Thursday, February 28, 2008

La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar

It was not the best meal of my life.

There was a lot to like: The food was good. The service was friendly and gracious. The room was sleek and clean. The wines — five of them — were delicious and well paired. I roped Robert into going and we had a great time.

But the place really screwed with my head. I still don't know exactly what to make of it.

We paid just under US$60 each for the meal (including the wine and the tip) and my fear was that I would leave feeling I had overpaid. But no; that's not it. And I didn't leave disappointed either.

I just left a little confused.

Robert (whom I thank for most of the photos in this post) was definitely onto something when he said the dishes were a little muted — no flavors really popped.

It's sort of the Argentine interpretation of the foams-and-small-plates school of cooking, complete with bife de chorizo and papas — though, of course, the potatoes were partly a foam.

I wouldn't not recommend this restaurant, I just don't know who I would recommend it to.

If you're coming from outside Argentina, then, sure, US$60 probably sounds like a great deal and I think you'll probably enjoy your meal, though I don't know if you'll be blown away.

I wouldn't recommend it to my Argentine friends because, frankly, I'd be embarrassed to tell them I spent US$60 on one meal. If they could get past that, I think they'd actually be more likely than people from abroad to enjoy it, but that just brings me to another point:

None of the diners in the restaurant was a native speaker of Spanish. Like so many other aspects of the meal, I don't know quite what to make of that either.

* * *

This is not a complete rendering of our meal, nor am I going to be able to accurately describe all the plates. We practically begged our waiter for a written list of what we were eating. He said he'd write it out if we'd like, but in the end he didn't.

Working left-to-right, top-to-bottom, among the dishes were seaweed and fish-skin candy (resting in a bowl of salt); remarkably crispy deep-fried dill and basil; a beautifully buttery potato foam with a potato, egg and truffle square resting in a pool of butter; trilla (fish) sitting atop a grilled plum; duck confit cannoli with a peapod; bife de chorizo with roasted tomatoes and chimichurri sauce; a tea jelly coated with citric acid, and a dessert plate that included a pistachio ice cream, a square of warm chocolate cake, a chocolate cream and two other things that I'm quite sure I was able to identify at the time.

There were other elements, too — a shooter of ceviche; a pork cheek swimming in a deep, smoky broth; a meaty piece of pollack served alongside puffed rice in a paella reduction; a two-temperature pea soup; candied almonds; bonbons, and a lollipop that tasted like toothpaste.

No pictures of the wine, but we enjoyed two glasses of a Malbec rosé, a Viognier, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend, a Tannat and a glass of Malbec port to wrap it all up.

I'm looking over this list and wondering (a) why is it we didn't need a crane to get us out of the restaurant? and (b) why in the world am I so conflicted after all this great food and wine?

* * *

We got to the restaurant at 9pm. It was 1am when we walked out. We covered a lot of ground — foodwise, obviously, but also conversationwise. Mostly it was me expounding on my philosophy of blogging . . . until Robert threatened to get up and leave, at which point I started talking about fruit.

We also found time to talk about the best meal of our lives and what kind of things play into that.

For both of us, the best meals of our lives had been while we were traveling. It's easy to see why this might be.

When I see tourists here, I sometimes flash to how exotic and mesmerizing Buenos Aires must seem. Seeing what I see every day and knowing what I know, it can be hard to put myself in that perfect place, but I do at least remember how exotic and mesmerizing it seemed to me — enough so that I quit my job and moved here.

Wednesday night's meal wasn't the best of my life, but I did like it. I also liked walking around for half an hour afterward and talking about the city, both as it once was and as it is now.

It's not hard for me to see how you could have the best meal of your life in Buenos Aires. And why not have at La Vineria?

La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar is at Bolivar 865 in San Telmo.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Feed me

What is among the worst things you can say about a restaurant?

"It's terrible; don't eat there!"?


But at least as bad is, "You have to eat there! We had the best meal of our lives."

Because you know what a fan of low expectations I am. So an endorsement like that is just asking for trouble.

And yet, how can you ignore that recommendation? Especially when it comes from two seasoned travelers who make fine food their business.

What I'm trying to say is that a month ago I tipped off the Slow Food couple to a new restaurant I was starting to hear good things about, but had never been to.

They went and raved about it. Specifically, they termed it the best meal of their lives.

And, you know, maybe you think I shouldn't trust them. But I also keep reading good things about it online. And would the Internet lie to me?


