Change from 100: Cumaná

Well, officially Spring has sprung although the person in charge of weather seems less inclined to be dictated to by a date. Of course, Friday being the first official day of the new season meant plenty of fresh blooms for sale on every other street corner and I even treated myself to a small bunch of freesias, which lasted a day. But what a day!

Actually, it’s been more like four seasons in a week for me. Fresh back from a trip to the UK, which was still as high as a kite from all the year’s festivities, as well as to ravers’ haven Ibiza, I’ve been dipped into cloudy British autumn (also known as summer in England to you), and pure searing heat in the Balearics before finding myself in torrential rain and a mosquito infestation back in Buenos Aires. Who knows what’s going on?

This past week, all I knew was this: with such crummy weather, it was time to seek out a hearty supper as a quick tribute to the cold weather I’m ready to leave behind.

And having spent pounds over these past few weeks instead of pesos — my costliest meal was at the fabulous Smiths of Smithfields in the City of London, at 50 pounds or around 350 pesos for lunch, which sounds like a kick in the face but is half the price of a tasting menu at Buenos Aires’ Alvear hotel — I figured it was about time I economized and tried to squeeze out another Change from 100 column.

That’s right, it’s dining price-crunch time once again as I try to get a dinner for two for under 100 pesos. And as time goes by, it’s becoming increasingly harder to nail a spot which isn’t just serving pizza or a milanesa for that price.

So in a double craving for Argentine food as well as something warming, I decided to place my bet on Cumaná. This bustling joint earns itself a Change from 100 gold star before walking in the door, given its swanky Recoleta location. Fine, it’s not right next door to the Alvear but I probably wouldn’t get change from 100 pesos buying a dozen pastries from next door to that hotel either.

Cumaná, the name of a state capital in Venezuela, always foxes me. I’ve been several times over the years, and given that is squeezed between several other similar-looking restaurants, I never remember which one it is until I step inside.

Retracing my footsteps, I left the cold to enter the warm and noisy spot, and as this time I’m on my own, manage to bag a table ahead of larger groups whose names are on the waiting list. Yes, this place gets busy, every night of the week.

This means I’m actually looking to get change from 50 pesos, and there are various stew options, pizzas and also pasta in the shape of gnocchi or cannelloni hitting the mid-30-peso mark.

Essentially Cumaná is a fast-food restaurant serving rustic meat-based dishes and tamales more usually served up in the northwest, and I mean fast in the order-to-table sense. Doughy bread which felt old to the touch was actually delightfully light in the mouth and accompanied by butter which arrived so rapidly I barely had time to pick up the crayons provided and start doodling a forest scene on the tablecloth.

Kicking off with a six-peso spicy steak empanada hot from the oven, I was pleasantly surprised by the slight kick of picante it offered. Nothing long-lasting, however, and as I chomped down the final juicy morsel, I did consider whether I should have waited until dessert time to pick a dulce de leche– or quince-filled one instead.

All of 90 seconds later and my locro appeared, steaming and in a typical earthenware bowl.
I’d asked the waitress about the tamales and she corrected me to the singular. “Was it worth having?” I questioned. She reckoned no, that it was a bit small, and so I went for a heartier option, which was better value at 29.50 pesos instead of 27.

And it certainly wasn’t lacking beef or porky bits. On Tuesday, I’d lunched at Sudestada in Palermo Hollywood, which had the audacity to offer chicken and vegetable broth which contained a portion of boiled fowl the size of my thumbnail, so I was on full alert to be done out of my share of meats in the stew. It wasn’t necessary. It was positively overflowing.

Doused on top was a nice mound of chopped spring onion as well as some scarlet salsa picante to mix in, and on reflection I’d have asked to up the spice ante to give the locro some more flavour and kick overall.

Part of the Change from 100 plan is to also buy a soft drink (it’s rare to be able to squeeze a glass of wine into the price, although some bodegones may have small carafes of alcoholic grape juice for practically nothing), so I ordered a still mineral water for 12 pesos.

The problem was, when the bill came, it was 14 pesos and so I clocked up a grand total of 49.50, meeting my goal by a whisker. Peering across the candle-lit restaurant, I spied some healthy-looking pizzas, which cost between 34 and 50 pesos and looked sharable — and given that Guerrín and Siamo nel Forno pizzerias among others cost close to 100 pesos or more for a pie, I’ll be popping back to check those out soon.

Wining On verdict: hearty, well-priced local staples in a bustling spot which sports bunches of garlic, cheese graters and spanners on the walls.

Rodríguez Peña 1149, Recoleta
Tel: 4813-9207

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