“If things are not going well with you, begin your effort at correcting the situation by carefully examining the service you are rendering, and especially the spirit in which you are rendering it.”
– Roger Babson, American Business Forecaster and Author
Buenos Aires – It was the incessant babble that I noted first. It crept into my consciousness slowly, like the buzzing of a distant insect, gradually moving closer and closer, until so close to my ear, so loud, that I wanted to swat it away. “He was like totally, you know, like, cute!” “Oh, like, wow, yeah!” Phrases of stereotyped California Valley Girl dialect, or is that Malibu Beach? I can never keep my teen California girl idioms straight. It continued on and on, ad nauseum, much of it apparently having to do with some young man at a party the evening before. Two young women, clearly college age, norteamericanas, in halter tops and sweats, one blonde, one brunette, but otherwise virtually identical. Seated a couple of tables away from in a small restaurant in Barrio Chino. One ordered her fried rice and tried to explain she wanted it made without oil (it’s fried for god’s sake) and got nowhere, the other some plain steamed vegetables – no tofu “ewwwww”; then proceeding to trash the waitress after she left – “why don’t they learn to speak English!” Bad enough when it’s tourists on holiday, worse when it’s a couple of exchange students, presumeably here to learn about the culture and the language.
From my view, the waitresses were delightful. Cheerful, chatty, happy to make recommendations and discuss menu options – all in castellano of course. When they were out of one of our choices, they recommended other similar dishes. The manager and I discussed the typical Chinese food here in Buenos Aires, usually Taiwan based, as much of the early Chinese population in the city was from there. A recent posting over on La Otra Dimensión bemoaned the lack of good dim sum in this city – so I asked, which led to a whole conversation about food from the Canton province, where these nibbles are an art form and specialty – and a recommendation for the one place she knew of in the city that offered reasonably authentic food from the region – on my list to check out and report back to you soon. I asked about soup dumplings, a favorite of mine from the Shanghai area, and she merely sighed, and said that she wished the chef knew how to make them, but no, as far as she knew, no Shanghai cuisine to be had in the city.
For me, good service goes a long way. It can’t make up for bad cuisine, but it can add a whole new luster to average cooking. I remember a few years back when Nation’s Restaurant News, a trade periodical in the U.S. offered up a study, sort of exit polls, on why people frequent certain restaurants. The number one reason, by a long lead, that people returned time and again to the same place, was service – and specifically the friendliness, cheerfulness, and helpfulness of the service. Far distant were the correctness of service and the quality of food. And that sums up why I enjoyed, despite the buzzing idiocy of my fellow Americans, my meal at Los Manjares, Arribeños 2186, 4896-0483. The food was decent, average quality Chinese food, but it was really delightful for a change to have service with a smile.
We started off with what has become my standard appetizer test here in Buenos Aires, the empanaditas chinas a la plancha, or as I’ve always called them, potstickers. The filling in these was actually quite good – one of the better and more flavorful versions I’ve had here – lots of (mildly) spicy pork, garlic, chives, a bit of chopped vegetable. The standard way to cook a potsticker is to brown it in oil on one side, or the bottom (depending on the shape you’ve formed), then add some sort of liquid to the pan, cover it, and let the exposed side steam until done. It results in a really good mix of delicate and crunchy that can be wonderful if done right. These weren’t – they’d been clearly sauteed in oil on both sides, and with oil that was too low of temperature, so the dough soaked up a lot of it and while tasty, left the potstickers oily in texture. A shame, because with the filling, and a quite good dipping sauce, if these had been cooked right they might have been in contention for best I’ve had here.
One of my all time favorite vegetable dishes in Chinese cooking, a Szechuan dish, is Eggplant Yu-Xiang style. It’s spicy, it involves eggplant, which I love, and it’s kind of cool to pronounce. Unfortunately, Los Manjares couldn’t make it – quite simply it turns out, because there were no Asian eggplants, though long skinny ones, available in the markets. The manager explained that Yu-Xiang made with Italian style eggplants simply doesn’t work out right – the taste is wrong, the texture is wrong, and they simply won’t substitute. Something good to know – and might lead to a kitchen experiment here to explore the difference in the way they turn out… I accepted her recommendation for the spicy vegetable and pork stir-fry. It was good, but lacking in spice – I forgot to make it clear that I wanted it spicy by the standards of anyone who isn’t either Argentine or Italian… those little things one has to remember at times – we’d been having such a lovely chat that I guess I just assumed she’d picked up I wasn’t a porteño… perhaps she had, and just forgot to communicate it to the chef. Regardless, it was a nice mixture of peppers, onions, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and Italian eggplant, lightly spiced, with shreds of pork. Decent in its own right, nothing special.
So, would I go back? Absolutely – even if just to hang out with the charming staff and drink some tea. And, perhaps, after checking it out, to thank them for the recommendation on dim sum…