Dancing on a Dime
The first Tango Grill, a fast-food kiosk serving grilled Argentine-style steaks, waltzed its way into the Aventura Mall in 1999. The corporate group behind it, however, was no newcomer, having already placed quick service operations in 300 shopping centers, spanning 29 states and 9 countries. It had the food-court groove down, and still does -- Tango Grill has since set up concessions at the Sawgrass Mills, Dolphin, and Dadeland malls.
In 2002 the company took its Tango concept a few steps up in quality and a few strides north in direction, with the opening of Argentango Grill in Hollywood -- a real dining environment with a full bar. The Coral Gables location, opening this past July, is the third Argentango (the second one is in a Chicago suburb, and a fourth is being readied for a Design District debut early next year). It's divided into two dining areas, both with modified cathedral ceilings and walls painted a warm, dark red. A silk screen displaying music videos is suspended in the center of one of the rooms; the same videos play on an LCD screen in the other, which also contains a bar and more of a Buenos Aires-inspired brick and rustic-wood look -- although I assume residents of that city are capable of enjoying a steak and a glass of wine without MTV banging away in the background. The wine menu, by the way, is a surprisingly lackluster listing of mostly South American labels.
According to the restaurant's Website, Argentango offers the "the absolute highest quality grade of products and ingredients" and because of its immense buying power can do so at "substantially lower prices than what the market normally calls for." We'll dance around the "absolute highest quality" issue for now, but this place is an undeniable bargain -- especially if you stick to the steaks. Most dinners are under $20, including a mixed grill that sizzles with succulent renditions of skirt steak, vacio steak (an Argentine cut from the back, upper shoulder), New York strip, potently marinated chicken breast, chorizo and blood sausage, and veal sweetbreads. As do all entrées, the grill comes with a basket of warm crusty rolls, soup or salad, choice of one side dish, and an especially vibrant chimichurri sauce with a perky vinegar kick.
Perusing the comestibles on other people's plates led me to conclude that the three key ingredients to Argentango's success are, in no particular order: meat, meat, and meat. Just about everyone in the room seemed to be slicing into one cut or another, some working on individual servings of the mixed grill items, others upgrading to rib eye, filet mignon, and veal, lamb, or pork chops. We sampled the last -- a spryly spiced slab of pork marred only by its overcooking; I remembered too late that Argentines automatically take the pink out of pork unless specifically instructed otherwise. In hindsight I should have also asked them to hold the salt in a side of creamed spinach, made already salty from too much Parmesan. I suggest the trademark "Provenzal" fries, which are French fries sautéed with garlic, parsley, and salt; they tasted exactly like garlic fries at San Francisco's SBC ballpark. Just goes to prove the old adage that you can take the restaurant out of the fast-food court, but you can't take the fast-food court out of the restaurant.
The most popular main course here is a skirt steak coiled like a jellyroll, referred to as "the world's longest steak." How long? If unfurled, it would be lengthier than a loaf of white bread, shorter than a baguette. Which reminds me: Argentango serves a stellar steak sandwich at lunchtime.
Meats here are not of the "absolute highest quality," but they're juicy, keenly seasoned, quite flavorful, and clearly the best entrées to order. Chilean sea bass "alla puttanesca" is not one of the best. The fish was the usual thick square of mild, flaky white flesh, but possessed a mushy consistency (probably from having been frozen). "Lemon broth" turned out to be a salty, gloppy yellow substance made more saline with the puttanesca garnishings of capers and olives. Mashed potatoes on the plate were also too salty. We gulped down water and then guzzled a pitcher of "clerico," a sugary white sangria made with muddled strawberries, peaches, bananas, and apples. The menu states that the drink is prepared tableside, but ours was brought from the bar. Not bad though -- think Snapple with a buzz.
Gnocchi is Argentango's signature pasta dish. It's called "Gnocci del 29" and bears this description: "An old tradition of Argentineans, this dish is eaten on the 29th of every month and is celebrated by Putting money under the dish for good luck. Homemade potato dumpling simmered in a shitaki mushrooms pink sauce." Maybe by their 400th eatery, they'll think to ask someone with a grasp of the English language to correct the menu's multiple misspellings and grammatical errors.
The potato dumplings were light and luscious, and savory snippets of shiitakes appreciated, but the sauce tasted as if concocted from a recipe found on the back of a Campbell's tomato soup can: Add cheese to tomato soup. Stir and bring to a simmer. My dining partner, a former toiler in the restaurant trade, aptly assessed the dish in two words: "staff meal." Now that I think about it, trying the gnocchi on the fifteenth of the month and neglecting to place money under the plate only spelled trouble.
Let's tango backward a few steps to starters. One of a pair of empanadas, the version filled with chopped beef, was delicious; the other, stuffed with cold cubes of dry chicken breast, was not. The waiter took it back to the kitchen and returned about a minute later with the same empanada, now steaming hot. The microwaved reheat didn't moisten it. Bacon-wrapped scallops with sweet chili sauce were better. So was shrimp ceviche -- copious medium-size, cold-water crustaceans soaking in lime juice, cilantro, and red onion -- though it lacked a hot pepper kick, and fried "patacones" on the side were crumpled (must have been from the bottom of the bag). Tango salad brought a tasty mélange of field greens, Gorgonzola cheese, honey-roasted peanuts, and fanned slices of apple; a "Mediterranean vinaigrette" bathing the greens tasted more like balsamic vinegar.
Desserts include caramel flan; a tartufo dome of dark chocolate over pistachio ice cream; and a warm crêpe (tasting suspiciously like phyllo dough) filled with cheesecake, drizzled with cinnamon syrup, and sided by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If I were in a food court, I'd probably mosey on over to Häagen-Dazs instead, but any such reservations regarding Argentango Grill are softened upon the arrival of the economical final bill.
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