So I'm going tonight.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Andrew wanted to take a photo of one of the memorials that have gone up for people kidnapped, tortured and "disappeared" by Argentina's dictatorship. (There are more and more such memorials. Line of sight has photos.)

The mini-memorials are part of the sidewalk and follow the formula: "Here is where so-and-so was taken as part of state-sponsored terrorism on such-and-such a date."

It's jarring and effective. Yes, there are other monuments to victims of the dictatorship. But these work well because they're integrated into daily life. You're walking along trying not to step in dog crap and suddenly you're confronted by the fact that four people — usually named on the plaque — vanished from the spot where you're standing.

I knew there was one of these plaques on Callao not far from Corrientes. Andrew took photos while I diddled with my camera. I was still fiddling around when I heard Andrew say, "Gee, I wonder why they were taken."

He was being sarcastic. I realized this when I looked up and saw the Communist Party headquarters. They were rounded up because they were communists.

Decorating the entrance to party headquarters was an item of stencil graffiti that just became dated this week. "Aguante Fidel." ("Hooray Fidel" or "Hang in there, Fidel" or "Right on, man!")

[Digression I: This is a good time to mention again the young woman blogging from Cuba. In the latest entry, she mentions that neither she nor her parents have known any leader besides Fidel, who's been in power since 1959.]

[Digression II: At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the communists who were victimized by the Argentine dictatorship have their own little dictatorship going on down in Cuba now and are victimizing whoever they see fit. (I'm pretty sure absolute power does something. If only I could remember what!)]

Before I lived here, I knew that Fidel had a lot of defenders in Latin America. But I'm not sure I understood exactly why.

Here's the thing: Many of his defenders are hardly communists and they're not blind to the hardship and injustice of Castro's Cuba. But in a region that has often been abused, manipulated and battered by U.S. foreign policy, it's hard to sell short the enormous appeal of a single man on a tiny island who has defied the United States for decades.

Friday, February 22, 2008

No, I am not blogging

I have a houseguest for a few days.

Andrew is someone I met within a week of coming down here three years ago. Now that my time here is almost up, he's back again. (Although he's not here because of me.)

He was in my apartment for only a few minutes before I sat down at the computer.

"What are you doing?" he asked. "Blogging?"

"No! I am not blogging." I use my computer for other things, you know. Like reading other people's blogs. And killing time between writing blog entries.

Five minutes later we were talking about the lunar eclipse I had watched off my balcony the night before.

"Did you blog about it?" he asked.

As if I would blog about something I just saw out my window.

In any case, there is more to my life than just this blog. For instance, there is my other blog. I am still trying to figure out what to do with it. It's slow-going, but there has been a little progress and I remain hopeful that I can either get money or a little more exposure for it — ideally both.

Aside from all that: This week, when not at my computer, I have been doing even more walking around this city than usual.

I sometimes think about the idea of opening a restaurant. Sometimes I think about what I might name it. One name that never crossed my mind: Crack.

And here's an amusing name for a cheese shop. If you don't speak Spanish, you won't get it. But let me just take this opportunity to assure that anyone who does speak Spanish is unleashing peals of hysterical laughter right now. Honest.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Months ago I pitched a story on Buenos Aires to The good news: They loved the idea! The bad news: Someone had beaten me to the punch; they already had a Buenos Aires piece in the works.

Not what I wanted to hear.

In an act of semi-desperation — or consummate pluck, depending on how charitable you're feeling — I even followed up a few weeks back with an editor there: "Say, are you guys still doing that Buenos Aires piece? 'Cause if it fell through, I'm totally available!"

Their Buenos Aires article hadn't fallen through and now the package is finally up on the web site.

The concept is that visitors should move beyond the tourist-saturated Palermo neighborhood and focus on San Telmo.

I don't know if I can go along with the idea that visiting San Telmo is likely to make you feel like you're mingling with locals — it's pretty far along the same path of gentrification (and tourism) that Palermo has followed. But I do like the idea of exploring the city's neighborhoods. And San Telmo is a great neighborhood, with just enough tourism to be traveler-friendly without being completely overwhelmed. That is, if you get here today. At this rate, it could be played out by tomorrow.

The Chow piece starts off like this:

Beautiful, decrepit, hedonistic, and temperate. Buenos Aires is a city of charming contradictions. You’ve heard about the steak and the Malbec, but you can also get arguably the best Italian food outside of Italy, and the world’s best gelato.

I probably would have written something similar.

Reading that made me remember the biggest reason I started this blog: People kept asking me what Buenos Aires was like and I never had a good answer. If you've been here or have been reading any blog about Buenos Aires, you'll recognize that's because it's a mix of the familiar and the foreign, full of contradictions and extremes.

