Buenos Aires Spotlights Its Cafes
Source: New York Times
By: Camille Cusumano
ON Saturday nights in Buenos Aires, the Miramar cafe crackles with the energy of local families, famished tango dancers and gregarious waiters delivering plates of crisp-skinned sardines, shrimp and fresh oysters. Miramar is in San Cristóbal, a barrio known for its tango dance halls but otherwise off the tourist beat. Local diners come to share generous servings of oxtail soup, rabbit hunter-style or chorizo-laced Spanish frittata. Even with a couple of bottles of malbec and mineral water, the feast seldom tops the equivalent of $15 a person.
Still owned by the Ramos family, its founders, the Miramar began life in 1948 as an almacén, or bulk-goods grocer, and its endurance qualifies it for the city's recognized list of cafes - or bares notables. In 1998, Buenos Aires legislated this official designation for bars, cafes, billiard halls and confectionaries whose antiquity, architecture or historical significance make them worthy of note and of preservation efforts.
The annually expanding list (now more than 50) includes some magnificent and famous cafes, like Las Violetas and Tortoni with their beveled mirrors and polished-wood bars - cathedrals where tourists gather to worship legends like Carlos Gardel, a tango crooner who died in a 1935 plane crash and "every day sings a little better," it is said. But other bares notables are humbler, and it is there, amid the worn interiors like that of the Miramar, that you can find the traditional menus designed to please Argentines, whose melting-pot cuisine has a marked Italian influence. The food is home-cooked good, abundant and, with the favorable dollar-to-peso exchange rate, inexpensive.
Like the Miramar, El Preferido de Palermo, in the Palermo barrio, opened as an almacén in 1952, when its founder, Arturo Fernández, arrived from the province of Asturias on Spain's lush north coast. The grocery, with shelves of canned eel, olives and good wines, remains, sharing tight space with trendy orange-and-green tables where a limited menu is served to Palermo's young and hip.
A photo of Francis Ford Coppola graces the counter, but the barrio's real luminary, Jorge Luis Borges (the street bears his name), lived across the way from 1901 to 1914. A wider menu is served in the connecting main restaurant, warm with red-and-white tablecloths and wrought-iron chandeliers. A must-try is the fabada asturiana (30 pesos for two people, or $7.75 at 3.87 pesos to the dollar), a time-honored recipe known to call for "ear of pig." El Preferido's version (no ear) is a steamy casserole of creamy-textured favas tossed with morcilla (blood sausage), fresh pork, pancetta and chorizo.
Café Nostalgia, also in Palermo, occupies the ground floor of a 1935 building where coffins were once made. Although bona fide Argentine gastronomy is represented in dishes like calabaza-stuffed ravioli (25 pesos) and butter-tender beef with toasty brown fries (about 30 pesos), the menu mostly reads like that of a French bistro: sweet-and-sour pork with pear compote and sweet-potato chips (35 pesos), almond-crusted salmon (40 pesos), truffle with ginger ice cream in a cranberry coulis (15 pesos).
It's much farther from downtown Buenos Aires to the pretty, tranquil barrio of Villa Devoto - about 30 minutes by taxi. But make the trip anyway, for the broad-canopied rosewood trees shading the avenues and for the gargantuan picada (56 pesos per person) at Café de García, opened in 1937. A food saga told in about 30 items, the picada is a kind of gastronomical parade of small dishes, paid for in one overall price. Take in the scene as you wait for your dinner. A Boca Juniors T-shirt signed by Diego Maradona joins accordions, cue sticks, wineskins, firearms and numerous vintage items on shelves and yellowed walls. This is a Quilmes-beer-on-tap kind of cafe. Mineral water comes in old-fashioned soda siphon bottles. "You choose the drink, I take care of the rest," Rubén García instructs first-time customers as he skirts billiard tables.
One Saturday night last April, the picada began with a basket of tantalizingly crisp potatoes. Small plates and crocks arrived in pairs and included vitel tonné, a cold veal dish defined by a cream sauce spiked with anchovy, capers and tuna. The array was dizzying - herbed meatballs, empanadas and other savory pastries, stewed squid, roasted peppers, olives, garlicky beans, fish, dessert and a chalice of sparkling wine. Espresso drinks were set before a party of five men whose interest alternated between the soccer game on an overhead TV and free plates of pan dulce (fruit cake) and nougat candies. They chatted and nibbled in slo mo.
Like Café de García, Café Margot, in a 1903 building, is a reference point to its barrio - in this case Boedo, an artist refuge that was home to the tango lyricist Homero Manzi. Local sculptors' works rise from the busy sidewalks, and the cafe exhibits artwork in its rustic brick interior. Hams and salamis dangle over the bar, but the specialty here is turkey, which reportedly brought visits by Juan Perón. It's offered in more than 30 ways (for about 13 to 19 pesos), including in escabeche, a confit of dark meat in a tangy vinaigrette.
This is also a good spot for matambre - the name, an amalgam of matar and hambre, means "kill hunger" - and the dish, made with flank steak, was favored by gauchos who roamed the pampas with it strung to their saddles. Most Argentine households have a recipe for matambre that is filled, jelly-roll fashion, with carrots, herbs, spices, garlic and hard-cooked eggs.
San Telmo, the oldest part of Buenos Aires, boasts seven bares notables, including a bohemian haunt called Británico, a prime scene in Tomás Eloy Martínez's novel "The Tango Singer." Most cater to young customers looking for hamburgers and fries. But the most rundown and least self-aware, La Coruña, which clings to a corner of the San Telmo market, is where you'll find the uncompromising grub that feeds local laborers: lentil stew, sardines, hake fillet, liver and onions, vegetable omelet, kidneys à la Provençale - all between 9 and 13 pesos.
Carmen Moreira, daughter of the family that has owned the cafe since 1961, sets the food on milk-glass plates before customers sharing the long tables. It's straightforward unadorned cuisine but an experience to savor, like the magical realism of a Borges story, from many angles.
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