Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tango Lesson in the Condesa

Mendoza, Argentina, December 1989

There is a crippling devaluation of the currency and my friends and I take bets on who will get more for their dollar the next time money needs to be exchanged.  There seems to be no bottom.  Every day it gets worse and worse.  Things are amazingly, mind-numbingly cheap, which is great for us, because dollar-wise we are amazingly, mind-numbingly poor.  I have just moved to Mexico to take a job that paid very little and my friends had quit their jobs in San Francisco and were traveling through South America for six months by bus.  We decided to spend Christmas together, so I flew to Santiago where I met them, and we took a bus across the Andes to spend New Year’s in Mendoza.

Tango music provides a suitable backdrop to the gloomy economic situation, which is reflected in the long, tired and scared faces of the locals we see  walking the streets of Mendoza.  We hear it in the bars, restaurants and even supermarkets, where we snap up bottles of locally produced Chandon sparkling wine for less than a dollar in preparation for New Year’s Eve.  The hotel has recommended a restaurant for our celebration---for about $US15 each.  We figure that for price, there is no way alcohol is included, so we catch as much of a buzz as possible on the Chandon before going.  Unfortunately, alcohol IS included, but we are the only ones partying, as the locals who were there had next to nothing to celebrate...and celebrate with.  January 1, 1990 is a sad day for us as well, given the enormity of our hangovers, which we kill at a sidewalk restaurant in the sweltering heat, eating empanadas, local blue cheese and juicy “bife de chorizo”, drinking bottles of the mind-blowing Malbec, and finishing it all with the best gelato this side of Vivoli.  Total cost for 3: $18.

Buenos Aires, Spring, 1994

After 3 days in Buenos Aires, I decide I never want to leave.  I am sitting at a cafe in Recoleta with one of my best friend’s from Mexico, who coincidentally was in B.A. for the same reason I  My fortune has changed a bit and so has that of Argentina.  I have moved up the food chain of my profession and Argentina has recovered.  It is, quite frankly, “f’ing expensive.”  But that doesn’t really phase me because someone else is paying for it this time.

It is a sunny Saturday afternoon, and we have wondered around Recoleta, visiting the tomb of Eva Peron and watching the amazingly beautiful and chic men and women as they go about their weekend activities.  Everyone seems much happier this time and B.A. has had the same effect on my as my first visit to Paris.  Beautiful, unique, quintessentially European, and the food, my god, the food.  Seated at the cafe, we drink a few local Quilmes beers and then decide to have a “conac” .  The waiter brings a bottle and two glasses on a silver tray and carefully warms each glass with hot water before pouring us large amounts of local Ramefort XO, which we drink with a chaser of sparkling water.  It is at that moment I know that I have found a new home.  I will leave tomorrow only to go back to Mexico and pack my bags.

As this is a business trip, my local colleagues have already taken me to the expected dining spots, including Cabana Las Lilas, and introduced me to their favorite wine, Chateau Montchenot.  They have directed me to a milango to see “real” tango, and I sat there, the only tourist in the place, drinking wine that was outrageously overpriced especially for me, while a beautiful couple moved around the floor to the sounds of Carlos Gardel and my new favorite tango artist (I ask the waiter for her name), Libertad Lamarque.  It is late when I arrive back at the hotel, but I can’t sleep, nor can I get the sounds of tango out of my head, so I watch the 24-hour tango channel on TV until I finally drift off.

My friend and I sleep away the rest of Saturday afternoon until it is time to go to dinner at a friend’s house.  Adrian is my former Spanish teacher from San Francisco, a native Argentine and now living back in B.A. She left San Francisco before I did, and it has been a couple of years since we have seen each other.  My Spanish lessons with Adrian consisted of smoking a large joint and then practicing verb tenses in a haze of excellent California weed.  By the time I got to Mexico, I had forgotten everything, but I am not sure I remembered anything to begin with.

Adrian lives in her family house in a notably upscale suburb Martinez, and has invited a few friends over for dinner.  It is the beginning of the Argentine winter, there is a fire in the fireplace, the wood paneled dining room is big, but cozy, and we are all a bit buzzed on the wine.  Her friends are interesting, engaging, extremely well travelled Argentines, who are more than pleased to meet me and my friend.  Adrian brings out a leg of mutton and carves it at the table.  It is one of the most succulent pieces of meat I have ever had and to this day, have never again had anything quite like it.  It was also a welcome break from all the beef I had been eating.

After her friends leave and it is just the three of us, Adrian brings out one of her famous joints.  A true San Francisco fag hag, she suggests going to the Bunker Club, a gay club downtown with what she says is great music.  I am a bit concerned...our taste in music is not in sync...but we pile into her vintage red Mustang with the top down, and cruise into downtown B.A. in the chilly evening air.  The Bunker Club rocks.  My friend and I stumble  out when it is getting light outside, after Adrian says not to worry about her, she is meeting some friends later on.  

A few hours later, I am drinking Argentine champagne, listening to the tango channel on my flight home.  As we fly over the pampas toward Lima, I drift off, dreaming about returning to my newfound home.  By the time we finally land in Mexico, I have forgotten all about it.  The next day I return to work and do my expense report.