So I don't envy anyone the task of writing a paragraph that purports to summarize Buenos Aires.

One hundred seventy-five posts on this blog and I don't think I'm any further along in that goal than when I started.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


This city must be tough on people who aren't nimble and able-bodied. I know it's tough on people who are nimble and able-bodied. And it can't be easy to navigate the broken sidewalks and the intersections with no traffic lights or stop signs if you're blind, in a wheelchair, or just old.

Twice in the last 72 hours I've had elderly people ask me to help them across the street.

And of course, I helped them — after we negotiated a price.

No, no. I'm just kidding, of course.

The prices are non-negotiable.

All right. Fine. I did it for free. Now you're beginning to see why I'm flirting with financial ruin.

Now, I don't have much occasion to use the formal "Usted" form of Spanish, but if you're old enough to ask me to help you cross the street, you can bet I'll call you señor(a) and refer to you in the third person.

Today I was listening to Andrés Calamaro's double album Honestidad Brutal on my iPod when a hunched-over man waved at me. "Would you just help me to that street corner?" he asked.

"Of course," I said.

We chatted while we waited for the light to change. He told me that he had some amiguitos (little friends) waiting at the cafe for him, some of the few who were still OK in the head. They were going to talk and watch a little television. The owner of the place was a friend of his.

The light changed and he grabbed my arm while he started to inch across the street. He told me about his joint problems, and how he had just fallen and injured his knee. He said he hoped he wasn't being a bother. I told him not to worry about it. I was going to cross the street anyway, wasn't I?

When we got to the door of the cafe, he stuck out his hand and said, "¡Señor! ¡Muchas gracias!" I think that's the only time someone here has addressed me as something other than "che." I patted him on the shoulder and told him to take care of himself.

Before I put my headphones back in, my mind played back what he had said to me when we started crossing the street:

"I'm 80 years old, you know? My joints are no good. My body isn't what it was. But I still have the mind of a 60 year old!"

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Lady and gentleman, I give you: The World's First Expat Blog drinking game.

Do not attempt while operating heavy machinery — not that it was ever really a good idea to read this blog while you drive a forklift.

Take a drink every time I:

Make reference to how poor I am.

Mention inflation, pizza, gnocchi, ice cream or wine.

Write about how few people read this blog.

Visit the cheese store.

Make the easy joke.

Make the cheap joke.

Make the bad joke.

Fail to leave well enough alone.

Portray myself as kind/generous/hilarious.

Lament how little time I have left in Argentina.

Reflect on X and how it makes me feel a little Y (drawing a chorus of ZZZs).

Read something in the newspaper and then rant about it.

Elicit a sigh, a groan, or a roll of the eyes.

Mine my insecurity and self-critical nature for cheap blog fodder.

End a sentence and then follow it with a sentence fragment for supposed comic effect. Like this.

Make you wish it were summer in Chicago already for God's sake so I could go back to writing that other blog.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fugly II

You thought the Hospital Naval was ugly — and it is.

But a few blocks away, the Hospital Durand practically spits in your face.

It's a public hospital. Argentina — unlike one country I could name — provides health care to everyone. Are there problems with the public health system? Yes. A lot of them. But at least it exists.

We might be upside down here, but we're not completely backward.

Monday, February 11, 2008


In the last few days I've sold off two cameras and some computer equipment.

More important: Today I finally sold that pizza idea that's been kicking around in my head for months. An airline magazine wants a few hundred words on it.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm really happy about selling the article. What kills me is that I made more money selling my dusty electronics on Craigslist.

The article does, at least, pay more than blogging.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


To call Ugi's a no-frills restaurant is really insulting to restaurants without frills.

It's a big pizza chain with rock-bottom prices, and it is sort of an institution.

Most restaurants have a menu. Ugi's? No. Ugi's has a price list.

They always have the price of a large mozzarella pizza posted in the window on a nearly unadorned page.

For a while the large mozzarella was 6.90 and then not too long ago I noticed it was up to 8 — even 9.20 at some locations.

The government should stop fabricating inflation data and just go with the Ugi's index. People might actually swallow it.

You can see from the price list above that "sodas are sold only with a straw." I think that means that you can't get a glass for your soda, but it also makes it sound like they're going to foist a straw on you whether you want it or not. (Actually, that's probably the case. Heaven forbid you drink straight from the bottle.)

Want a box for your carry-out pizza? 50 centavos, please.

