Of Food & Music: Life in Buenos Aires
You might expect this post to be about some of Buenos Aires’ fancy restaurants and perhaps a performance at the world renown Teatro Colón. It is not. It’s about cooking cephalopods in a tiny New Yorker’s Recoleta apartment and a chance meeting with some musicians on bicycles. Yes, I said cephalopods.
First a little about the city of Buenos Aires. Chances are you know someone who’s been here and raved about it. We certainly do. I had high expectations for this city. Expectations are a funny thing on the road as there are so many because so much is new – every new country, city, campsite, beach, hike, activity, attraction. We have these pre-conceived ideas of what a new place will be like and images in our head from photographs or descriptions from other travellers and blog posts. Expectations can exceed or they can disappoint. Every day.
At the start of this trip we knew we would rent an apartment and spend time in Buenos Aires. We thought it would be at the end of the trip, before we shipped home, but since we are still waiting out the weather we decided to time our visit to BA with the migrating whales off the Atlantic coast in October.
We heard this city is called the Paris of South America, and the architecture is very European. We read about the tango culture, the cosmopolitan people, the old world cafes, and the late night hours. All of those things are true. The energy here is different, too. It’s difficult to articulate, but it is unlike any other capital city we’ve spent time in throughout Latin America. It’s less frenetic, less chaotic. There is an easygoing vibe walking the streets and while busy, it’s not overwhelming. There are wide boulevards, some 6 or 7 lanes across, absorbing much of the city’s traffic. I was dreading the traffic driving in on our first day, but it was quite civilized. We took the ferry over from Uruguay (LoJo’s 6th boat ride of the trip!), sailing through our easiest border crossing to date. We found our AirBnB apartment (along with parking that would fit us close by), all without too much fuss.
We settled into our apartment pretty quick after spending only one night in the rig on the way here from Uruguay. That night was pretty memorable however. We camped along the coast in a rain and hail storm that not only shook us like a giant saltshaker but caused every window in the camper to leak. The floor, as well as our mattress and sheets, were soaked through. So much of our first week in BA was spent cleaning and drying out the camper, washing all the sheets and towels, and sealing up the windows as best we could. The truck went in for a service at Toyota, we went to the dentist, and got hair cuts. Normal stuff. I also spent considerable time at the embassy getting a new passport. I only had 4 pages left and knowing the rest of our time in South America will be spent crossing back and forth from Argentina to Chile, I needed enough pages not to worry about running out. It took me three tries, but I now have 52 pages to get me through the rest of the trip.
It took lots of time at the embassy but I got a 52 pager out of them.
The apartment itself was fine, but what was great was the location. The Palermo Soho neighborhood feels a little like NYC’s SoHo neighborhood with good restaurants, boutiques and grocery stores. we found a gym we could work out in and we could walk everywhere. On both corners were two yummy restaurants with great take out (take out!!), good pizza was a couple blocks away as well as a cute wine store that ended up knowing us by name. We found restaurants near by that became favorites, and had nice enough weather a couple of times to sit outside. It was good livin’.
Our apartment was the top floor of this brown building. Take out on each corner. Take out!!!
View from our balcony
Shops, bars, wine bars, restaurants, and grocery stores were all in walking distance. Palermo Soho has a nice neighborhood feel to it.
Plaza Armenia and more sidewalk cafes
Even though we were surrounded by boutiques I didn't feel the urge to shop. The short boxy flowy styles just weren't for me. And the shoe styles, well...not those either.
A favorite restaurant was Las Pizarras (the Blackboards). Every day the chef wrote the meals on blackboards based on what he felt like cooking that day. You came in, sat down, and just read what you wanted from the walls. Delicious food.
This is Provoleta. It is a one inch thick provolone cheese disc, with a hint of oregano and crushed red pepper, grilled on a bbq and seen on every menu as a favorite Argentinian appetizer. It is not served with bread, just cut it up and eat the hot gooey cheese. Amazing.
Provoleta discs at the ready at our other favorite restaurant, La Horniga.
We also found a Cajun placed called NoLa. Craft beer and fried chicken sandwiches. oh boy!
I also signed us up for a couple cooking classes. Most Overlanders will tell you, camper cooking gets a little boring. Ingredients are limited depending on where you are, and I was in a bad spaghetti-tuna fish-quesadilla rut. So to “spice” things up a bit, I signed up for two cooking classes with a chef I found online. Lonely Planet also recommended him for his “closed-door” restaurant. Puertas Cerradas (closed door) restaurants are fairly common in BA, where the chef cooks in his or her own home. This particular chef hosts dinners for up to 10 people every week. So, we signed up for an Italian class and an Indian class. Now, I imagined making home made pasta with fresh Mediterranean spices and sumptuous sauces, all in the large light filled kitchen of a stylish apartment/restaurant in Recoleta, the city’s “most exclusive and fashionable neighborhood”. Those were my "expectations". Well, it was not quite that. We arrived at a nondescript high-rise building and were buzzed in to a first floor apartment. It was small, a little dark, with low ceilings and a tiny dining room. The kitchen was also very small, with every inch of space occupied with the necessary tools one needs put on a dinner party for 10 a couple times every week. Spotless, it wasn’t. The gas in the building had been turned off because not everyone in the building had paid for the improvements to the gas lines, so we would be cooking on hot plates. Lovely.
