2000s Archive

Tango Town

Originally Published January 2005
For visitors with foreign cash, Buenos Aires has never looked better

Wedged amid the backstreets of La Boca, the workingclass Italian district of Buenos Aires, El Obrero is the kind of restaurant even streetwise locals make a point of visiting by taxi. Outside, it’s all abandoned factories and decaying dockyards. Inside, it’s another world entirely.

First, the thick smell of slowly roasting meats, unleashed from a monster grill skirting the back wall. Then, the noise: the dense cluster of customers—couples, workers, Porteños (as the city’s natives are called)—conversing with a self-absorption you might expect at a big family gathering. But then this is the local beef shrine of Boca Juniors, Argentina’s mightiest football club.

When the parrillero (barbecue cook) steers me toward the asado de tira (rib strips), I heed his advice instinctively. Not just because he’s been tending steaks here for the past 43 years but also because—unlike far too many of the city’s restaurants—El Obrero doesn’t try any flashy stuff. The pillars here are lined with neon lights, and the walls are plastered with photos of Boca legend Diego Maradona, whose infamously tricksy “Hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup has never quite been forgiven by my countrymen. There’s also a bullettorn national flag, donated by a soldier who fought in the Falklands War. But even as an Englishman, I feel completely at home.

A short, round man with long sideburns weaves between the tables, a battered guitar strung around his neck with frayed red nylon. He sings songs of love and foolishness—not so much for the customers as with them. In Argentina, everybody knows the words. A little after 2 A.M., in a carnivorous haze of satisfaction, we beckon our affable waiter. He calls us a cab and presents the bill. Covering meat, seafood, salad, drinks, and dessert, the damage clocks in at $24. For three people.

It would be nice to think that places like El Obrero explain the current tourism boom in Buenos Aires, which in 2003 saw visitor numbers hit a record 3 million—a 20 percent hike from the year before. But they probably don’t. Most five-star wayfarers who’ve been swarming here to take advantage of the devalued peso—which has transformed what was once the Southern Cone’s most expensive metropolis into a cut-price bonanza—appear to keep strictly to the must-sees prescribed by the tourist brochures: Recoleta Cemetery (a labyrinthine necropolis of narcissism, featuring the tomb of Eva Perón), Teatro Colón (which continues to be compared to the great opera houses of Europe, despite a fading interior that was never more than an also-ran), and any number of big Broadway-style tango shows that have little in common with the culture that was born in the bordello shadows.

It’s too bad, since most of the city’s jewels are to be found far beyond its greatest hits. Unlike London, New York, and Rio, Buenos Aires doesn’t go for the jugular the moment you arrive. Its charm is more of a slow dance, a game of seduction, to be found in the early-morning street markets, midafternoon cafés, and after-hours milongas (tango dances). Unlike the great cities of the north—and for Argentina, everything is north—there’s no architectural anchor to the skyline. There’s no Big Ben, no Empire State, no Christ the Redeemer. The capital’s most famous landmark is the Obelisco, a wholly unimposing white needle rising from the Avenida 9 de Julio, which—as every taxi driver will remind you—is the widest boulevard in the world.

Even the food here aches for definition. Beyond the Argie barbie—or the asado, as you should really refer to the tradition of searing thickly marbled meats over burning embers—how do you pinpoint Porteño cuisine? The capital boasts perhaps the richest repository of Italian home cooking in the Americas—yet it also has enough mediocre pasta joints to give New York a run for its money. Middle Europe rears its head most saliently in the department of pastries, or facturas. Like Mexicans, Argentines harbor an insatiable lust for sugar—as evidenced by their fanatical consumption of the intensely sweet caramelized milk known as dulce de leche. Yet, true to the tastes of the Iberian Peninsula, their picante tolerance is laughably low—chimichurri sauce is about as politely punchy as it gets.

The one thing Buenos Aires has in spades—largely born of the same European immigrant history that informs its gastronomic schizophrenia—is style. (An Argentine, goes the saying, is an Italian who speaks Spanish, acts French, and wishes he were English.) When it comes to shopping, consumerism is elevated to a fine art here. The downtown mall Galerías Pacífico is housed in a lavish 1891 Paris-inspired emporium. A few blocks away, in a restored Belle Epoque theater, is El Ateneo, which surely ranks among the most exquisite bookstores in the Southern Hemisphere. As for dining out, your waiter is more often than not an elderly gent in bow tie and tuxedo jacket, with slicked-back hair and an insouciant smile. At Café Tortoni, a huge, dark-wood-paneled salon with oxblood pillars and stained-glass ceilings, a simple coffee break is transformed into an event. Even at a nofrills pizza chain like Roma, the slice you eat at the counter comes on a porcelain plate with a proper knife and fork.

Wherever you roam, however, be prepared to get ripped off. Fleecing the customer is not just a habit in Buenos Aires—it’s a matter of local pride, the highest expression of smooth city style, and it’s done with such exceptional finesse you can’t help but admire it. I lost count of how many times a taxi driver took me through the woods and back again just to get from point A to point B—while, naturally, talking my head off about Argentina’s long tradition of corruption. In my waitstaff encounters, I was repeatedly handed incorrect change, and on one occasion, it turned out, a counterfeit bill.

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