Buenos Aires: art, empanadas, and (less impressive) cocktails

Picking up from the end of my last post, our third day in Buenos Aires did not start particularly well. The effects of excellent cocktails without a proper dinner took their toll, and we spent a large portion of the day trying to get our groove back. This was partially just a matter of luck – it was like we had to pay a bit for how good a time we’d had the night before.

We were planning to go to Uruguay that day, but when I checked the website of Buquebus (the company that ferries people to Uruguay), it looked like there were no longer any tickets available. We decided our best bet was to go to the port regardless, if for no other reason than to buy tickets.

The only word I can use to describe the scene at the port is “chaos”. Imagine an airport departures hall with no lines for check in and a lot of delayed flights. People were EVERYWHERE, in lines that seemed to wind, intersect, and lead nowhere at all. It took us more than 10 minutes just to figure out where we could buy tickets – and even then it was a fairly bizarre experience because we had to go into what is essentially a travel agency and wait to speak to an agent rather than just walking up to a ticket window. Anyway, eventually we were seated across the desk from a nice young woman our age, who informed us that the first day with tickets available was Friday – New Year’s Day. We weren’t wild about the prospect of having to get up earlier to get on a boat after what would surely be a long night out, but our desire to add another stamp to our passports won out, and we bought the tickets.

At this point we were desperate for food – preferably greasy food. We were just five minutes from Puerto Madero, a waterfront area with lots of outdoor dining. I’ll spare you a description of the horrible meal that awaited us – suffice it to say that if you are in a country that is famous for foods like steaks and pasta, you should never just order a sandwich from the cheap daily specials list.

We struggled onwards to the Centro Cultural Jorge Luis Borges, a museum of sorts located on the top two floors of a fancy mall downtown. We weren’t really sure what we’d find there, but we’d read that they might have interesting exhibits. We saw some modern art that we didn’t understand and a very nice photography exhibition by the guy who took that picture of Che Guevarra that you see everywhere.

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What saved the afternoon was our visit to the mall’s food court, where we got ice cream. Because Argentina had a huge wave of Italian immigrants, it has great Italian food, and that includes ice cream. I got a dulce de leche ice cream that was di-vine. Now, I didn’t know this – dulce de leche is an Argentine thing. I wasn’t really aware of the history of that flavor, and calling it a flavor is the first problem – it’s actually a product sold in jars everywhere; it’s like the Nutella of Argentina, except that instead of chocolate and hazelnut it’s more of a salted caramel. A dangerously delicious salted caramel. I didn’t take a picture because I was too busy consuming it with abandon.

Our final stop of the afternoon was MALBA, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. This is the most famous of the many art museums in Buenos Aires; it’s in northern Palermo in a big, modern building that suggests a much larger collection than they actually have (not complaining). There is one main gallery with works spanning about a hundred years; it includes paintings (one of Frida’s self portraits!) and other more modern installations. Like my favorite art museum in Paris (the Orangerie), MALBA provided just the right amount of art to give us a good dose without overwhelming us.

When we got home in the late afternoon, we were still in desperate need of satisfying food. We found it in the form of empanadas from a nearby empanadería: we got one with spiced meat, one with ham and cheese, one with spinach, and one with broccoli and cheese. They were all delicious and just what we needed.

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Following a restorative nap up by the pool, we prepared for another night of cocktail bar exploration and finally made plans for dinner the next evening (New Year’s Eve). I’ll explain more about that in my next post. After going to pay a cash deposit for dinner, we walked east back towards the part of Palermo we’d been in the previous night and happened upon a restaurant that looked like it would give us everything we’d been missing all day.

La Dorrega was clearly a family-run neighborhood haunt; everyone in there seemed to know the owners, and we were definitely a bit of a novelty as the only tourists. We ordered half a bottle of Malbec, a salad, a three-meat mixed grill, and Sorrentinos, which are an Argentine type of ravioli stuffed with ham and cheese. Our waitress attempted to impress upon us the ambitious quantity of the food we’d ordered, but we simply smiled and said “we’re from the United States. We can handle it.” Hilariously, two minutes before the main courses arrived, our waitress informed us that our table would not hold all the food, so they had to bring us a second one! Here’s what we ended up with:

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(Please observe the huge quantity of meat as well as the size of the steak knives. Those blades are about the width of two fingers.)

We ate almost everything and weren’t at all sorry about it. Everything about that restaurant experience was perfect, and we felt like the frustrations of the first half of the day had been cleansed away.

From there we set off for the bar we’d heard most about – Frank’s. Frank’s is a speakeasy in Palermo, and though there’s a sign on the wall for it, it’s quite difficult to get into. When we first arrived, we could see no door to open to let us in – and we were so confused that we decided we should keep looking and took a full walk around the block. Fortunately, when we came back, we saw the door open and immediately pounced upon the couple exiting to ask if this was Frank’s. Step one complete. Step two is harder. A bouncer met us at the door and asked us for the password. Frank’s posts the “password” (I use that term loosely) on their Facebook page each day. That day, the “password” was a quote: “you return in every cocktail that I drink.” We fumbled to remember the right words, but eventually the bouncer let us into a dimly lit entryway with a phone booth on the opposite wall. Step three is to enter the phone booth and figure out which button to press to open the secret false wall that lets you into the actual bar. It’s quite a process!

I give Frank’s full marks for creativity and atmosphere based on all of that. Unfortunately, that’s the end of my praise. This is a bar that, aside from the whole password/phone booth thing, is actually supposed to have really good cocktails. Bolstered by my success at sweet-talking the guys at Rey de Copas, I approached the bar (following a greeting by a very attractive bartender on the other side) and said that I needed recommendations about what to order. Now, to contextualize this interaction: there is a board behind the bar that lists about five drinks, but (here’s a sign that I’m no longer in my 20’s) I didn’t have my contacts in and couldn’t read the very small text particularly well, so there was a practical reason for asking for a recommendation aside from the fact that it’s just  more fun and a good way to make friends with bartenders. This guy was having none of it. One would think I’d asked the most trite question possible. He asked what I liked; I hedged a bit and said I like things that are semi-sweet or bitter, with a particular preference for vodka or whiskey-based drinks. He seemed put out by this and said nothing further; he proceeded to make me a cocktail with a darkly colored Martini liquor in it and… wait for it… beer. BEER! There was something fruity too so that the final effect was something pinkish. This bartender was a total snob, not friendly at all, and didn’t even bother to make me something with either of my two preferred base liquors! Mary more wisely ordered from the menu and ended up with a very pretty drink. But here’s the clincher: our two drinks together were 400 Argentine pesos – which is 30 American dollars. To put this in perspective, most of our meals up to this point (other than the feast preceding this drink) ran about 350 pesos for the two of us. I’m talking about meals with steak and wine costing less than these two drinks. Mary’s drink was delicious but gone in a second because it was small, and mine wasn’t worth finishing. We didn’t stay for another round and left feeling affronted on a number of levels. Don’t go to Frank’s!!!

We went to one more bar before calling it a night. This one was thankfully a lot better. It was called 878 and was much closer to Rey de Copas. There were a number of bartenders behind the very long bar (that was the downside – too big a place, and too busy, so not as intimate), and they were all clearly very good at what they did. Their cocktail list is extensive, and from our vantage points at the bar, everything was very well put together. We learned that they use yerba buena in a lot of drinks; it smells a lot like basil but tastes quite different, as we discovered. We didn’t get to talk too much to the bartenders, but it was at least a way to take away the sting of disappointment from Frank’s! (Even six days later as I write this, I am still upset about Frank’s!)

Thus ended our third day/night in Buenos Aires… next stop, 2016!

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