Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Lighter Fare

Asociación Japonesa en Argentina, Av. Independencia 732

As the account of my meal might suggest (see “Mi Casa es Tu Casa”), Argentine food is quite heavy. Digestion can be snake-like, requiring prolonged periods of complete inactivity.

A few days after my heart-stopping chivito encounter, I decided I needed to eat again, but wanted a change of pace.

Several people had told me about the restaurant of the Japanese Association, always with the same kind of description that make my eyes roll: “It’s where real Japanese people eat.”

I was wary, but the Asociación is right around the corner, so I decided to check things out. One door, closed, displayed flyers for language classes and Noh theater. The other door opened to a long hallway, at the end of which there was a gymnasium. People were practicing martial arts.

Exotic, but not edible.

I asked a security guard if in fact there was a restaurant, and he signaled to a pair of sliding doors with rice paper panes, which had until then escaped my attention.

I stepped inside and found myself in a very non-Argentine space: sushi bar, hanging red lanterns, and, to my mild surprise, real live Japanese people.

As an aside, I should let you know that many dry cleaners in Argentina have names like “Tintorería Tokio.” Surely there are Japanese immigrants and Nipo-Argentines in other professions, though dry cleaning is the most conspicuous one.

Buenos Aires is famously known as a city that turns its back to the sea. This is nowhere more obvious than on menus, where the seafood rarely strays beyond salmon, which is probably farmed in Chile to begin with.

In light of this fact, I ordered the sushi / sashimi combination platter. It was expensive (48 pesos), but well worth it.

A few days later I went back and had their lunch special. For 20 pesos, I had a big bowl of Udon, salad, a few sushi rolls, and rice.

All in all, a delicious respite from the local meat and pasta cuisine.

Mi Casa es Tu Casa

Chivito uruguayo. “Tu Casa,” Chacabuco 571 (con México), San Telmo

I ate a “Tu Casa” a number of times before I was brave enough to order the house specialty: chivito uruguayo. As I was soon to learn, there was no goat in the chivito, much like there is no egg in an egg cream soda, no grasshopper in a grasshopper pie.

Tu Casa is located less than a block away from my present digs and, with the exception of the chivito, offers standard Argentine fare: Minutas (quick eats), Parrilla (grilled meats), sandwiches, and homemade pasta. The owner is a cordial older man. It is my impression that everyone that works in the restaurant are family members. Thus, the old lady in the kitchen is his wife, the guy at the register is almost certainly his son, and the two teenagers with tattoos on their necks could be his adorable grandkids.

The decor would rate about an 8 in Zagat. I would describe it as retro-functional. For typical Argentine food, it is decent, cheap, and abundant.

On one occasion I had gnocchi with estofado, which I think is pot roast. I am going to need a second doctorate before I can understand the various cuts and ways of preparing meat. Price: $10 pesos ($3.33 US).

The next time I ordered half portions of ravioli with pesto and milanesa de ternura – a breaded, fried veal cutlet. Full portions are presumably reserved for Sonya Thomas, Takeru Kobayashi, Luciano Pavarotti, and friends. I left the “Tu casa” staggering. Price: $12.50.

The other night I came home late and was too lazy to cook. So I stopped Tu Casa. The man whom I presume to be son suggested I try the chivito uruguayo. It had been some time since I’d had a nice piece of goat, so I went for it.

I was a few sips into my beer when the first plate arrived. “This is the cold stuff,” the son explained. Piled high on the oblong platter were beets, shredded carrots, diced tomatoes, marinated palm hearts, green olives, and potato salad. There were gobs of Mayonnaise covering everything.

As I dug into the potato salad, which was quite good, out came the much-anticipated chivito. On a bed of French fries, covered with cheese, marinated bell peppers, a fried egg and a double whammy of ham and bacon, lay concealed a thin steak. A few bites confirmed that it was in fact cow I was eating. Still, it was delicious, so I kept at it.

Defying the quickly growing pressure in my stomach and my arteries, I powered through the steak, leaving only a few fries and some potato salad.

The son looked somewhat disappointed when I told him that I could eat no more, but his face brightened when I told him how much I had enjoyed their famous chivito.
Price: $22.50 ($7.50 US for the chivito plus a 750 ml bottle of beer).

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

An Homage to Kermit Lynch Or, Brandán Buenosayres Tastes Wine

2003 Malbec. Don David, Bodega El Esteco. Cafayate, Provincia de Salta, República de Argentina. Price: $13 ($4.26 USD)

Color: When held aloft, Don David twinkles like a "hard, gem-like flame," a turbulent ruby at its edges and a lusty, nearly belligerent maroon at the bottom of my stemless glass.

Nose: The aroma is sneaky. At first, nearly imperceptibly, there are hints of green Chartreuse and marigolds, traced by the whisper of sawdust from the floor of a Shaker workshop. Then the coup de grâce: just as your teeth are set to break the taut skin of a plum, its flesh presses against the tip of your nose and intoxicating, sugary ripeness commingles with a huff of dusty, hot air.

Though you may not possess as noble a Gallic snout as Brandán Buenosayres, rest assured that vigorous swirling induces this olfactory paroxysm.

Taste: An initial smoothness, like dunking your head into a gurgling, moss-matted brook, precedes an ecstatic surge of flavor that sends waves of sensation crashing into your hippocampal formation: sour cherries from a roadside stand, cayenne pepper, the dense, mealy bite of a fresh Cantabrian anchovy, and the final taste of a Wild Berry Fruitsicle as your teeth impress a mezza luna on the wooden stick. At last, there is a deviant soupçon of late-season huckleberry preserves. Each flavor individually emerges, recedes, and blends with the other flavors, like the lingering melody of an exquisite fugue. Swann might have his sonata, but I have my Malbec.