Dan, the chef, was an amiable guy and we sat around the dining table chatting for a little while before we moved over to the kitchen to begin our class. It was then that he presented us with our menu for the day. In plastic bags. One contained a whole corvina fish we would have to behead, debone and filet. Another large plastic bag contained a dozen or more baby octopuses (octopi?), and the third bag was full of not-so-baby large, slimy squid. It was a large amount of cephalopods, which in case you’re wondering, are the largest of all mollusks. Now I love most seafood, but cephalopods are the one kind of food from the sea I really don’t like. But there we were. John and Dan took care carving up the fish and then we set about tackling those squid. Beaks and spines had to be removed. We chopped off their heads just before the eyes, but careful to avoid the ink. Just...lovely. Then we tackled the baby octopuses, boiling them until they were slightly less rubbery and no more appealing than when we started on them.
The fish fillets were a little beat up but John got the job done.
Removing the spine, beak (a beak??) and cutting off the heads. Ugh.
After a few key steps were missed, John made sure to read the recipe taped on the cabinet door. Then we sat down to what could only be described as my least favorite Italian meal ever.
We went back the next week for our Indian class, which was fine. Nothing spectacular but I was thankful we had requested a vegetarian option. That week, I went back to my spaghetti-tuna fish-quesadilla routine and John went for take-out pizza.
On our way home from our last cooking class, we wandered over to the Recoleta cemetery, one of Buenos Aires' top attractions. The cemetery is huge - a mini-village of tombs, some lavish and others crumbling, which serve as the resting places of Argentina’s most important families, namely Eva Peron and writer Jose Hernandez. Eva (Evita) Peron is buried under the Duarte name. Her final resting place is an interesting story. After she died of cancer at the age of 33, Evita's body and its whereabouts were a mystery for 16 years.
John wasn't too enthusiastic about roaming around a cemetery looking for Evita's tomb.
We found it!
This is what my final resting place shall look like...
And this shall be John's.
On Sunday we explored the market in the San Telmo neighborhood, enjoying the street music and funky architecture. San Telmo is full of antique stores, items left behind by its wealthy residents when they fled a cholera epidemic that claimed over 10,000 lives. During the middle of the 20th century San Telmo starting attracting artists, taking on a bohemian vibe and establishing the area as a hotspot for tango. We roamed the cobblestone streets, poking in and out of the shops, and had a fabulous (!) Italian dinner on the main square.
This BBQ was in a parking lot, complete with a band. We sat down for a glass of wine and enjoyed the music.
Argentinians LOVE their mate tea. It is not uncommon to see people walking the streets with mate in one hand and a thermos of hot water in the other hand to refill the drink as it gets low. There are hot water dispensers in every gas station we stop in. It is supposedly loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals which add to its energy boosting power. It is traditionally drank from a calabasa gourd like these, but the vessel can be made out of just about anything — with a silver metal straw called a bombilla. They take their mate very seriously here. We tried it. It smells like hamster to me and kind of tastes that way too. I'm sticking to coffee.
They also take their ice cream (helado) very seriously. They sell if by the kilo and while not much is open in the afternoon in this country, you can bet a heladería is open. We were told Nonna Bianca was the best in San Telmo and it was very, very good.
I signed us up for a bike tour around the city at the end of our second week. Biking is my favorite way to explore a new city. You see much more than walking, and it provides more flexibility than a bus. We went with a guide this time so we could go without the hassle of navigating ourselves on the busy streets, and learn a little along the way on cruisers that were way more comfortable than our mountain bikes. The day of our tour we had a big group that included a few couples and 3 guys from London. We all introduced ourselves and said how long we would be in BA. The couples, who were on vacation, each said a week or two weeks. We said we didn’t know, maybe a month. The three English guys, Paddy, Mike and Frank, said 3 days.
Our fantastic guide, Marcello.
Famous bridge designed to look like a tango dancer with her leg kicked out. See it?
Plaza de Mayo and the famous Casa Rosada (pink house) which houses the offices of the current Argentine president. President Perón and Evita famously delivered their speeches from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, to thousands of supporters known as descamisados (shirtless ones), gathered in the square. Throughout history the square has been a symbol of disaster, rebellion and hope to the Argentinian people.
Out on the ride, John asked Paddy why they were only in BA for three days, thinking they must be here for work. Paddy mentioned they were musicians and were playing Luna Park on Sunday. John told Paddy he was looking around for music and noticed that Tom Jones was playing Luna Park on Sunday, so he asked if Paddy was opening for him. No, Paddy said. They were in Tom’s band. How cool is that?? Paddy plays the piano and accordion, Frank plays sax and Mike plays trombone. Paddy and Frank have been touring with Sir Tom for about 6 years and Mike was filling in for a band member whose wife was having a baby. Super nice guys. John told Paddy we had looked into getting tickets but they were sold out. And expensive! So Paddy whipped out his phone and said he would see about getting us two tickets for the show. The next morning, the morning of the show, we got an email from Paddy that 2 tickets would be waiting for us. How cool is THAT? We got cleaned up in our one and only city outfit, and headed out on the town. Once inside the venue, the usher took us to our seats and we sat down in the front row. And I mean, the very. front. row. Right in front of Tom Jones, whom I have listened to my entire childhood and know almost every song. He just released a new album last year at 76 years old. He sounded amazing. We were so close that when Paddy, Frank and Mike came out they gave a surprised wave - I think they were as shocked as we were at how close we were to Tom.
Frank on sax, Mike on trombone, and Paddy on accordion.
At the end of the show, Paddy snapped a photo of us from the stage which was very cool to have that vantage.
For all you Tom Jones fans out there (and I know you're out there!), here is a little video of the guys and Sir Tom in action.
We had a great time and enjoyed every minute of the show. It was such a fun, random experience. It was very cool. And It was a night that totally exceeded our expectations.