Dan Sinker/blog

Food Carts on the Edge of the World

In honor of Argentina’s advancement to the finals of the World Cup, I thought I’d dip into my drafts folder and share this memory:

I used to travel to Buenos Aires for a journalism conference once a year. 14 hours south from Chicago by plane. You'd traverse only two time zones the whole way down, so you had no real jetlag when you got there, but you were still tired as hell.

You'd land, make your way to a cheap hotel room—a futon for a bed usually—and crash out. Then you'd wake up hungry. Hungrier than you'd ever felt, your last real meal was probably a full day ago at that point.

And you'd meet up with a bunch of other folks who’d flown in for the conference, your family for the week—everyone equally groggy and sleep-deprived, some flying for 24 hours straight from all over the world—and you'd start walking through the streets of Buenos Aires looking for food.

Most of my memories of those trips are linked to food in one way or another, including one at a former squat-turned-tango-bar where we consumed a dozen bottles of wine and I was held at knifepoint until I let a woman braid my beard. But my very favorite memory was one where a friend who lived down in BA took us on a near-endless walk, all the way to the edge where the city meets the water.

It was an area that used to be docklands and warehouses, he explained, but most had recently been converted to high-end apartments and hotels. One thing that hadn't changed was the food carts, set up on the edge of a gigantic nature preserve. They'd served the dockworkers for decades and served all-comers now.

It was night—when we'd left on the walk it was day—and the grill smoke coming from the carts, a dozen or so in a line, enveloped you, thick and pungent. It was the last street on that side of the city. After that there was a stone wall, waist high, and then an endless sea of darkness: the nature preserve. It was like the world just ended, a void.

"Which cart is good," I remember asking my friend Manuel, and he laughed and said "all of them" and I got the best steak sandwich I'd ever had. The steak, thin cut and crisp in parts with chewy bits of fat. The bread, light but crusty, absorbing drippings the moment the meat hit it. Bowls of toppings sat on folding tables, haphazardly covered with plastic wrap and flies. You piled on chimichurri and onions and whatever else you wanted.

You bought an absolutely enormous bottle of not-very-good beer to go with it, not quite as big as a 40 and much weaker than malt liquor, but I can't imagine a better pairing.

Plenty of tables lined the street, but we set up on the wall, some sitting on it, others standing alongside. It was then—away from the grills and the tinny radios playing music, a different song from each cart, a cacophony of music—sandwich in one hand and enormous beer in the other that I first heard it:

A high, droning whine, enormous in size, a wall of sound, impenetrable, coming from the dark expanse next to us.

"What are those?" I asked Manuel, thinking about the night songs of forests here in the Midwest, "Crickets?"

"No," he laughed, taking a big drink of his beer, "Frogs. Millions of frogs. Singing"

And we sat there for hours, in the dark and the grill smoke, eating these amazing sandwiches listening to the endless songs of frogs. Songs that are impossible to forget forever.

Published December 13, 2022.

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