The superpancho

Our lungs had not yet been fully coated with the smoke of 500 chain smoking, leather-faced Argentinian gamblers. The middle aged women looked like their makeovers came courtesy of Rawlings after the catchers mitts had been made for the year. The men all looked like aged Nazis, despite the fact they’d been born long after Hitler had put one in his noodle. We five travelers had been in a cigarette’s uterus for the better part of eight or nine hours. It was dinner time when we breached the womb into the fresh air of a Mar del Plata night.

We sucked it in. None of us were sick yet. None of us had casino cough or even developed much in the way of a bad mood. It was our first opportunity to eat dinner as a group and we actually had 80 minutes to do it. It was an exciting development in an otherwise unexciting and uncomfortable day.

Argentinians eat late. I knew this going in. I also knew they so badly overcook their beef, it’s almost a shame they breed some of the best cattle on the planet. By the end of the trip Change100 had figured out that the only way to get a properly cooked steak was to beg, “Muy, muy rojo.” I ended up liking the idea so much, I decided I’m going to open my own Argentinian steakhouse with the following temperatures.

Well done = Not-so rojo
Medium = So-so rojo (you must move your hand in the so-so motion when you order)
Rare = So, so rojo

But on this particular night, a 7:30 dinnertime was way too early to get into any of the decent places along the main drag in Mar del Plata. Because we were in a hurry, we settled on a little corner cafe that served more as a bakery than a diner. We crowded five people around a small table. Pauly came up with a game that let us bet on the placemat pictures. When we finally got the menus, they were entirely in Spanish.

We’re pretty decent travelers, especially in Spanish-speaking countries. My photographer and friend Joe Giron is basically fluent and pretty much saves my ass everywhere we go. Change lives in southern California and speaks enough Español to cover me if Joe isn’t around. Pauly, Gene, and I know just enough to get ourselves in trouble.

When the menus came out in all Spanish, we didn’t blink. After a couple of meals in Spanish-speaking countries, it’s pretty easy to order a decent meal. Pauly and Gene ordered the hamburguesa. Joe and Change ordered the pollo completa. I stared at the menu.

“Superpancho?”

That was my way of asking Joe or Change if they knew what it was. They shrugged. It wasn’t a term they’d heard before.

The superpancho, like most everything else, was cheap. It was offered in a couple of different ways. The most exciting was con queso.

“I don’t know what it is,” I declared, “but I’m ordering it. I’m a gambler. I’ll eat it!”

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, but it was going to be food, and that was all that mattered. When I was a kid, I used to eat at this Mexican joint where they served something called a “Sancho.” It was a very fresh, lettuce-heavy burrito that I remember fondly.

Now, did I think the superpancho was going to be a Sancho? No. It seemed a virtual certainty that it wouldn’t be. And really, it didn’t matter to me. It was exciting, almost dirty. I was sitting at the end of our table, looking at myself in a column mirror, and saying, “You’re just ordering food. It doesn’t matter what the food is. You’re throwing open your robe, exposing yourself to a whole country, and laying yourself bare on their dinner table. Bring me the superpancho and do it with all speed, man!”

The anticipation was fantastic. After all, this wasn’t just a pancho. It was a super pancho. And not only that, it was a superpancho con queso. I was hungry. I had visions this mammoth pancho dripping with gooey cheese. My friends with their boring chicken and sandwiches and hamburgers were going to be jealous. They were going to envy my gambler’s spirit. It would shake them from the comfortable confines of their rote menu ordering and launch them on a new life of carefree travel eating.

The waiter knew I was getting off on the wait. He could see me sitting forward in my seat and clutching my silverware. He brought the chicken and burgers first.

“And the superpancho?” I asked. “The superpancho?”

Si, si” he said, as if to say, “Keep your shorts on pal. I got your superpancho right here.”

And then he came around the corner, the plate in hand.

“The plate doesn’t look very big,” I thought. “Must be some sort of delicacy!”

The waiter sat the plate down in front of me with flair. And there it sat…the superpancho.

Argentina is a wonderful country. The smoky casino and overcooked steaks aside, the Argentinian people are very nice. The young women are gorgeous, the men are friendly, and the local beer, Quilmes, ain’t bad either. Some things do get lost in the translation. Across the street from our hotel was a place called “Friends” that was said to be either a brothel or hair salon (the former being more likely based on the signage). Regardless of whether they were offering hair cuts or just trim, they were advertising pato-girls.

“Pato means duck,” Joe observed as we walked by one night.

“Duck girls?” I asked. I frankly wouldn’t want a duck girl cutting my hair or fiddling with my naughty bits. In Argentina, you may not always get what you expect. You could go in looking for web-footed girls and end up getting herpes.

I’d gone for the superpancho and it now sat right in front of me in all its glory. All eight inches of it. On a stale bun. With a piece of cheese half-melted on top of it.

My dinner, the hot dog.

Wanna see a picture? Pauly has one here.