Buenos Aires: A Foodie’s Paradise, but Hold the Crisis!
Buenos Aires, Argentina
On a first-time jaunt to Argentina to visit friends in Buenos Aires in October 2001, I had visions of this city consisting of tango music and gauchos in from the Pampas. NOT!
Buenos Aires in its heyday could rightly rival Paris for style, architecture, food and drink. The splendors of a bygone era are still evident in its architecture, wide boulevards, and its love of food at all hours. However, the crisis, which broke in December, was already evident a few months earlier even as I landed at Ezeiza airport from Panama City. It was a sense of foreboding in the air and anxiety on the faces of the average Argentine in the street. This was a city “on the edge”. Though my friends lived in a suburb, I stayed right in the city in the Congresso district, near the Parliament and the Corrientes theatre and entertainment district. A day after arriving, a large noisy demonstration by seniors protesting their reduced pensions and standard of living blocked the streets outside my hotel window.
What was to be my birthday celebration was dampened by the start of the war in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it started at about 11 p.m. with a parilla (assorted grilled meats), lots of red wine, and a dessert cake of dulce de lecce (sweetened caramel-milk concoction native to Argentina). Arriving back at my hotel at about 4 a.m., I was surprised to see others still on the street after the cafes and tango-bars closed – not unusual for this city. Despite the pervasive apprehension in the air due to the already swirling economic crisis, I soldiered on.
Eating “Buenos Aires style” entailed having at least three sweetened pastries with an espresso for breakfast at my small hotel, a stop at 11 a.m. for the mid-morning snack of migas (thin sandwiches with cut-off crusts) and another few espresso coffees. This ‘break’ is called the once. Lunch was at about 2 p.m. and I found two wonderful restaurants on calle Uruguay: Pippo’s (very old-fashioned Italian) and Chiquilin (upscale bistro) with a fabulous buffet manned by waiters in semi-formal wear – very “Parisien”. Then, at 4-5 p.m. there was the requisite merienda (teatime or snack-time): more sweets or ice cream (it was springtime and getting warm “down under”) and of course more coffee. I became quite addicted to Freddo’s gelatti (better than in Italy) and Havanna brand of alfajores – a biscuit with a layer of jam covered in sinful chocolate and native to the coastal resort of Mar del Plata.
It seemed every other business was a food place tempting one’s palate with a “try me” attitude. Though the city has a reputation for high prices in Latin America, if one chose carefully and ate at neighbourhood places, one could have a tasty full meal very reasonably priced, and the peso was then still pegged to the US dollar.
Supper did not usually start until at least 9:30 in most restaurants while coffee bars and bistros did not begin their live music until at least midnight or later. So, it was a choice between a long siesta and then a large meal. Or, at times on “food overload,” a light meal, then siesta, then going out. The main neighbourhoods for foodies are Corrientes, San Telmo (very Greenwich Village-like), the trendy Puerto Madero on the riverfront, and the upscale areas of Recolletta and Belgrano. The contrast between the glitzy faï¿½ade and the reality of the average Argentine’s declining standard of living was omnipresent in this ninth-largest metropolitan area in the world.
After a few days of excess, I had to tone down and eat normally and forget the huge beef slabs at midnight. So, believe it or not, I found a wonderful vegetarian restaurant right near my hotel at Sarmiento and Callao streets where one could eat healthy and enjoy tasty food. I don’t know how they stayed in business, though.
In other cities I visited such as the resort town of Bariloche in Northern Patagonia and Mendoza in Northwestern Argentina, the food was still great but the compulsion to eat non-stop was toned down in the calmer airs away from the frenzy of Buenos Aires. As well, people did not seem to be chain-smoking and gulping espressos constantly – the ‘wired’ feeling definitely abated away from the capital.
Yes, I did visit a tango bar and I did see a gaucho in town but the national pastime seemed to be food, glorious food. When I saw the shantytowns and the long lines for a single advertised non-skilled job, the events of December and January in Argentina was no surprise.