The Taxista Tango in Buenos Aires
In search of the best cuisine in Buenos Aires, food writer Layne Mosler
'96 yields her destiny to strangers.
Story by Layne Mosler '96 / Photos by Anibal Greco, World Picture News
I was in my second cab of the day in summer-steamy Buenos Aires. Luis, the driver, was making subtle advances at me (Do
you live here? How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend?), despite his age (going on 60)
and girth (which strained the threads of his cotton dress shirt). I was unfazed by his flirting—
a fact of life in Argentina—yet filled with anticipation about our destination.
A few minutes earlier, I had climbed into the cool embrace of Luis’s air-conditioned taxi
and dealt him a strange request: “Can you take me to your favorite place to eat?”
He slammed on the brakes in the middle of the Friday traffic on Avenida Santa Fe, setting
off a chorus of horns behind us. The white rosary that hung from the rearview mirror
swung wildly, nearly hitting the windshield. He turned down the tango music that crackled
through the speakers.
“Excuse me?” he asked.
“I’m new to the city,” I lied. “And I was hoping you might be able to help me find some
good food. I’m not interested in touristy restaurants or fancy places. I want to go someplace
where you usually eat.”
The truth was that I’d been living in Buenos Aires for over two years. A freelance food writer, I was searching for
a path to the city’s culinary underbelly. I’d decided to turn to taxi drivers for help. Surely, I hypothesized, they would
know the way to their city’s most authentic flavors.
I started hopping into cabs every week and asking the drivers to take me to their favorite places to eat, negotiating
the same vertigo that I confronted whenever I started dancing a tango. Whether in a taxi or on the dance floor, I
was in some way yielding my destiny to a stranger.
My Argentine friends thought I’d lost my head. Taxi drivers, they said, are the biggest
estafadores (cheats) in
Buenos Aires. They’ll take you for all you’ve got, drive you in circles, maybe even haul you off to someplace dangerous.
I refused to give in to these stereotypes.
“Well, I don’t know,” Luis said, “I could take you to the food court at the Jumbo mall.”
“Is that where you usually eat?”
Despite working a 12-hour shift seven days a week, Luis could not afford the pricey fare at the food court.
After the Argentine economy crashed in 2001, he had become part of a middle class that had bottomed out and
then struggled to keep up with a cost of living that grew far faster than their salaries.
Weaving between the Friday afternoon traffic, Luis sped onto Avenida Dorrego.
“I’ll tell you, I’d rather drive a car than a woman,” he said.
“Is that right?”
“Yeah. My wife and I separated eight months ago.”
Our destination still unresolved, we entered the green
canopy of parks that border the Río de la Plata. Edmundo
Rivero’s rich baritone rose above the melody of “Sur,”
Homero Manzi’s tango about changing neighborhoods
and dying dreams. The amount on the meter jumped over
the number of small bills in my purse.
“I only have nine pesos,” I told Luis, “you can let me
out now. I can walk from here—”
“No way,” he said, “I’m going to take you to the best
steak sandwich in the park. Just give me what you have
and we’ll call it even, deal?”
I agreed. Luis, like all the taxistas before him, had
responded in kind to my trust, choosing not to cheat me
or take advantage of the fact that I was a foreign woman
“See all those cars?” He pointed to a crowd of vans,
trucks and sedans double-parked next to a roadside sandwich
stand. “That’s where you’re going. This place is good,
see? I take my sons here sometimes after we go fishing on
I smiled into the rear-view mirror. He winked and
whipped the Fiat into a U-turn. I toyed with the idea of
inviting him to lunch, but remembered his advances and
thought that would only confuse the spirit of our figurative
embrace. As in the tango, the intimacy between Luis and
me was powerful precisely because it was temporary.
Thanking Luis for his guidance and closing the door on
Edmundo Rivero, I climbed out of the taxi and into the
mass of hungry customers surrounding El Puestito del Tío,
the chosen roadside sandwich stand.
White- and blue-collar types, construction workers and
pregnant women, grandparents and grandchildren scarfed
down the lomitos (steak sandwiches) and choripanes
(sausage sandwiches) that flew off a barbecue tended by
a tall, dark, female grill master dressed in pink scrubs.
I caught the eye of her assistant, and he directed me
toward a card table where an elderly man sat among the
weeds, lording over a pile of red and blue tokens and a
cash box: “Place your order there.”
Not two minutes later, the grill master passed me a
steak sandwich that I had to hold with two hands. I
stopped by the Puestito’s equivalent of a salsa bar, sprinkled
on a bit of chimichurri sauce (with parsley, oregano,
garlic, onion, paprika, olive oil and vinegar) and found a
park bench where I could commune with my sandwich.
Communion was bliss. Tender and smoky, the meat trickled
juice onto my pants after the first bite. The roll
(chewy), the lettuce (crispy) and the tomato (sweet) played
their parts, pushing the fatty richness of the beef to center
stage. Easily the best lomito I’d ever tasted.
Buenos Aires can be a cruel place, plagued by income
disparity, petty crime, filth and flagrant political corruption,
among other maladies. Still, the city manages to preserve
the open-armed spirit that has always been part of its
history. For the most part, kindness to strangers is a natural
reflex in this immigrant-heavy metropolis. And as tango
dancers around the world attest, there is no embrace in
the world that can match the warmth of an Argentine’s.
At the end of the taxi adventure with Luis toward that
revelatory steak sandwich, I realized this is as true in a
cab as it is on the dance floor.