Saturday, April 28, 2012

Tucumán, Argentina

My wife's hometown is Tucumán, a medium-sized city in the northwest portion of Argentina. It's mostly known for its agriculture, especially oranges, lemons, sugar cane, and soybeans. There's a decent amount of poverty in the countryside (which is lush and green most of the year), but the city is bustling, and even bursting at the seams as traffic in the downtown area has become unbearable in recent years. The people here are fantastic, but they lead a chaotic life by American standards. Due to summer heat the city observes a "siesta" schedule, so every day people must commute twice: work hours for most offices are from 8 am to noon, and from 4 pm to 8 pm. Nearly everyone comes home for lunch, many then take naps, and then it's back to work only to come home again late in the evening. Most stores follow the same schedule, which means that your shopping day is interrupted if you get a late start. The national pastime is talking with friends over a coffee, which is why Argentina has coffee shops on every block just like the U.K. has pubs.

On Friday and Saturday nights its common to go out to dinner around 11 pm or even later, and no one gets back home before 2 or 3 in the morning. Young people are completely out of whack, since they wouldn't even consider going out for the evening before midnight, and the boîtes (mainly for music and dancing) don't open until 1 or 2 am. It's similar in many ways to the night life in Spain. Teenagers are in the habit of staying out until 7 am on Saturday morning, since that way they can take a bus home.

We're going to a wedding tonight, in fact. The church ceremony starts a little after 9 pm, followed by a huge bash at a special event site in the foothills. 550 guests are invited for the cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, and dinner, and another 200 are invited to come around 1 am for the dancing, which could last through breakfast.

Our daily routine usually goes like this: since we almost never get to bed before 3 am, we wake up at 9 or 10 am, have some coffee and a roll, run some errands and check the computer, then meet some friends for lunch around 2 or 3 pm. I might take a short nap while my wife goes out for tea with some friends around 5 pm. More errands or shopping, or just having a coffee with a friend, then out to a restaurant or a friend's house for dinner. Last night (Thursday night) our friends picked us up at the hotel at 10:15 and we sat down to a delicious asado (bbq) at their house at 11:30. They took us back to the hotel a little around 3:30 am, and most of them had to work this morning!! There were about a dozen at the table, and the conversation ranged from politics to economics to jokes. They were all struck by the similarities between Obama's policies and tactics and those of Cristina Kirchner, their own president. They are all very worried that Argentina is headed for another disaster, and it probably is, if only because there are no longer any effective checks and balances on the power of the presidency; the Congress is a rubber stamp, and the courts are famously corrupt. Sadly, there's not much they can do except grin and bear it.

The photo above is a place just up the street from our hotel where we had lunch at a few days ago—a typical Argentine parrillada that serves barbecued meat, chicken, etc. A bottle of very nice wine cost $13, a huge steak that we shared (my favorite is the picana) was $11, a big mixed salad was $3, a side of french fries $3. Food is still cheap in Argentina, and it's very good.

Today we had lunch at Los Hornos, way out on the Western edge of the city in the suburb called Yerba Buena. It's the best place we know of to enjoy authentic and traditional Argentine cuisine. (We've had bad luck with the weather however, as it has been raining and overcast London-style for the past 5 days.)

My wife's two favorite things: an Argentine-style tamale, and humita en chala. The only thing the former has in common with a mexican tamale is the corn meal inside and the corn husk outside. The latter is a corn husk wrapped around a mass of fresh ground corn cooked with spices and cheese. The wine was a Bianchi DOC Malbec, one of the best Malbecs I've had, and it only cost $8! Unbelievable.

This huge slab of meat is matambre de cerdo, a juicy and delicious piece of pork taken (I think) from just next to the ribs. Almost impossible for a normal person to eat the whole thing, and it only costs $12. I had never had it before but surely will again.

Los Hornos is best-known for its empanadas, the best by far being the empanadas de carne picante. $1 each, and I couldn't eat more than three. I've had empanadas all over Argentina and in many parts of the world, but these are the gold standard against which almost every other empanada fails.