Monday, January 23, 2006

What a Wonderful World It Would Be

On Saturday I made my way to the Museo Histórico Cornelio Saavedra. The museum occupies Saavedra’s former house and is located in a public park that was once his chacrita – his “little farm” – of 250 acres. This is like calling a spa in Montana a “dude ranch”; the chacrita was a landscaped garden filled with statues and exotic trees.

The property backs onto the Avenida General Paz, which is in fact an expressway that rings the city. It seems like yet another forced attempt to make Buenos Aires imitate Paris. The Boulevard Périphérique isolates Paris from its banlieue; the Avenida General Paz severs la Capital from its outlying suburbs, known collectively as Gran Buenos Aires.

The museum houses a collection of nineteenth century historical artifacts and knickknacks, including ornate, faux-gaucho saddles, weapons, tattered flags, and the enormous, tortoise shell peinetones (see pictures), which must have made elegant porteñas stumble when attempting the newest dances from Europe.

These were pointed out by our guide Jorge, an excitable man in his fifties who exhibited childish delight stepping over velvet cordons to lay his hands on off-limits artifacts. He particularly relished showing us the chair used by the ailing General San Martín while exiled in France. The chair was essentially a nineteenth century laz-e-boy. Jorge showed us at least four times how the seat reclined with the push of a button.

The most memorable portion of the visit, however, took place when we moved into the room dedicated to the Argentine Federation, the turbulent era of the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas (1829-1852). In simple terms, Rosas was the leader of the Federalists, who believed in the rights of individual provinces. Their rivals were known as the Unitarians, who were enamored with European republican ideals and advocated the establishment of a centralist government with Buenos Aires as its capital.

Jorge stood beneath a blood red flag of the Federation that read ¡Muerte a los asquerosos inmundos salvajes unitarios! (Death to the disgusting vile savage Unitarians!) Incidentally, Rosas and his followers typically signed all official correspondence with such slogans.
For the next forty-five minutes, our group listed to Jorge deliver a diatribe that was impressive for both its internal contradictions and its earnestness. Essentially, Rosas was the defender of authentic Argentine culture, while the Unitarians were a bunch of traitors who were too busy brownnosing French and English industrialists and merchants to understand their native land. Substitute “Perón” for “Rosas” and “the oligarchy” for “the Unitarians,” and Jorge might as well have been talkin’ 20th century history blues.

What was most astounding is that I was listening to this impassioned rant in a public museum administered by the government of the city de Buenos Aires. Imagine going to Mount Vernon and listening to a docent explain to you that Jefferson Davis was the greatest American patriot that ever lived because he didn’t buckle to the newfangled industry of the North, which was tearing apart the fabric of true American society.

Come to think of it, things like this happen probably far more than I care to admit.

In any case, Jorge concluded the tour by exhorting “we Argentines” to understand “our” history better. Having bit my tongue throughout the tour, I informed Jorge that I was North American.

You don’t say! he shouted and gave me a big, sweaty hug.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


On my way home the other night, I stopped at a small parrilla on Avenida Independencia. I wanted to catch part of the preseason soccer match between Boca Juniors and River Plate, the capital’s two most storied teams. To my disappointment, the TV was set to what seemed to be a reality show.

Still, I was hungry, so I went ahead and ordered a choripan from the woman behind the counter. She spilt a chorizo sausage in half and set it on the large charcoal grill.

While I waited for my food, I took stock of my surroundings. The narrow room was halved lengthwise by the counter. A man was sitting on a stool against the wall, eating a choripan and drinking a glass of red wine and soda water. Above his head a poster commemorated Diego Maradona’s farewell from Boca Juniors.

I looked back at the television. It was, in fact, a reality show, about a woman who had undergone a mastectomy. At that moment, a surgeon was prodding her bare chest.

While the woman from whom I ordered was busy with the grill, another woman behind the counter sat looking up at the television, while breast feeding her baby.

In a country obsessed with a cartoonish form of female beauty, the sight of a mastectomy-scarred chest and a woman feeding her child in plain view is startling. In a restaurant, it is also not particularly appetizing.

“For here or to go?” the cook asked.

I took the choripan to go.

Buenos Aires is Business Casual

The gaucho, the emblematic figure of the Argentine pampa, wore his hair long and unkempt. The infamous Facundo Quiroga had “a well-formed head, covered with the thickest hair, black and curly," as Domingo F. Sarmiento described him.

As industrialization led to the enclosure of these vast stretches of land, the gaucho disappeared, along with his equally famous haircut.

Though long hair made a sort of comeback with the social movements of the 1960s, decades of military dictatorships and self-serving neoliberal politicians have trimmed away at the unruly spirit of the Argentine people.

In the face of political oppression, though, Argentines have devised various forms of resistance. Men, in particular, have relied on a certain coiffure to retain a vital link to their mythic gaucho forefathers.

In Argentina, the mullet is king.

Yessir: the short-long, the 1090, the business-casual is not restricted to rednecks, hockey players and hipsters as it is in the United States of America. In the Republic of Argentina, the mullet is a haircut that transcends differences of identity. It is so normal, so pervasive, that it is perhaps impossible to rock one ironically.

While a few Argentines I surveyed immediately linked the mullet to bus drivers and soccer players, a few minutes spent in front of an office building in the Microcentro quickly belied these class associations. Suits and short-longs are in no way incompatible.

The mullet, by the way, is known as "la cubana." I aim to find out what is Cuban about this most noble of cuts.