“Bondiola?” I pointed at the entry on the menu card. “What is bondiola?”
I was about to order the bife de lomo, the Argentine tenderloin steak, at El Cucharon when my gaze fell upon this mysterious word, especially since the price tag was similar to the one behind the lomo. The menu card indicated that it was pork, but that wasn’t nearly enough information for me, so I looked up expectantly at the waiter, even as my mind started to wander off. Bondiola. The very word conjured up images of the tough gauchos of Patagonia, sitting steadily atop their mighty steeds while their eyes never averted from the herd of cattle they were attending to. Bondiola. I could almost hear my imaginary gaucho whisper the word softly, all alone in the wide open pampas with only his dog, his horse and his cattle to keep him company, as the wind rustled across the dry, desolate desert landscape. The word itself was pregnant with solitude. And with longing. Longing for his home and family. Longing to consume his next hot meal together with his loved ones.
“Ah! Bondiola!” the waiter exclaimed, a wide grin appearing on his friendly face. He formed a ring with his hand by bringing together the tips of his thumb and forefinger, while the other three fingers were pointed toward the ceiling. He brought the tips to his lips and made a soft smacking sound as he kissed them. “It’s pork shoulder. Excellent quality! Muy bien!”
I laid my right elbow on the table, my chin resting upon my right hand as I mulled over the options laid out before me. On the one hand you had the famous Argentine bife de lomo, the safe choice. After all, how could one go wrong ordering tenderloin steak in Argentina? I desperately wanted to sink my teeth into one of those huge juicy chunks of red meat, not in the last place because a friend of mine has recommended this particular restaurant and especially the beef when I planned my trip to El Calafate. On the other hand, there was the bondiola, that mysterious word. And when it comes to foreign cuisine, I had always been intrigued by the slightly unknown. So in the end my curiosity won out over my initial desire and I ordered the bondiola.
I nibbled on some freshly baked bread while I waited patiently for the bondiola to arrive, making use of the opportunity to take a look around. The interior of El Cucharon was rather small, the tables arranged closely together, providing just enough seating for about 40-50 guests. The amber walls along with the paintings in warm pastel colors hanging on them and the wooden beams hanging beneath the ceiling evoked a feeling of coziness and hospitality, almost like a sanctuary against the strong Southern Patagonian wind blowing outside. Adding in no small part to the whole atmosphere was the affectionate and efficient owner with his enthusiastic personnel bustling around with a perpetual smile on their faces while never skipping a beat when it comes to attending the needs of their guests. When I arrived at 8 p.m. the place was still half empty, but it was customary in these areas to have dinner at a later time. More and more guests trickled into the establishment as I waited, and before long all the tables were occupied. Even the lounge at the back of the restaurant was filled with recently arrived guests who were anxiously for someone to leave so they can claim a spot of their own. Which was a very good sign, because El Cucharon was situated at a rather inconspicuous locale, several minutes walk away from the Avenida San Martin, the main street in El Calafate where the vast majority of the tourists tend to hang out.
After a while the bondiola finally arrived. I sat there in silence for a few seconds taking in the scent, trying to extend the anticipation for a while longer before I carefully tried one of the sweet potatoes that came along with the dish. Not bad, I thought to myself before I quickly focused my attention on the large piece of pork lying there in front of me covered in a dark sauce. With my left hand I sank my fork into the chunk of meat, while with my right hand I grabbed my knife and started cutting off a small piece, slowly and carefully like a surgeon performing a delicate operation. I placed the piece of meat into my mouth and my already good mood improved even further. The bondiola had a rich flavorsome taste and it had a nice firm texture, and yet it was tender at the same time. The dark sauce contained just a slight hint of sweetness, just enough to give more character to the whole flavor, but not too much so as to ruin the taste of the meat itself. If I wanted to nitpick I could say that it was just a tad too salty, but it was a problem easily solved. All that was required was a sip of the vino de casa, an excellent Patagonian red wine, by letting it roll gently on my tongue, and with which I managed to rinse away the salty taste from my mouth, while the vigorous depth and the full-bodied character of the wine accentuated and complemented the bondiola very well. After I swallowed the wine, I closed my eyes and savored the exquisite experience on my palate. Then I repeated the process, over and over again. Eat, drink, savor. Eat, drink, savor. The process was interrupted only by the occasional sweet potato I put into my mouth. Even though I did my best to drag out the whole experience, chewing slowly and meticulously, it wasn’t long before the final piece of meat glided through my throat and I was left with an empty plate.
I sagged a little into my chair and poured the remaining contents of the wine bottle into my glass. I thought about the meal I just had, how delicious it was, and I felt more satisfied than I’ve felt in a long, long time. Until I saw one of the waiters carrying a plate of bife de lomo. It was enormous, and it looked juicy, juicier than any steak I’ve ever seen. As much as I enjoyed the bondiola, I immediately felt a pang of regret that I didn’t order the lomo.
Ah! Such is the life of the rich, pampered tourist! Never wholly satisfied in the end, no matter the experience. But ultimately, it is precisely this combination of enjoyment and the feeling of always wanting something more and better that generates the happiness that is now so much a part of me. The feeling that no matter how great the enjoyment, that there is always a greater enjoyment left for me to experience.