It's a Tuesday night, and as I enter the MKT Bar at Phoenicia Specialty Foods Downtown, there's this kind of hazy, underground, industrial vibe going on. Strains of poignant, dramatic tango music are coming across the loudspeaker, and dancers slide and sway across the concrete floor, some with the tentative steps of beginners, others with the grace and confidence born of longtime practice.
It's a scene straight from the streets of Buenos Aires, where Argentinian tango is not only the national dance but a national pastime. "It reminds me of a milonga," I said as I took in the surrounding scene, thinking of the tango dance clubs all around Argentina. There we were, in the heart of downtown Houston, in the bar adjacent to a grocery store, no less, and lo and behold, a bona fide milonga was taking place.
MKT Bar is one of those places that might be easily overlooked because of its association with a grocery store. At night, however, the space turns into a full-service wine bar/cafe, with dimmed lights and daily entertainment (they have a full calendar, with local artists, DJs, etc.). Each time I've visited, it has felt like a cool hangout in some hip city. On that Tuesday night, the city would have been Buenos Aires. On other nights, I could have been somewhere in San Francisco, Seattle, or Vancouver.
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Tuesday and Thursday nights also happen to be steak nights, another reason I'd made it a point to visit MKT Bar that night. For $12, you get a six-ounce grilled steak topped with chimichurri sauce, a mound of thin onion rings, a mashed potato and a Mediterranean side salad. For the price paid, the quality of the food we received was remarkable. My steak was the perfect size for a midweek meal, the chimichurri sauce adding a good dose of garlicky herbaceousness that is typical of Argentinian steak preparations. The accompaniments were fun to eat, and the side salad was fantastic -- cool and crisp, with olives and feta cheese, tomatoes and red onions. I'd ordered a lovely glass of sparkling rosé that night as well, another bargain at $7 for a generous pour presented in a fluted glass.
I had my dancing shoes with me that night, but by the time I arrived at 8 p.m., it was too late for the beginner lessons. It didn't matter. It was enough for me to sit at the bar with my girlfriend, both of us enjoying good conversation and banter with our bartender as we dined on steak and listened to the sultry sounds of tango filling the air.