Updated: Aug 6
After Montevideo, it was the obvious choice. And it didn't hurt that the Argentine Peso was in the crapper.
It was a rainy 4th of July, so it was decided to visit Urbano Covina Americano for dinner. I was interested to see what said "America" to Argentine diners. Well, it's photos of the NFL, a drawing of Angelina Jolie, and a laminated menu al la Applebee's that contained an extensive listing of hamburgers, tacos, and ribs, all served with a helping of 80s rock: Whitney Houston, Bon Jovi, Men at Work?¹, etc.
What says "U!S!A!" more than a burger? Unfortunately, they were all rather unAmerican, most with bacon, some with ham, others with a green sauce, and one inexplicably containing a cucumber.
Then what to order? Well in the end nothing really says "U!S!A!" like two Aperol spritzes, two caipirinhas, guacamole y chips, and ribs with fritas. Why two of each drink? Well, as I mentioned in the Montevideo Report, it was Latin America and some of the finer details of Happy Hour may have gotten lost in translation.
Bottom Line: for a chain, Urbano Cocins Americano did a fine (and very economical) job with our Independence Day vittles.
One of Buenos Aires' nicknames is the Paris of South America, and this must be partially due to the café culture. Most restaurants have outside street seating, enabling me to enjoy a latte, cerveza, or vino tinto, while eating a croissant, empanada, or steak, while watching the world go by - much like the City of Lights, but at 60% off. I'm not going to waste your time mentioning all the cafes . . . when you visit just figure it out yourself.
One such place was Ispica Caffe E Pasticceria, where we met Chef Paul. He was born in Argentina, lived in N.Y., and returned to Buenos Aires to be closer to his mother. A New Yorker who loves his mother! So I listened closely to his culinary recommendations of Angelin for pizza and La Cabrera for steak.
Angelin has been tossing pizza for Porteños since before I was born. The porciones muzza was fine and the beer cold, but this place is all about the atmosphere as it appears to be unaltered since 1938.
When you talk to Potenos about "the steak", they will always mention Don Julio. It's included in various articles about the best steakhouses in the world. I was interested, but it all seemed overhyped, and reservations needed to be made weeks in advance. So when my new amigo Paul mentioned La Cabrera, we went with it and enjoyed the second-best steakhouse in Palermo: a Flintstonian steak dinner for two, with all the fixings, and a very good bottle of Malbec, all for $120 (tip included).
We passed by Don Julio a few days later quite accidentally. It was packed with customers, with potential carnivores spilling out into the street. We mingled to get a sense of the place, determined La Cabrera was actually Nombre Uno, and the next thing you know, we were offered two "gratis" glasses of Moët Chandon.
In Santiago and Montevideo you can generally have the 10% propina ("tip") added to your credit card. Not in BA though, as servers want it in cash. Why? The obvious reason.
The Exchange Rate
Many visitors come to Argentina to explore the diverse culture, sample the eclectic nightlife, taste some Malbec wine, or sup on some grass-fed steaks. Though others are drawn primarily by the fact that the Argentina peso has been shall we say "devalued."² If you are the latter, then whatever you do, do NOT withdraw pesos via the ATM.
Now in almost every other country on this planet, this is exactly how you should obtain the local currency, but not Argentina. Why? Because ATMs dispense the peso at the government-determined exchange rate, which is half the "street" rate. While some may blame Joe Biden for this, I think it has more to do with Argentine politicians not facing facts. Either way, you need to tap into the "blue" dollar exchange rate.
Now there are entire articles devoted to the process of exchanging U.S. dollars for Argentine pesos at an exchange rate that is twice the official rate. Bottom Line: There are three options:
Use your credit card. This route gives you an exchange rate of 451 ARS/USD @ 04 Jul 2023, which is slightly lower than the blue market rate.
Go to a "Cuevas" ("cave"), with cash where you will get the blue dollar exchange rate: ~485 ARS/USD @ 04 Jul 2023. These are unofficial (and technically illegal) exchange houses. The catch: you need to exchange post-2003 $50 or post-2012 $100 bills, that have never been folded. When I was informed of these details I wasn't sure if I would be exchanging money or making a drug deal. Needless to say, I was fresh out of pristine "cara grande" Grants and Franklins, which left the best option . . .
