From sobremesas to so much cheese: The 12 things I learned about Buenos Aires

Mike traveled to Buenos Aires in 2011. These are excerpts from
the journal he kept while there…

It’s 9:45 on a Sunday morning in November, and Buenos Aires is a ghost town. Guess this can be expected when everyone stays out until 5 am, which apparently is the norm on a Saturday night.

I’m sitting a cafe right out of what I imagined Buenos Aires to be… and when the friendly waitress walks over, I’m reminded for the fifth time in five straight encounters: I don’t speak Spanish. (It’s as if 15 minutes of Rosetta Stone for a single month isn’t enough to master a language!) I order a combination plate without understanding the components.

It’s ridiculously comfortable out. A touch more humid than Los Angeles. Blue skies. A slight breeze ruffling through the trees overhead. My cafe con leche arrives… and it’s fantastic. Same goes for the orange juice. And then… a ham and cheese sandwich (tostado). I will come to find out that many orders result in a sandwich — Buenos Aires loves sandwiches. It was just okay.

Here are some other things I learned during my time in Buenos Aires:

1. Portenos (residents of Buenos Aires) have their own version of Spanish:

I guess there are only a couple big differences… a “sh” sound for “LL” and “y” and “vos” instead of “tu.” But just think about how different that makes things sound. And there’s a ton of local slang. Even to my ear, it sounds shockingly different.

While Portenos speak very little English, I don’t know enough Spanish. Bartenders and waiters in fairly tourist-y areas don’t know words like “tip” or “change” My high-water mark in Spanish for day one was getting a bartender to understand I needed to tip him: “Mas pesos por vos.”

2. The restaurant service is not so efficient:

You know that pause after you’ve eaten where you’re waiting for the check? What if pauses like that added an hour to EVERY meal? What if getting the servers attention was always a challenge? What if you weren’t allowed to tip on a credit card, which meant that you had to have a second protocol for tipping in cash? And what if no one ever has change on them, so it’s always an annoying challenge to break a 50 peso bill? And what if the start of the meal involved waiting for menus for ten minutes? I would need Xanax if I lived here.

3. There’s a reason for the slow service:

My local friend Seba was nice enough to take me to a restaurant in San Telmo, and, over delicious empanadas, a Spanish potato omelette, and a Neapolitanio Milenesa, Seba argued against cloying American service and defended the service staff of his home city. Apparently, the waiters of BA ignore you because eating with friends is a “special moment.” There’s even a term for the long pause between the completion of dinner and the arrival of the check… the “sobremesa.” (My friend Bob already accuses me of being soulless in my gluttonous restaurant quest — now I have to feel bad about not even enjoying my thrice-daily sobramesas.)

4. Portenos stay out late:

It must be mentioned again. Had dinner last night at a fantastic parrilla (steakhouse) that had a line out the door at 11 pm. On a Monday. Despite the fact that there was a sister restaurant across the street. Also packed. I inhaled a small bowl of creamed spinach when it landed on our table… and if any concerned Argentines are reading, don’t worry… I quickly balanced out the spinach with a massive steak, lots of Malbec, and some fernet y cokes (an odd choice for a super popular cocktail).

5. Buenos Aires is huge:

Nothing like an epic walk through a few neighborhoods downtown to make you realize the scale of the map. This city is big. Thirteen million people big… and concentrated around a core of grand Parisian boulevards and elegant five-story buildings in decay. People buzz past in every direction, the streets are choked with cars, and the grime is slowly taking over… but wow, it must have been amazing fifty years ago.

Congresso building.

I walked around the imposing Congresso (a blend of the US Capital, the Brandenburg Gate, and St. Peters), wandered down Ave de Mayo (the Champs Elysees of the city), stopped for a coffee and crappy churro at the gorgeous Cafe Tortoni, strolled down the Calle Florida (a pedestrian street), and circled the pretty Plaza San Martin.

Beautiful cafe, crappy churro.

6. Palermo Soho is where it’s at:

Not that I’ve explored a ton of the city, but I’ve now walked or driven through a number of other areas I considered staying in… and nothing’s as comfortable or cool as where I ended up — Palermo Soho. My hotel isn’t amazing inside, but the wifi works, the room’s big, and the location is three minutes away from two plazas of cafes and bars. Hard to beat that. Especially when both plazas are wifi hotspots, courtesy of the city.

