“Coffeehouses became the favorite hangouts of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. There were Beat coffeehouses in every American city with a population of over 100,000 by the early 1960s. New York’s Greenwich Village, San Francisco’s North Beach, and Venice West in southern California, with their low rents, friendly bistros, and reputations for tolerance, were seen as retreats from “square” society. By the end of the decade, hippie coffeehouses throughout the country were offering folk music, serving as community centers for youth counterculture, and providing political contacts and counseling for Vietnam War draft resisters.”
– Pat Browne, The guide to United States popular culture
Buenos Aires – “There’s this place…” it usually begins. And it’s always in Palermo. What is it about Palermo that people can’t remember the name or address of anything? When someone suggests a restaurant to me on the outskirts of town, in the middle of a rundown warehouse district, I’ll get “meet us at X, here’s the address and phone number, it’s the third building on the left if you’re walking from the corner of Y”. But in Palermo, it’s always accompanied by a vague wave, or faint trailing off, and a “I don’t know what the place is called, and I think it’s on Z, more or less somewhere around one of the plazas.” Okay, the instructions this time weren’t quite that vague, but “on El Salvador between Arevalo and Dorrego, on the west side of the street” and “Don’t even know the name,” were as good as it got. Admittedly, Frank, who was recommending it, had never been, it had been recommended to him just as vaguely. Luckily, it’s not a block packed with restaurants, and the “casual cafe” suggested that Cusic, El Salvador 6016, 4139-9173, had to be the spot. I rang the bell – literally, a hanging bell with a rope that you snap back and forth a couple of times to get the bell to ring – and a waitress came and let me in to a pretty little narrow courtyard. Cusic turns out to be a house that’s been converted to a hangout, coffeeshop, casual food kind of place. The kind of place that Avenue A was populated with when I first moved to NYC in the early ’80s. I started having flashbacks. Good ones, but flashbacks.
The menu is scribbled across a series of chalkboards. There is one main one, with the primary menu, but then, scattered on the walls, and in various nooks and crannies, you can discover small ones, each with an item or two, sometimes beverages, sometimes more food. There’s a couch over there with a coffeetable and magazines, there are a couple of refrigerators dotted through the room, and now and then one of the cooks would pop out to dig through one looking for one ingredient or another, there’s a bit of kitsch, there are pastries laid out on a table to look at, there’s a wall lined with coffee mugs. There’s a patio. About the only thing it’s missing from those alphabet-city spots of 30 years ago is a faint haze of marijuana and tobacco smoke mingling in the air.
Frank opted for the daily three-course menu, which led off with a quite good, though fudgy thick bowl of squash soup intensely flavored with cinnamon. His main course, a beet and goats cheese risotto, was flavorful, though really just a bowl of rice, not a risotto. So few people get risotto right. I decided on a light sandwich – the menu lists a variety, each with its own homemade bread. Of course, I have to try a bagel, only the bagel sandwich was roast beef with sauerkraut and mustard, which while it sounds good, was heavier than I wanted, but our waitress asserted it would be no problem to put the neighboring smoked salmon sandwich on my choice of bread. She also assured me that the bagel was a real, New York style bagel. Of course, I’ve been through this before… and have come to accept that the chances are slim. And, sure enough, this was pretty much a soft bread roll shaped into a ring – a flavorful one, but not a bagel. The sandwich was fine, nothing special, but good, the wilted lettuce salad on the side could have used some freshening up – should have gone with the french fry option I suppose.
We wandered over to the pastry table – Frank’s three course menu came with a vaguely edible lemon tart of some sort. I spotted the cinnamon rolls, all gooey and delicious looking. And indeed the cinnamon part and the honey drizzled over it were gooey and delicious, and they’d warmed the whole thing up – the roll, on the other hand, made with some sort of whole grain flour that left it dry and chalky, and with a strangely unappealling interior greyish-purple color. Coffee was good, not great – it’s offered both espresso style and in large mugs, but the latter turn out to be a shot of espresso with extra hot water added – too weak. Easily remedied I’m sure by ordering a double shot of espresso and then the extra water, or better yet, they could actually brew some coffee if they’re going to offer mugs….
Overall, a cool, laid-back sort of hangout spot, where I could see reading a paper or magazine, having an espresso, or one of the lemonade or iced tea drinks (the Chill Bill, a honeyed mix of the two was quite good), and enjoying a quiet morning or afternoon. If it was in my ‘hood, I’d probably be a regular, and I could vaguely point in a direction and say, “There’s this place…”.