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The sizzle of Buenos Aires, Argentina: Steak and tango done right, with a little Evita on the side

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BUENOS AIRES

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 us to the subject of steak houses--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 us 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 we came here.

Why we 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 around 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) and graciously served by a waiter who couldn't have been nicer despite my linguistic stupidity, set the Tribune 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.

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 (and in places, the continuing 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 like 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 guhrrruuuunt, you knew those weren't mere concertinas and this wasn't mere tango.

This was tango.

This, truly, was Buenos Aires . . .

The capital has taken its hits over the last 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.

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 ongoing, 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.

More: 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. History tells us that when rampant happens--and I've experienced that sensation a couple of times--everybody has a story.

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 re-purposed 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) that 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.

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IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

A recent check found American, United and Continental Airlines offering one-stop, round-trip flights out of O'Hare to Buenos Aires for about $980 (subject to change). American's stops were in Miami or Dallas, Continental's in Houston, and United's in Washington. Quickest combination we found was on American, through Miami: 11 hours 55 minutes.

GETTING AROUND

Buenos Aires, like most worthwhile cities, is best explored on foot--and with many key sites clustered within distinct neighborhoods (San Telmo, Retiro, La Boca, Recoleta, etc.), B.A. makes it easy. When the feet grow tired, taxis are plentiful and inexpensive; you'll rarely pay more than $5 to get anywhere of tourist interest.

(Note: Hotel personnel advise visitors to stick to "radio taxis," identifiable by their roof lights and door markings. Finding them wasn't difficult.)

If the subway is going where you want to go, by all means use it. Fares are about a quarter, stations are well-lighted, and though trains vary--cars on the original line are clattering, semi-charming antiques--and all can be hot and crowded (no air conditioning in any of them), they're a good way to get a sense of things from a local's perspective.

Driving in the city, for non-locals, makes absolutely no sense at all.

STAYING THERE

There is a dizzying array of hotels in Buenos Aires. We checked into one and checked out a few more (and be sure to note the Note, below):

Two of the more intriguing are in the upscale Recoleta neighborhood, with neighbors like the local Armani, the local Ralph Lauren and the local Evita Peron (in a neighborhood crypt). The Alvear Palace, the venerable favorite of the venerably rich and famous, offers doubles starting at $665 (like all prices here, subject to change, and don't forget that Note; www.alvearpalace.com); new last summer, the Park Hyatt just down the street manages to be both tasteful and astonishing (from $400; www.buenosaires.park.hyatt.com). Not far from these beauties is the more moderate and modest but still classy Park Chateau Kempinski (from $195; www.parkplazahotels.com).

Closer to the heart of the city, just off the Calle Florida pedestrian circus, was my choice, the Claridge Hotel (from $229; www.claridge.com.ar), a five-star with nicely appointed rooms and a terrific staff. Directly opposite Plaza San Martin's greenery and statuary is the Plaza Hotel, now a Marriott, another oldie (like the Alvear, sort of) that shows its age elegantly (from $302, $321 with the park view; www.marriott.com). The decently located Sheraton Libertador looks exactly like a Sheraton; it's OK if you're cashing in Starwood points or just have a ship to catch (from $302; www.sheraton.com). A tad less convenient but still central is the massive Sheraton-Convention Center (slightly pricier, same Web site). Among other chains represented: InterContinental, Hilton, Melia and Holiday Inns.

Note: All the above prices are full "rack" (i.e., published) rates and, unless something special is going on, no one pays them. That's common in most markets, but especially here, where competition is fierce right now and discounts are hefty: I paid $144 at the Claridge for that $229 room; the Sheratons had rooms at half that above-listed price, and even the Alvear slashes rates when demand softens. So shop around.

DINING THERE

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.

We tried three that covered the gamut and all earned return visits if we could: Las Nazarenas (on Calle Reconquesta across from the larger Sheraton) is a bi-level monster that draws big crowds of tourists as well as locals with something to celebrate. Our bife de lomo (a 1.3-pound filet; about $14) was state of the art. The asada de tira (short ribs with plenty of meat) at a sidewalk table at little Los Gauchos on Calle Chile in San Telmo was heavenly and embarrassingly cheap: about $3, including a large plate of fries. Splitting the difference in price and square footage: Parrilla 1880 (Avenida Defensa, across from Parque Lezama at the edge of San Telmo).

For a change, Tancat, a spiffy Spanish tasca in the center (Calle Paraguay, near Calle Florida, Retiro), got it right with its seafood tapas. Throughout the city, the milanesa--meat or chicken, thin, floured and fried, and served simply with a squeeze of lemon or topped with other things--is a staple; mine ($4), at a simple diner called My House on Avenida Cordoba near Florida, was just fine. Los Chilenos, a pleasant, busy storefront on Calle Suipacha near Las Nazarenas, served up a congrio (conger eel) dinner in a garlic-olive oil sauce that was worthy of Chile itself.

Additionally: Pizza is everywhere. There are German, French and lots of Italian restaurants (you hear ciao here more often than adios), even sushi places--and yes, you can find an empanada and a quarter-pounder with cheese.

INFORMATION

Call the Argentina Government Tourist Office in New York (there is no Chicago office) 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.

--Alan Solomon

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asolomon@tribune.com

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