There’s nothing like a tango show—or even the merest idea of a tango show—to turn otherwise healthy-minded people into harrumphing culture snobs. "Tango is for tourists!" they sneer, forgetting that not even the best Broadway show can survive without putting out-of-town bums on seats. "It's not real tango," is another stock grievance. But this is no more devastating an observation than saying the Harlem Globetrotters don't play real basketball. Of the tango shows I've attended, some have been amazing, others mediocre, one (now defunct) so bad it haunts my dreams. Each succeeded or failed on its theatrical merits, not measured against some spurious yardstick of authenticity.
Most shows include a three-course dinner with wine—which can sometimes be skipped, an option I recommend. You will struggle to find a place that doesn't have a restaurant nearby which serves better, cheaper food than that served "in house." Finally, don't book the first show your hotel recommends. Vanishingly few locals have attended a tango show, and you are almost certainly the best judge of your own tastes in musical theater.
Esquina Carlos Gardel
Carlos Gardel was to tango what Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley combined were to popular music. Located in Abasto, where "Carlitos" was raised, this popular venue hosts one of the slickest, most tightly choreographed shows in town. Unusually, the food is pretty good too—a simple but effective case of steak meets Malbec.
Café de los Angelitos
Recently restored, this myth-soaked coffee house dates back to 1890, when it attracted an eclectic mix of artists, prostitutes, gangsters and minstrels (in other words, a tango crowd). Nowadays you can book a table beneath the stained-glass skylights and enjoy a show that takes you (literally) step by step through the history of the dance.
It's the merest flash of naked breast, but it's enough to make Rojo Tango at the Faena Hotel + Universe the only not-suitable-for-work show in Buenos Aires. Deliberate wardrobe malfunction aside, this is a fairly conventional show, with a troupe of accomplished dancers filling the stage with kicks and twirls and mimed knife fights. The three-course set menu is excellent.
Esquina Homero Manzi
Homero Manzi was one of the true poets of tango, penning witty but heartbreaking lyrics to such classics as "Fuimos," "Desde el Alma," and, most famously, "Sur," which name-checks the street intersection on which this venue sits. Expect a relatively sober and thoughtful show, with the nostalgia ramped up and the razzmatazz dialed back.
Centro Cultural Borges
Located just off pedestrian thoroughfare of Florida Street, the Borges is one of the city's best contemporary cultural centers, hosting everything from photography exhibits to modern ballet. On Monday nights, Pasión de Tango takes the stage, featuring lavishly costumed dancers, a tight orchestra and some of the best choreography around. If you want to see a performance outside the dinner-show circuit, this is a great option.