7. A heart-breaking change of pace:

I visited Plaza de Mayo for the Thursday afternoon parade of “Las Madres” — the mothers of the thirteen to thirty-thousand college-aged dissidents who “disappeared” protesting Argentina’s dictatorship in the seventies. Since 1976, the mothers have marched through the plaza once a week, holding up pictures of their kids, whose bodies were never found. Apparently the protests have subsided a little, as there’s been a little justice in the form of military trials, but it was really heart-rending to see the mothers walk the square.

8. Argentinian fans are amazing:

I sometimes defend LA fans, despite the fact that they show up late, barely cheer, and then leave early… but I might have to stop. Argentinian fans have a well-earned rep as some of the best music and sports fans on the planet. My friend Rachelle says American bands are frequently bewildered by the crazed response they get here… fans know every word and jump excitedly the entire set. They even fill the pauses between songs with “Ole, ole, Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam” etc. So… it was not a shock to see fans going wild at a club in Palermo last night. We caught a set by a local party band (kind of the BA Ozomatli), and wow, the crowd loved it. We showed up late, watched silently, and left early.

9. Cab rides are an adventure:

My day doesn’t usually begin until I take a long cab ride into the heart of the city. It usually costs about $7, and, after giving directions in my best Spanish accent, I sit back and try not to talk, lest the driver be even more convinced that I’m a tourist, and try to rip me off. And for half an hour, through streets randomly clogged with traffic, the driver and I go on an adventure together. We bond. As Elton John or Lionel Ritchie blare from the stereo, my courageous driver speeds down side streets in all directions. So what if he’s driving the wrong way for a bit… it lets me see more of the city. So what if he almost ran over that old lady… he’s helping me get to San Telmo faster. And so what if he hates me for not having a smaller bill… he’s… nevermind. I have Stockholm Syndrome.

10. San Telmo on a weekday is… meh:

Eh, I think this dirty congested area would impress me more if I cared about antiques, souvenirs, or tourist trap tango… but I don’t. You could point out that I should come back on Sunday, when there’s a big market here… and I would refer you to the previous sentence. I did have a decent lunch at Gran Parrilla del Plata (flank steak and fries — I’m giving up on vegetables). And a crappy coffee at an amazing “bares notables” (the government prohibits certain classic restaurants and bars from upgrading): Bar El Federal. It’s been open in San Telmo since 1864.

11. So. Much. Cheese:

I swear that every kitchen here has a special sous chef who stands by the door, insisting on adding melted cheese to every dish. Queso is downright unavoidable. Including “Matambre a la Pizza,” which might be the purest expression of Porteno Id yet:

Matambre a la Pizza aka “meat pizza!”

Flank steak with pizza topping. Stop whatever you’re doing, because this is a billion dollar idea. “Think about pizza, right? What could make it better? Well… what if you replaced the crust… with meat?! I call it… meat pizza!” The fact that it tasted just okay and left my stomach mildly unsettled should only improve my chances of a huge sale to Pizza Hut or Applebee’s.

12. You have to try a mate:

Drinking mate

I still needed to cross a simple and ubiquitious Argentine experience off my list: having a mate. I liked the taste more than I thought I would. I wasn’t a big fan of being burned by the metal straw (aka “the bombilla”). Really hot liquid being sucked through a metal straw makes the straw hot… surprise! If they could iron out that kink, I’d be a bigger fan… although maybe it’s a nation of tea-sippers with calloused inner lips?

My two best dinners of the trip:

1. Tegui

One of the city’s star chefs, German Martitegui, opened a small place with quickly-changing menus and an almost hidden location (you have to buzz through a barely-marked door). I would have been happy paying just for the service, which was great, but the food was all top-notch. A beef and tuna tartare dish, a sweetbreads/mushroom/apple concoction, and an unbelievable veal tenderloin. Generally, I’ve been slightly underwhelmed with the restaurants here (to be fair, my hopes were really high), but this place would be on my shortlist in LA.

2. Casa Cruz

My last blow-out dinner was at the flagship restaurant of German Martitegui (the chef behind Tegui)… and it somehow exceeded my high expectations. Our favorites were the grilled octopus starter, but even the tomato tart appetizer was mouth-watering… and the truffle risotto/duck confit blew my mind. The pork shoulder was almost as delicious… and we finished with a criminally sweet dulche de leche flan and roasted bananas.

And that wraps up my visit to Buenos Aries, a city that I loved despite a few slight disappointments (restaurants in general, and the fact that doing nothing before 3pm makes me feel like a bum). I look forward to coming back sometime soon!

Mike Horowitz

Mike writes, eats, and travels like the fate of the world depends on it. He’s also the producer of Prison Break, Burn Notice, and The Gifted.


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