Tango City

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

There's something about this place.

Maybe it's the tango.

Those of you who have witnessed the real thing know tango -- when done right -- is not a dance for sissies. It is aggressive, moody, seductive, sometimes beautiful and maybe a little dangerous.

Like Buenos Aires.

So ... is it a cliche to compare Buenos Aires to the tango? Maybe, but it was either that or Evita.

Which brings me to the subject of steakhouses -- but first, the obligatory travel story transition paragraphs:

Cool place to visit, Buenos Aires. There's history here, pretty architecture, grace, grit and a certain big-city buzz that demands you pay attention, lest you miss something you probably won't see anywhere else -- for instance, street-corner tango dancers.

Plus, right now, for Americans (and especially for euro-spending Europeans) it's relatively cheap, and that, happily, brings me back to the subject of cooked Argentinian hoofed beasts.

Rumor has it that sushi is the rage in Buenos Aires, and, indeed, there are bright new sushi palaces among the parrillas (local jargon for steak joints). That may be wonderful news to los portenos (local jargon for Buenos Airesians), but that's not why I came here.

Why I came here was, to give just one example, a sweet little storefront called 1880 Parrilla Restaurante, in one of the less-interesting sections of the very-interesting San Telmo neighborhood.

With the place almost empty about 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, I was seated at a nice table and greeted by a waiter whose English was even worse than my Spanish, which is tres malo.

Eventually, I ordered the chorizo, a fat, red, juicy sausage the size of a small kosher salami that had been grilled (at a parilla like most everything but the beer) over hot coals. That set me back about 80 cents.

As I attacked it, the couple at the next table were thoroughly enjoying something hideous, so I called the waiter over and, at my request, was brought a half-order of what they were having: chinchulin de cordero, or grilled lamb's small intestine. About $1.65.

By this time -- well past 10 p.m. -- the place was packed with well-dressed patrons along with a few wearing soccer shirts.

Then came the bife de chorizo, a stunningly tender boneless chunk of beef comparable to a thick New York strip. About $5. Plus a plate of hot, crisp french fries. About $1.35.

All accompanied by the mandatory chimichurri, a garlicky red dipping sauce. Free. And a large bottle of Quilmes beer. $2.

The beer was just OK. Everything else, even the innards, was absolutely delicious.

Now if you haven't been keeping score: This steak dinner, among the best I've ever enjoyed anywhere in the world (including Chicago and Brooklyn, N.Y.) and graciously served by a waiter who couldn't have been nicer despite my linguistic stupidity, set my employer back about ... $11.

But enough about great meat, especially the beef, and how cheap it is in Buenos Aires and how I could have eaten it for lunch and dinner every day despite my family history, doctor's advice and soaring bad cholesterol.

There is something about this city, a vitality strongly flavored by anger and angst and, in talking to folks, an indefinable but palpable sense of yearning. Buenos Aires is many things, but for sure it is never, ever dull.

Pedestrian heaven

Calle Florida is a pedestrians-only commercial street in the heart of town. It eventually links Plaza de Mayo -- site of the presidential palace (the Casa Rosada) and Madonna's best Evita moment ("Don't Cry for Me..." sung from a casa balcony) -- with Plaza San Martin, a lovely green space with very old trees and a statue of (yes) Jose de San Martin, liberator of Argentina.

Between the plazas are shops, restaurants, a variety of vendors, at least one tango-show theater, the immense Galerias Pacifico shopping mall, newsstands and singer-musicians of all ilks, including, one day, a little kid wearing a Michael Jordan shirt playing the bandoneon, a sort of Argentine concertina.

On another day, on a portable dance floor to music from a boom box, a couple in full tango array tangoed for pesos before an appreciative, generous crowd that wasn't all tourists.

In fact, in Buenos Aires you never know where you might run into street-tangoists, but there is one certainty: You will.

Likely places, though, are the more touristy streets of La Boca, the former slum (credited for popularizing the dance); Calle Florida; Plaza Dorrego, a worthwhile tourist destination (shops, vendors, outdoor snacks) in the San Telmo neighborhood; any one of the 42,671 nightclubs and saloons featuring tango shows, many also in San Telmo; and in places such as the upstairs dance hall at Confiteria Ideal.

If you come to Buenos Aires, do not miss Confiteria Ideal. Downstairs during the day, it's a renowned place for coffee, tea and pastries, or a light meal. But on selected nights -- ask around or peek in for a schedule -- the upstairs ballroom is home to a milonga, an occasion for ordinary people to dance the national dance.

I got there on my night just after midnight (cover: $5), found a seat at one of the tables surrounding the spacious dance floor and ordered a big beer (about $2.65). The place was darkish and uncrowded; the music was recorded and scratchy, like an old 78; the dancers, for the most part, matched the music.

But at 1 a.m., with the place filling up with people of many ages, an orchestra took over: two violins, a standup bass, a piano and two bandoneons. And when those bandoneons, in unison, ripped off their first guhrrruuunt, you knew those weren't mere concertinas and this wasn't mere tango.

This was tango.

This, truly, was Buenos Aires. ...

Politics and protests

The capital has taken its hits over the past century or so. Most recent was a major peso crisis a couple of years ago whose initial pain has eased but lingers in the form of $5 strip steaks.

Before that, there were juntas and dictators and sad little wars and border skirmishes. Its political upheavals aren't just the stuff of Andrew Lloyd Webber but of Shakespeare, had he barded long enough. Even in the current relative calm, politics here are a never-ending drama. If the nearly forgotten Isabel Peron (Juan's post-Evita wife and briefly, and disastrously, his successor as president) isn't awakened from exile in Spain to testify on something -- as she was just weeks ago -- it's refreshed every Thursday afternoon by the marching Madres de Plaza de Mayo, mothers and sisters of victims "disappeared" by the military junta that ruled Argentina into the 1980s.

