It was an overcast day, and the air was crisp and cold. It felt more frigid in my tiled apartment than it looked outside (it was) so I left the house bundled up, hoping to tire out the dog with a long walk and treat myself to rumors of a new Mexican restaurant tucked away somewhere in Caballito. The restaurant was closed (boo) and we kept walking, my figurative tail between my legs and a grumbling stomach. We wandered up Honorio Pueyrredón, took a turn on Mahatma Gandhi and another right on Camargo, and like a Mecca to our long journey, I ran into an old friend — El Buen Sabor — a small corner restaurant painted in bright orange that serves food inspired by different African culinary traditions.
Few reliable statistics exist to put a definitive number on the small African population that lives in Buenos Aires. The 2010 official census comes in at around 3,000 Africans living in the entire country while other more liberal (and unofficial) guestimates range all the way up to 10,000 first and second generation immigrants and recent refugees. Although the most numerous population comes from Senegal, the small community hails from all over the western coastal nations, including Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Liberia and Cameroon.
It was 2008 when owner and head cook Maxime Tankouo opened El Buen Sabor. The dining culture as we know it today — varied, exciting and growing with new ideas — was still in its infancy and dominated by eateries that were strongly rooted in Argentina’s Italian and Spanish heritage. Radical ideas weren’t welcomed with open arms. In 2010 Siamo nel Forno was met with criticism for its thin crust pizza, and just last year La Carniceria became the butt of complaints for its deviations from traditional asado — the most sacred of Argentine traditions — so opening an African restaurant in the middle of residential Villa Crespo wasn’t exactly an overnight success.
“Opening the restaurant wasn’t easy. It was very difficult,” he begins, “There was a lot of prejudice against me, and I wasn’t sure if this [Argentina] was the right place for a restaurant. The first year was hard. No one came and many would come and tell me that they hoped I failed.”
Tankouo arrived to Buenos Aires in a way uncharacteristic of other members of the community, many of whom make their way to Argentina seeking asylum. He wound up in Argentina by sheer happenstance. In his native Cameroon he was a soccer player both for his national team and an association in Gabon, and was told that he could find a team and a better quality of life in Central America. He embarked on a cross continental scouting trip which began in Panama and zig zagged south with the intention of reaching Brazil. But before getting to the final destination, he found himself in Buenos Aires where he stayed for six nights.
“There was one thing I fell in love with immediately. The joda,” he tells me with a big laugh, his strong physical stature is masked by a smile that never fades. Hearing us giggle prompts his wife Paula Magaldi, of Cordoba, to pop her head out of the kitchen, “I went out every night to the pubs and boliches, and never ended up reaching Brazil.” He was in talks to join a small team but opted out because he was “getting too old to play football,” and instead opened a maxikiosco in Palermo. Overtime he began wanting to do something that would reflect his roots, and a restaurant, although difficult, was a natural fit.
“Cooking is an innate part of being Cameroonian. By ten years old, everyone know how to cook for the whole family.” The menu draws inspiration from his childhood, where his mother, a food vendor, prepped dinner and left him and his siblings to finish off the meal. His love for fish — the most easily accessible ingredient in Cameroon — is sacred on the menu. Like the corvina a la parrilla, fish marinated in spices and slow cooked over the grill. The dish goes on in the early evening and isn’t ready to serve until at least 9pm when it is served on a platter and picked apart whole. Or the salsa de mani con pescado, a creamy peanut base that after hours of stewing manifests into a complex and rich soup. The dish is undeniably and unapologetically proud of its African-ness. “I could adapt to the locals, but then I’d give up my authenticity.” The fish isn’t deboned, and eaters have to skillfully break apart the meat in order to not swallow part of the prickly spine. “The bone in the fish is something that I constantly defend. It’s not that I’m stubborn, it’s just you can’t make these dishes any other way. It has to be with the whole fish.” It is worth every bit of labor.
Although Tankouo wishes that they weren’t the most popular item on the menu, the chicken wings are one of the most requested dishes for a reason. Heavily seasoned and fried, it is just the right balance between a crispy outside and juicy inside. Doused in a spicy yellow hot sauce, these are amongst the best wings in the entire city. Dishes are all served with soft plantains, mandioca or fried sweet potato, and you’d be a fool not to finish the meal with a koeksister — braided sweet dough that tastes like a soft donut.
As El Buen Sabor comes up on its eighth anniversary, it is that sense of authenticity and loyalty to where he came from that keeps it running strong. No matter where you’re from, there is a spot in this restaurant for everyone, where Tankuou greets all guests with a smile and a warm plate of food.
Camargo 296, Villa Crespo
Tuesday through Friday 8:30 p.m. – 2:00 a.m.
Saturday 12:45 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.