Argentina’s own graffiti covered concrete jungle is on the outside hard, fast and seemingly impenetrable. But there is one key layer of this immense city that you must peel back to weave yourself into even as a small part of its sprawling tapestry, and that is tango (the steak part comes later).
London has the West End, New York has Broadway, Moscow has ballet and BA has tango – the gem that makes it truly sparkle. Once you start scratching the surface of the BA tango scene it becomes an addiction that is hard to quell.
Dancing in the streets is literally de rigeur in this place. In Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo, pairs of dancers alternate at either ends as you sip Quilmes under the trees. Your head spins as they dazzle you with their dizzying turns, fast footwork and athletic lifts, sweaty cheeks pressed together, with the man as the dance leader, whispers one word instructions into the woman’s ear before it all ends with either a dramatic drop or sultry embrace.
At El Caminito, they dance against the backdrop of the rainbow buildings or in the shelter of restaurants, making it an easy, mesmerising way to while away the afternoon.
If you have itchy feet to join in, or just want to see how the locals fare against the glamorous professionals, you can go to one of the many milongas but be prepared to stay up late and do your tango homework! When we passed La Viruta milonga in the trendy Palermo area at 11pm the class was just ending, with the real milonga night about to begin. At the famed Salon Canning, also just after 11pm, it was standing room only, with experienced locals strutting their stuff, song after song. For more casual afternoon tango you can visit the beautiful Confiteria Ideal cafe in the city centre (look for the tango footsteps painted into the pavement). If you want to join in, you need to know your stuff, so lessons are recommended!
Tango shows are aplenty and range from razzle dazzle to cheap and cheerful. At the top end, $200 to $300 per person, you are offered return transfers, dinner, a lesson and DVD to keep – an unforgettable night if you can spare the cash. We opted for cheap and cheerful at Cafe Tortoni which, despite the cheesy high school musical theatrics, did offer high quality, energetic dancing and great value for $15. It was also worth it to see the retro-glam historic cafe, reportedly BA’s oldest. It’s so famous that there’s a long queue in the afternoons to get in, but the hour long shows are twice a night and have plenty of room. Another of BA’s oldest cafes, Los 36 Billares, also features a regular tango show. Though slightly less glamorous, it’s full of life, with local men playing cards out the back and the billiards of the cafe’s name taking pride of place downstairs.
Once you’ve tangoed the day/night away, you need to refuel and BA certainly has no shortage of good places to eat. How about lunch in bustling colourful Palermo, a stone’s throw from Hotel Duque where we stayed, with trendy eateries offering everything from gourmet crepes to burgers to Mexican. Its quirky gift shops, fashionable boutiques and weekend markets make it the stomping ground for the young and sociable.
But this is Argentina, and we are here for the steak. Palermo has some unbeatable parillas/steak houses, from the trendy, modern Minga, to the white clothed La Choza, where locals dine no earlier than 9pm and feast on mixed grill parilladas served by bow tied waiters. Then there’s the more rustic Don Julio, where the grill is treated like an altar, the centrepiece amidst the leather table cloths, cow pictures and messages from guests scrawled on wine bottles displayed on the walls. The website says it all – restaurante, carnes, vinos. Service here is impeccable too!
Steak and tango may even be on par in terms of sacredness in Argentinian culture, and like tango, I’d recommend knowing your stuff with steak too. A top tip: ask about steak sizes otherwise you may end up with a mountain of the stuff (I had to take a doggy bag from Don Julio which I carted all the way to the tango show only to leave it in the hotel room when we checked out!). Also learn the steak lingo as not all restaurants have English menus and just like the Eskimos have many words for snow, steak in Argentina comes in many forms! Jugoso, or medium rare, is a valuable word to know as the Argentines like their steak a punto, or medium to well (I had to look this one up as I was flat out trying to describe how pink I wanted my steak!).
So don’t be deceived by Buenos Aires’ hard exterior and its (dare I say it) underwhelming city centre. Look for tango and you will find its soul. With steak you’ll find its heart. Then it will win you over completely.