"He was a witness, and they 'disappeared' him," said one woman, wearing the group's characteristic headscarf, who lost a brother.

He was among 30,000 who vanished, she said.

"We never knew what happened with them. So for that, we are here every Thursday in this place."

On this particular Thursday, the dozen or so madres shared the plaza with hundreds of demonstrators, some armed with batons and others armed with signs, all representing labor-related grievances as drummers drummed up emotions and a few kids kicked around a soccer ball.

"Thursday," said an Irishman named Patrick who has married into the culture, "has become kind of an open field-day for protests."

Other days, vendors in the square sell postcards and little Argentine flags to tourists, and corn to anyone who likes feeding pigeons. Bureaucrats enjoy peaceful lunches and quick siestas on the lawn. In short, on a Wednesday it's like an altogether different plaza.

The real tango

More things to see in B.A.:

Eva Peron is in Recoleta Cemetery, stored in the Duarte family tomb, which is relatively modest for a cemetery that's nothing if not a study in post-mortal overstatement. Even with the waves of tour groups brought here, it's possible to spend reflective moments with her, alone or alongside the cats (another Webber show!) that freeload among the memorials. How Evita got here, after her remains were swiped and shipped to Italy and on to Spain, is eloquently told in the small but fine Museo Evita, in the Palermo section near the zoo.

San Telmo is one of the city's older neighborhoods and the object of continuing, thoughtful renewal and gentrification. For visitors, it is a neighborhood of restaurants, galleries and flea markets, plus shops selling serious antiques. Seekers of genuine Peronist artifacts can find them here ("Is beautiful woman," said a dealer named Cesar, unveiling a booklet from 1951. "The best."), though much of it will be of Juan.

San Telmo, as mentioned earlier, is also site of many of the tango-show venues -- which introduces this:

Not seeing a tango show in Buenos Aires is like going to St. Andrews and not seeing the golf course. Missed the one in San Telmo's Bar Sur, recommended by friends ($25, $45 with food), but I've seen two. One was a relatively intimate but very fine show at El Viejo Almacen (about $80 with dinner, $55 without) in San Telmo, the other a full Vegas-glitz version at Esquina Carlos Gardel (similar prices, but also with pricier VIP seats) in the Abasto district.

The sanitized part of La Boca that's a group-tour destination by day (mainly around Calle Caminito) draws sneers from some cynics, but it's undeniably and literally colorful -- brightly painted hovels, street art, street-tango -- and I kind of liked it. By night, tourists are warned to beware, which (to the consternation of my wife) usually makes it irresistible -- but I ran out of nights. Your call.

And speaking of danger, alluded to a couple of times and rumored to be rampant in Buenos Aires: It's an illusion.

No doubt stuff happens, as in any major city -- but in nearly a week of clattering over bright and less-bright sidewalks and in crowded subways, typically lugging a visible $1,000 camera, I wasn't hassled at all, nor did I hear of any problems from other visitors. The closest thing to a crime I experienced was being approached by an unattractive streetwalker.

Of course there was, just before my arrival, an item about a U.S. presidential daughter losing her purse under mysterious circumstances.

"First they said it was a store in San Telmo, an antique store," said a hotel concierge who clearly thought the whole thing was hilarious. "Then they said it was a restaurant, but with all the security, that was impossible. Now, no one knows. ..."

There are other things to see, depending on your interests: a Calatrava-designed bridge in the repurposed warehouse district at Puerto Madero; elite shops and galleries in the Recoleta neighborhood; a pretty good zoo (featuring regional critters along with the usual lions and giraffes) and botanical garden; sweet old Cafe Tortoni and other neat buildings along Avenida de Mayo. ...

And there are disappointments, greatest of which are the trash scavengers (sometimes whole families of them) who descend on the city after dark and pick through plastic bags of garbage for recyclables and edible scraps.

A mad existence.

But always, always in Buenos Aires ... there is tango. Really.

In a city like no other.

Alan Solomon writes for the Chicago Tribune.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Multiple carriers offer connecting flights to Buenos Aires from BWI Marshall Airport. Restricted roundtrip fares start at about $912, including taxes and fees.

LODGING

There is a dizzying array of hotels in Buenos Aires. Two of the more intriguing are in the upscale Recoleta neighborhood.

The Alvear Palace

-- The venerable favorite of the venerably rich and famous. (doubles starting at $665; alvearpalace.com).

The Park Hyatt

-- New last summer, manages to be both tasteful and astonishing (from $400; buenosaires.park.hyatt.com).

Park Chateau Kempinski

-- Not far from the others, this hotel is moderate but classy. (from $195; www.parkplazahotels.com).

DINING

The prime scene here is about meat, mostly beef, and the venues are parrillas, the open-coals institutions - big and small - that do it right. Prices can be embarrassingly low.

Las Nazarenas

-- (on Calle Reconquesta across from the larger Sheraton) A bi-level monster that draws big crowds of tourists as well as locals. Our bife de lomo (a 1.3-pound filet; about $14) was state of the art.

Tancat

-- A spiffy Spanish tasca in the center (Calle Paraguay, near Calle Florida, Retiro), got it right with its seafood tapas.

INFORMATION

Argentina Government Tourist Office

--In New York at 212-603-0443, or check its Web site: www.sectur.gov.ar. Or see the City of Buenos Aires Web site: www.bue.gov.ar.

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