The crowd is usually a mix of blue-collar types, teenagers and families, depending on the time of day and location. Yesterday I walked by one and saw a guy passed out at a table.

For as cheap as it is, Ugi's doesn't look dirty. The kitchens are open — so you can watch as the guy sneezes on your pizza. The interiors are bright, mostly white tile and plastic. I wouldn't be surprised if they just hosed down the whole place a few times a week and let it drip-dry.

Ultimately, the pizzas are the least interesting thing about Ugi's. At 8 pesos — even at 9.20 — you pretty much get what you pay for.

Saturday, February 9, 2008



I wondered how long it would take before I got pick-pocketed on the subte. I was beginning to think my money was no good.

Today I really had it coming. Honestly, I was a complete idiot. Hell, I would have pick-pocketed me.

I had come out of a shop with a lot of small bills as change and stuck them in my pocket in a hurry. They were a mess, so when I got into the subte, I took them out of my pocket and tried to rearrange them a bit.

Which is a nice way of saying: "I took lots of money out of my pocket and waved it around on the subway."

This bedraggled woman who I had seen begging for coins near the escalator was right next to me. I very rarely give out money. But here I felt a little bad, since I had just sorted through a stack of money, including a lot of 2 pesos bills. I thought to myself, "I don't even know how many 2 peso bills I have here, which means I sure as hell won't miss one if I give it to this lady."

So I gave her 2 pesos (60¢).

She took it. She didn't say a word. And she gave me the strangest look.

I thought maybe it was because I had just made her day with a 2 peso bill.

Now I realize it's because she had lifted 50 pesos off me and here I was — what? — tipping her?

Whatever. I'm not even that upset. She probably needed it more than I do.

I would have only spent that money on cheese.

* * *

I went to the cheese shop today for the first time in a few weeks. I picked up some smoked gouda with peppercorns, some fresh mozzarella and some dates (not cheese, but really good with cheese).

When I walked in, the woman was sweeping up. I asked her how she was doing. She said: "I'm good. I was starting to wonder about you, though. I asked myself the other day if you were ever going to come back."

Yikes! How will I find the words to tell her I'm leaving for good?

* * *

Before I hit the cheese shop, I stopped a few blocks away at the Italian bakery. Do you know how you know it's a genuine Italian bakery? Mmm. . . OK, yes, the woman in line ahead of me was speaking Italian to the baker. Good answer.

I would have also accepted: The sign outside depicts a man with an authentic Italian mustache.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The ideas

Hey! Look! It's the Aguas Argentinas building again.

If I put that building on top of every post where I just ramble on about what's happening inside my head, I'm going to condition you to cringe whenever you see it.

Hopefully we're not quite to that point yet.

So. . . there is nothing worse than a coy blogger. And I've made references to articles I'm trying to sell without saying what they were about.

This made sense up until a little bit ago. Initially I kept mum about the stuff I was working on or trying to sell because I didn't want anybody to rip off my ideas. It's hard enough trying to push this crap as it is — I don't need more competition.

I admit this attributes an exaggerated importance to this blog. Because — what? — hordes of travel writers scour my blog for ideas? Hardly.

In any case, now that I have seven weeks left, what the hell? If you want to try to pitch and write these stories in the next two months, be my guest.

• Wine bars in Buenos Aires. I would almost think they would be a widespread phenomenon. They're not. But I do notice more and more cropping up. And if you visit Argentina and aren't able to get to a wine-producing region, you should still be able to drink some stuff you might not find at home.

The pizza heritage of Buenos Aires. Mmm.... pizza.

• Cafe culture beyond the guidebook. I am so sick of seeing the same tired cafes trotted out as recommendations for experiencing a slice of porteño life. The city has a list of 50 cafés y bares notables that includes a few of those well-worn spots, but is also a good departure point for exploring other options.

There you go. You got it out of me.

For what it's worth, I haven't given up on the ideas yet. If you want to pay me to write them — or know anyone who might — you know how to find me.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The plan

If you've looked at the photo above, you've already seen all the Buenos Aires content this post has to offer. It's the Aguas Argentinas building on Avenida Córdoba. I'll come back to it soon, because it's worth a few more shots for anyone who hasn't seen it before.

But from here on out, this post is unabashed navel-gazing.

I started selling off my things today.

My old digital camera was collecting dust, so I Craigslisted it and made enough money to pay my share of the building expensas this month. Score!

There's more to sell: a 35mm SLR camera, an iPod nano, an espresso machine, some great computer speakers, a wi-fi router and a cordless phone.

Everything must go!

