south america | columbia | steakhouse scam
presse agent Dave Sommer
This was supposed to be a story about our trip to the best Argentinian steakhouse in Colombia, but it turns out we may have been had. We didn’t go looking for trouble, I promise. We didn’t even go looking for steaks – the whole debacle had its genesis at a fantastic sushi restaurant in the heart of Cartagena’s gorgeous old city.
Yes, that Cartagena. The immensely popular jewel of the reincarnated tourist state, a showpiece city now so safe and spit-polished that armed police stand on literally every third corner, looking bored as hell. The whole thing is so precious – and so seriously beautiful – that Anthony Bourdain straight-up ignored it on his recent multi-city Colombian special, essentially calling it played out. I love Bourdain, but when it comes to Carta, he can go fuck himself. As a newly engaged couple, all we wanted was somewhere romantic to stroll, and the city fit the bill perfectly. Centuries-old stone walls ring alleys and streets that give onto plazas bursting with life (and yes, plenty of annoying hustlers), all jammed with quaint little shops designed to vacuum money from the hordes of tourists walking around commenting on how quaint everything is. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, the walled city may be Colombia for beginners, but it’s an absolute feast for the eyes. So was Tabetai, the aforementioned sushi place – a sleek four-table closet of a joint just around the corner from our apartment. We held court there for hours on our first night, eating butter-soft rolls and sour ceviche, drinking overpriced cocktails, and making new friends with the people sandwiched next to us. Jorge* had that classy-older-guy vibe about him and was local, a lifelong Cartageño, entertaining friends from Cali. They all spoke English fluently and seemed quite taken with Shayna and me, the youngsters celebrating the start of our new life together. We exchanged phone numbers on the promise Jorge would take us to “the best Argentinian steakhouse in Colombia,” an out-of-the-way place to die for. It made my mouth water, and in turn we made plans.
Two nights later, we meet and walk a few blocks before it becomes abundantly clear Jorge has no idea where the hell he’s going, or even what the name of the restaurant is. He stumbles through a couple of wrong turns, his memory evidently playing tricks. I think he’s drunk.
Shay and I look at each other warily. I have saved the number of the Canadian consulate in my phone for situations like this. Finally we arrive at the greatest steakhouse of all time. It is locked tight. Jorge is embarassed. We eventually find another place, famous for its giant taxidermied cow at the entrance. Maybe this was the place all along? It is empty. We sit, chat. Argentiniana covers the walls – pictures of Diego Maradona, that sort of thing, but nothing yet of the new Pope. Jorge talks of his long career as a TV News producer and Shay impresses him with her perfect Spanish. The steaks arrive and they’re unevenly done, nearly bloody in spots and medium in others. I’ve had better at our local chain place. This is a tourist trap but, grateful for the night out, I cram every possible bite into my mouth until Jorge leans far back in his chair and says, “Thank you so much for offering.”
Just like that, I’m checkmated. The Argentinian Steakhouse scam. It all happened so smoothly.
Shay and I part ways with the man; walk wordlessly back to our Airbnb apartment in Plaza Fernandez de Madrid. It was an expensive night. I feel like a beginner after all. Maybe the harder parts of Colombia truly aren’t meant for me. But then it hits me – Bourdain’s whole shtick was showing off how safe and fun the country had become. He rolled a dune buggy in the desert, had lunch, and called it a day. On the other hand, I was defrauded by a stranger, left on the hook for a night of expensive,
terrible passable steaks. I got my little taste of Colombian danger and lived to tell the tale. Cartagena is still a Wild West, people. Be careful.
*Jorge’s name has been changed, however that could very well be his real name. Who can trust anything a scam artist says?
Dave Sommer is an Ottawa-based writer and communications advisor for the Liberal Party of Canada. Follow him on Twitter @realdavesommer.