Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Downtime: El Almacen

This is the second in a series of my favourite downtime places which I haunt in my R&R hours away from the Fortress of Solitude. This one is a small Yerba Mate Café called El Amacen (= “general store”sp.) which is located on Queen Street West section of downtown Toronto just west of the Little Tibet neighbourhood, West Parkdale and that I discovered on one of my nocturnal walks. I was in the mood best described by the person in Oscar Ruben's lyrics, "Lejos de Buenos Aires."

Con la mueca del pesar,
viejo, triste y sin valor,
lento el paso al caminar
voy cargando mi dolor.
Lejos de la gran ciudad
que me ha visto florecer,
en las calles más extrañas
siento el alma oscurecer.
Nadie observa mi final,
ni le importa mi dolor,
nadie quiere mi amistad,
sólo estoy con mi amargor.
Y así vago sin cesar
desde el día que llegué
cuando en pos de un sueño loco todo,
todo abandoné.

Y andando sin destino de pronto reaccioné
al escuchar de un disco el tango aquel:
“Mozo traiga otra copa,”
que lo cantaba Carlos Gardel.
Y al escucharlo recordé todo el pasado,

los años mozos tan felices que pasé:
mi viejecita, la barra amiga,
la noviecita que abandoné.
Tango, ¡que trae recuerdos!
Mi Buenos Aires, ¡quiero llorar!

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In the last ten years, over three thousand Tibetans have moved to Toronto and over half have settled in this area. They have their own temples, stores and even Saturday morning radio show, Radio Tibet on 101.3 FM so it’s strange to find an Argentinean café outpost in this area of Tibetan prayer wheels and orange clad monks but the Argentine community in Toronto is very diffuse so this became a meeting place after a FIFA world cup series brought various members of the community together and now a visitor can hear the sounds of Castellano, an Italian-accented version of Spanish spoken in the café.

The establishment was named after a Tango dinner theatre in Buenos Aires called Viejo Almacen and every other Saturday they have a Tango and Tea time where you can dance and flirt with Argentinean ladies over mate. There is  a secret code among the clientele during the tango time -  if you offer a sweetened mate, it means you’re interested; a mate with cinnamon means “I’ll wait for you" and a mate with an orange peel means “I’m thinking of you.”

The counter has jars of biscotti and alfajores, soft biscuits laced with jam. Argentine born owner, Silvio Rodriquez and his wife Silvio own the café which specializes in yerba mate, plain or with mint or lemon verbena although they also offer tea and cortado coffee from the silver Elektra espresso machine.

The mate is drunk through a bombilla which is a filter tipped metal straw from a wooden gourd or . They also sell an Argentinian empanadas filled with onions, chile pepper, chopped egg and minced beef which is the way they are prepared in the province of Mendoza where Silvio was born in the town of Godoy Cruz. Yerbe mate (“herb” sp.) is a shrub which is a member of the holly family and is grown in sub tropical South America.  One of the secrets is to not stir the bombilla since it will cause the straw to plug. You can see the gourd below along with a jar of extra mate as well as sugar to sweeten the brew.

The server is called a “cebador” and drinks the first brew which is called the “mate del zonzo” or mate of the fool since it is the strongest and most bitter. The mate is drunk until it’s “lavado” or flat.

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