Smorgasbord of History – Buenos Aires, Argentina

Smorgasbord of History

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Franco has facial hair, which seems synonymous with Argentinean men – dense along the chin, patchy and uneven on the cheeks. He is lanky, in his mid-20’s and the sleeves on his green long-shirt are rolled to his elbows, implying he’s ready to get down to some sort of business.

The mutual friend who introduced us at this Buenos Aires restaurant warned that Franco might be hesitant to converse with me. Franco is proud of Argentina’s dominant language, Spanish, and apprehensive about his mastery of the English language.

But once the stable gates opened, the horse bolted.

His tone of speech is drenched in pride as Argentina History 101 spews from his mouth even before we have the chance to survey the menu. It doesn’t take him long to warm to his Spanish-illiterate guest and, as a mark of respect, orders for everyone at the table.

He turns to me and says. “Do you know sweetbread and black pudding?” Not personally, but I’m sure we are about to get acquainted.

“How about ribs?” With sauce by any chance?

“We will just order a few things and you can try it if you like.” On my first night in Argentina, I prefer something that isn’t going to send my stomach into cartwheels.

Outside the restaurant, on the elegant cobblestone streets of San Telmo, the city’s old town, there is a hint that fine dining is an offer beyond the footpaths. The catch with this restaurant is that it aims to be anything but what you expect. The first question that comes to mind when entering Desnivel is – how long will it take for the food poisoning to kick in?

Remains of multiple animals are scattered on a workbench to the left of the entry, in view of passers-by and next to where the queue forms. The chef wipes his palms, bloodied by raw meat, on his white apron before shaking hands with someone he recognises. With the same hands, he’s back to grabbing a handful of meat and tossing it on the adjacent grill. Occasionally he’ll use utensils to handle the meat cooking over coals on a grill about four metres long, but most of the time, it’s just the hands (OSH would have a field day). To quell my daunted facial expressions, I’m offered soothing advice.

“In Argentina we have a saying – Fire kills everything.” Yeah, I’m thinking, including me.

The restaurant is known as Asado, barbecue, which means almost anything that can be, is

A local malbec, 750 millimeter bottles of beer and 1.5 leters coke are to be drunk from non-matching cups that would have been more at home at a Coromandel Camping Ground. Meanwhile, waiters who aim to upset, not please customers, bring food to our table.

The first offering is grilled provolone accompanied by Franco’s rundown Argentine icons – Evita, Maradona, Carlos Gardel and the gaucho (cowboy). The chorizo and black pudding are paired with parochial debate on the country’s best club football team, River Plate versus Boca. Dialogue is muted to devour the beef ribs, the texture of which is only slightly more coarse than candy floss.

When the final dish, sweetbread (chewy and hard to swallow, much like the topic) is served, the conversation moves to the Dirty War. As many as 30,000 people “disappeared” at the hands of the military government during the 1970s and 1980s, Franco tells me. Among the disappeared were parents of his friends. But Franco was one of the lucky ones. His father fled to Mexico, where Franco was born, before moving back to Buenos Aires after the military government was ousted.

History has never been so hard to stomach.

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