Los Hornos is nothing fancy, just good old rustic atmosphere and great food for a very reasonable price. It's got some huge brick and clay ovens that do nothing but churn but plates full of empanadas. The blackboard in the top photo above describes a parrillada for two: a portable bbq is brought to your table, piled high with the pork cut I mentioned above, chorizos (italian style sausages), morcilla (blood sausages), chinchulín (small intestines), riñon (kidney), and asado de tira (ribs). Way too much for two people to eat, and it only costs $22.

You won't find a parrillada this good in Buenos Aires, but the Don Julio restaurant in Palermo Soho I mentioned in an earlier post comes close, only much more expensive.

Tomorrow, as soon as we can recover from the dinner and dancing, we are off to Tilcara, in the very northern part of Argentina, so more photos to come. (All photos courtesy of my iPhone 4S.)


Rob said...

A very nice post, Scott, mouthwatering and apparently the prices for much restaurant food have not yet rocketed as you had feared before the trip.

Just a wee small point, a bit pedantic maybe but your phrase "decent amount of poverty" was unfortunate, as poverty is never "decent", especially when juxtaposed with fine dining. I know it was just a slip of the keyboard. Enjoy the wedding etc. !

seekingtraceevidence said...

Your description leaves me with the impression that Argentina is all play and no work esp. for the youth?
If this is the culture, then no wonder there is a periodic financial chaos.

Hans said...

I now hunger for Gentina!

Thank you, Mr Grannis, for a most delightful post free of economic intercourse...

Does all of Latin America and South America take four hour lunches?

Hans said...

Oh, I forgot to ask, what is the price of petrol?

hugh42 said...

Scott, Excellent evoquation of a time warp. Can they get ahead? Hey, they don't care. Spain too. There is now fixing this. Just remember, you can buy $500 trillion bills from Zimbabwe.
Why do we need anythings but paper and a printing press?

Keep up the good work! Do the Argentines read your charts? Maybe 2 or 3. Best regards, Hugh

Squire said...

Now I know why my Argentine neighbors two doors down come home on Sunday mornings 3 to 4 am most weekends. (They wake me with their revelry).

Air conditioning allows many hot locales to avoid the siesta.

Benjamin Cole said...

I love America, but why does every other nation (except Canada) seem to have better food, conversation and more fun?

Unknown said...

Ben - I am not sure where you live but here in Los Angeles we have some of the most interesting food in the world (and at reasonable prices). It is virtually a playground for foodies. Any given day you can find great food from almost any ethnic background that you can think of. You just need to know how to find it, because it is often hidden in areas you wouldn't normally go in your everyday life.

And on the conversation side, you control who your friends are and what you do for "fun".

Please don't take my comments the wrong way - I often get the "grass is greener" blues, and just need to take a moment realize how good we have it.

Scott Grannis said...

Re: the price of petrol. It is about $5.50 a gallon in Argentina. If my memory serves, it has tended to be a little less than twice the price of gas in the U.S., so that means it is on the cheap side these days.

Benjamin Cole said...


As a lifelong Angeleno now in his mid-50s, I can attest what you say is true. We have great food here, from everywhere.

Of course, it is the food from other countries that makes L.A. an eater's paradise.

Maybe I need friends who are better conversationalists.

As for having fun, most other cultures seem more fun-loving, Sheesh, they take six weeks off a year as a norm in Europe, and four hours for lunch in Argentina, while parading around all night.

I would be dead, but maybe I would die with a smile on my face.

Anonymous said...

I second the "LA is a foodie paradise" comment. Also, Argentina is a wonderful place TO VISIT. The people are warm and beautiful (inside and out), and they know how to have a good time. But, having lived in both places, I can say that you cannot have it all. The United States is a land of opportunity and productivity; it is a true meritocracy. Argentina is corrupt, from the highest to the lowest levels of society; to get ahead, you need to know someone, regardless of how much (or little) education and experience you have. It's a very frustrating part of life there.