Buenos Aires, July 2007

It is great to be back in B.A. again.  I have had the pleasure of returning many times since 1994.  Argentina is recovering from yet another crisis and it is more affordable than it has been on my past several visits.  I am with a colleague, in town to judge a pan-Latin advertising contest, and I am excited to try many of the new restaurants that have been getting rave reviews.  In past visits, I have tried to stay away from the splashy Puerto Madero restaurants and other places where tourists are told to go, and have concentrated on the parillas that don’t draw much of a tourist crowd.  For a while, I consider La Brigada in San Telmo to be the pinnacle of parillas, however, as it gets listed in more and more guidebooks, I find myself gravitating toward more and more “local” places, settling on Parilla 1880, also in San Telmo, as the finest place to get great local beef, especially “bife de chorizo”, my favorite cut.  It is a neighborhood gem, informal, welcoming and without pretension of any sort.

On this visit, I start at Parilla 1880 with my colleague and it is as fabulous as always.  We move on to Sucre the following night and to Nectarine for our last night in town.  We agree that while Sucre is splashy, trendy and the food is as beautiful as the people, it offers nothing that we can’t find in now alarmingly trendy Mexico City, except of course for the mind-blowing wine list, where it seems you can’t go wrong with anything from Achaval or Catena Zapata.  Nectarine is small, personal and the 7-course tasting menu interesting, if not exciting.  I wish dessert wines were so delicious and cheap in Mexico.  We also agree that we would have been as happy or happier eating at Parilla 1880 every night, with a bottle of cheap Dona Paula and perhaps going beyond the “bife” to try some other options, like the rib eye or short ribs.  I conclude that when I am in B.A., I want to eat meat and only meat.  I’m not there often enough to get enough of it.  I leave town with 6 bottles of truly amazing Malbec, and as always, hoping to come back soon.

Several weeks afterwards, my house in the Condesa is robbed, and they take the Malbec.  They leave a large knife on my bed.  I have been considering leaving Mexico for good and this was one more reason to make the move.  I do some serious soul searching, take a six month leave of absence, go to Thailand and then move into an apartment with 24-hour security when I come back. 

Mexico City, March 2009

There is a crippling devaluation of the currency and my friends and I take bets on how bad the dollar exchange rate will be in 3 months, 6 months and a year.  There is no talk of recovery.  There is no bottom.  Every day it gets worse.  There is a drug war on the border with the U.S. and there is no way out.  People are dying daily and I feel guilty for living in an isolated bubble where I walk the streets and buy baguettes and wine and eat well every day.  And my biggest worry is about how much my money is worth on the world market?  I feel shallow, inhuman and disconnected from reality.  So when a friend suggests an evening of tango lessons, it seems worthwhile to spend a night taking my mind off of it, even though I hate dancing.  No, I actually loathe dancing with the white hot intensity of 10,000 suns.  But I do it.  I stop in Superama and buy the best bottle of Argentine wine I can find, a Luigi Bosca Malbec.  I meet my friends and we go to the instructor’s house, where his upstairs patio is converted into a simple but functional outdoor ballroom.  Looking out over Calle Zamora, we could be in San Telmo or Palermo Viejo...or Mendoza.  The music starts and we walk...we learn that tango is nothing more than walking and music.  The music seems excessively sad and I am thinking back to that New Year’s eve, when I am feeling so rich and the people around me are feeling so poor and without hope.  Only this time, the shoe is on the other foot.  Mine.  I step on my partner’s toes constantly.  A couple from New York who is dancing with us comments on how cheap everything is.  “Yeah,” I say, “I know what you mean.”  Another tango great, Carlos Acuna, his voice is strong and clear on the CD, sings as we walk, backwards and forwards, in the warm night air.  What you bring to a tango lesson, apart from wine, is a lot of your past.



While the Luigi Bosca Malbec was good, my tango partner brought a bottle of Durugutti Bonarda that was the hit of the evening.  Bonarda is a grape of Italian origin that is one of the main varieties grown in Argentina after Malbec.  Major wineries like Altos Las Hormigas and Familia Zuccardi are now producing and exporting enjoyable and reasonably priced bonardas, and it could quite possibly become the new malbec.  The Durugutti we drink is deep, intense and young with a distinct blackberry aroma and an undertone of pomegranate.   

Unfortunately, Argentine beef is not imported into Mexico.  The best meat available here is from the U.S. and the north of Mexico.  I now try not to eat corn fed beef, but when I do, there is no end to the quantity and quality of Argentine restaurants in Mexico City to choose from.  As in B.A., I avoid the big ticket tourist places like Rincon Argentina, although you can eat wonderfully there.  My personal favorite, where you can sit outside, order really decent empanadas with delicious chimichurri,  and perfectly griilled bife de chorizo or ojo de bife (and where it really does feel like B.A,, especially after a bottle of one of the reasonably priced Malbecs) is Chez Gardel, on the corner of Tamaulipas and Alfonso Reyes, in the Condesa.  A favorite of Argentine expats is Quilmes, also on Alfonso Reyes, a few blocks down toward Nuevo Leon.

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