again.”
“You will,” I said, rubbing my belly and grinning my way out the door. I pulled out Taxi Enrique’s card, holding on to it like a lucky charm as I strolled through Barrio Norte, over cracks in the sidewalk and rust-colored sycamore leaves, unable to shake the feeling that I was in the middle of a very good dream.
RODRÍGUEZ PEÑA 682, 1020 BUENOS AIRES
Tel. +54 11 4371 5643
Hours: Mon-Sat 12:00-4:00pm; 8:00pm- midnight