Wire yourself money via your ATM card through Western Union and get an exchange rate of 501 ARS/USD @ 05 Jul 2023, which was better than the blue market. That's what I did, and it worked out ok. Western Union was even nice enough to waive the service charge on my first transaction.
They say you learn a lot about your spending habits by paying in cash, I'm not sure this was the case, but after withdrawing $100 USD via one hundred 500 peso notes, I felt a little like Daddy Warbucks, so much that I was tempted to light a cigar using a $500 peso note. It also led Mrs. AAR to comment "Do you have 50,000 Argentine pesos in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?!"
During the hour I spent waiting online to get my pesos, I met a fellow Americano who subsequently withdrew $2,000 USD in pesos, resulting in 20 stacks of 500s being slid under the bulletproof glass. I wasn't sure if he was going to put them in his knapsack or a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist.
Argentina has given us the Pope, the Queen of the Netherlands, and Che Guevara, but when I think of Argentina only one person comes to mind, Eva Perón. The Museo Evita attempts to tell her story, but the minimal English subtitles and a glitchy app did not serve to capture the magnitude of what may have been the greatest female politician of the 20th century (and an inspiration for at least one other).
Ever the optimist, I thought of it as a pleasant introduction to the woman and her wardrobe (she was quite the clotheshorse). I then did what I always do, went back to my Airbnb and read about her on Wikipedia.
I'm generally not a fan of gardens, but since the Jardín Japonés is the fifth best thing to do in Buenos Aires, I thought that at $1.25 USD pp, it was worth a shot. It contains everything you would expect of a Japanese Garden: the koi, the bonsai, the stone lantern, the cherry blossom, the torii, the arched bridge, the etc. Add in the fact that the guy who punched my entrance ticket was Japanese and the place was overwhelmed with people, you'd think you were in Tokyo. Then again maybe I shouldn't have visited on a Saturday afternoon.
If you visit BA, they say you need to visit a tango show. Through a local contact, we were hoping to see a more authentic one at El Beso. It didn't work out, so a dinner and tango show was booked at El Querandi Tango Show for only $332 for two. When I mentioned the price was a little more than was discussed, the Missus stated "I upgraded us to the VIP Dinner Show!" She also mentioned a free transfer was "included via a white van," to which I replied, "You always were a pushover for the white van treatment."
We actually boarded the incorrect white van, which led to surprise and then laughter. I thought we were lucky though because in some countries it could have led to me being legally shot.
The show was outstanding and was accompanied by the best steak I ever ate, with the exception of the one that Peter Luger put in my mouth over 40 years ago. But then again I may be prejudiced as my Uncle Freddy paid for that one.
In order to fiscally offset the tango show (see above), I decided to get my hair cut at Cabrones Barber Club. At $7, I figured I saved about $30 and every little bit helps. Though if I could get Mrs. AAR to get her hair done . . . then we could just about get back to even.
If you are a regular Trader Joe's shopper, you may have realized that very good red wine can be had for $5.99 a bottle. Though some of you may have wondered "Can I get a very good bottle of red for significantly less than that?" Well in Argentina you can. After some extensive sampling, I can recommend to you the "Finca Norte Malbec 2022." At $1.50 a bottle, it could make a man wonder about the validity of wine ratings and more importantly the economics of the wine industry. Then again right next to this bottle of wine was a liter of water for $0.25.
Mrs. AAR consulted with a friend who moved to Buenos Aires a number of years ago. She informed us that based on our personality we should get a place in the hip, trendy, and sophisticated neighborhood of Palermo Hollywood, and that's exactly what we did.
Estacio Cabrera was a derelict building until a few years ago when it was turned into a hip, trendy, and sophisticated condo. We stayed there for $110/night (tax inc.) for the first six nights and then $90/night for the last two. How did I get an 18% discount on the back end? Easy, by using Dicta 10 of The After Action Report: The Lodging Protocol, negotiating "directly with the host" and thereby eliminating various fees, taxes, and surcharges billed by Airbnb. It's much like paying the propina in cash and thereby sticking it to The Man (see above).
Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details that while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.
¹ For those of you who were never a fan of 80s rock, the band Men at Work is from Australia.
² When I previously visited BA in 2003, the Argentine peso traded at a 3:1 exchange rate with the US dollar, which was significantly less than the 1:1 rate that it was pegged at in 2001. As this Report goes to press, the rate is 566:1 (@ Aug 3, 20223).