Well, not everything. But I look around my apartment and realize that in seven weeks, it all needs to fit in two suitcases.

My mom asked me the other day if I had a lot to do before I left. I told her there was stuff I was trying to do — loose ends to tie up, restaurants to visit, articles to sell, etc. But if I had to, when it came down to it, I could just fill two suitcases (jeans, T-shirts, socks, underwear, Campers), call a car and hop on the plane.

That's kind of a great feeling.

* * *

I'm not a huge fan of surprises or spontaneity, so I get really nervous when I don't have a plan.

That's why I'm glad to have a timeline coming into focus for me. You may also find it interesting. Or not. Perhaps it will serve as a guide as to whether you should furiously reload this blog or delete it from your bookmarks.

Now through March 31: Buenos Aires

April 1-5: Mexico City

April 6-30: Chicago

May 1-10: Los Angeles

May 11-June 1: Japan

And then it's back to Chicago to sell fruit and look for a real job.

About that last item: I told a friend the other day that I was more anxious about rejoining the rat race than I had been about coming down here three years ago with nothing lined up.

Then I started thinking about how it would be nice if I didn't have to rejoin the rat race at all. I don't want to sound too precious here. I understand that life sometimes involves doing shit you don't love in order to pay the man, etc.

But part of me also feels like I've taken myself off that track — which is not easy — and I'm not dying to get back on it.

When the Slow Food couple was here, they asked me if I'd be staying here longer if my circumstances were different. I hadn't bothered to ask myself that question because my circumstances aren't different. But I realized the answer was yes, I would be staying here longer if I could.

That answer rattled around in my head for a few days and I felt a little rotten about it.

But why would I be staying here exactly? Because I love it here? Or because of inertia?

The answer is probably a little of both.

In any case, I felt better when I reminded myself that it's better to leave someplace before it wears out its welcome with you — while you still feel like you'd love to go back.

That is, after all, why I'm so excited to return to Chicago, even as I dread leaving Buenos Aires.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Licuado weather

We've had quite a run of gorgeous weather. And then today it was a little too hot. It's not the mind-bending, brutal heat we had over the holidays, but it's hot enough — especially at mid-day.*

It's perfect weather for siestas and licuados.

You don't need me to shed any light on taking a nap, but I do have a few words to say about licuados.

Licuados are what we'd call smoothies in the States. They can be made with milk or water, and you're usually given a choice when you order. You can combine fruits or go with a single fruit.

In my mind, the single greatest measure of a licuado is weather fresh or canned fruit is used. If I order a licuado de durazno and you make it with canned peaches in February — in the freaking height of peach season! — you'd better hope you can run faster than I can, because I am going to come after you. Once I finish my licuado, obviously.

Experience has taught me that some licuados are more typically made with canned fruit than others, though of course it depends on the restaurant or cafe. Pineapple is a risky flavor — more often than not the licuado tastes as much of the pineapple as the tin can from which it came.

Peach can go either way. Melon and strawberry tend to be good bets. Banana is a good bet, too, especially if you want a licuado made with milk.

Given the spotty quality and the prices at cafes, I usually make them at home.

But I had the licuado in the photo above at a cafe in Palermo and it was good. It was made with strawberries and milk. Usually I prefer my licuados with water, but the waiter took the time to recommend the milk, so I went with it.

As I'm typing this, I realize that in the photo to the right — in the "About Me" section — I am drinking a peach licuado. (And wearing my "sad robot" T-shirt!)

OK, so that's it on licuados. I guess now's a good time to read the footnote if you didn't before.

* You know that you can type "Buenos Aires weather" (sans quotes) into Google and you'll get a five-day forecast at the top of the results, right? And you know Google will do math for you, too, right? Like, if you enter "15*39" in the search box, it will give you 585. And if you want to convert units, it will do that too, e.g. "25 gallons in ml."

Saturday, February 2, 2008


I went back and stuck a photo on that post about buses. You deserve blog posts with photos and I consider it a personal failing when I am unable to deliver. Also, I used the word "astonishingly" twice in that post. Thank you for not saying anything. I went back and fixed that, too.

Isn't it marvelous to think that every post on this blog is marching steadily toward perfection? Delusional, but marvelous.

More photos of the city's colorful buses may sound like a great idea, but at 30 I feel like I'm too young to die. And a few days of attempted bus photography has me questioning the wisdom of getting close enough to take good photos. So we'll see how that goes.

Taking pictures of buildings is much safer. So walking through the Abasto neighborhood today, I snapped a photo of this great theater building.