El Patio

El Patio RestaurantThis is a busy time of year for me with various events going on at school and me dealing with restless youngin’s who are ready to run out of the building like bats out of hell, while we keep their unbridled energy hostage within the four walls. I have been meaning to write this blog a few weeks ago after paying an Argentine restaurant a few visits upon a friend’s recommendation as the result of his attending a wedding luncheon there recently. Well, this blog posting is well overdue.

El Patio is located in Loehmanns Plaza in busy Rockville, MD, sandwiched between other businesses, and it can be easily missed due to its narrow storefront. This suburban city has been on my radar as of late due to work-related meetings in that area, and I’m discovering wonderful gastronomic surprises in this part of town with its rich variety of immigrant populations, resulting in eating establishments opened to cater to them. After locating the restaurant, we walked into a rather shotgun space that exuded a sense of comforting welcome.

Empanada Tucumana

Spinach Empanada & Tortilla EspañolaThe recommender had mentioned that he was very impressed by the Empanadas here, and I knew that I had to sink my teeth into these appetizers as my meal-opener. The first order was the “top seller”, Empanada Tucumama, which comprised of beef, olives, tomato and raisins. One bite into it confirmed my friend’s reaction. The beef was not the usual dried out ground beef but instead small pieces of beef that exuded its moist meatiness, complemented by pieces of olive, tomato and raisin that lent their sweet, fruity, and salty notes to this mix that rounded off the palette of multi-flavors. Also, what amazed me was the a small of pool of savory juice encapsulated by the fried dough which stumped me for a few minutes. Then I figured out that they used the same technique of refrigerating the stuffing into a gelatinous mix before stuffing and frying the packets, much like what I noticed in the making of Xiao Long Bao or Soup Dumpling (see blog and photo). Another day’s order was the same dish but made with chicken – Empanada Tucumama de Pollo. These bites were equally tasty with the chicken filling made savory with the sweet from onions, vegetal notes from green peppers, and the richness from boiled eggs. To round off these orders, I tasted the spinach version in one of the visits, and I found it greaseless (from baking, unlike the above) and tasting fresh with the use of slightly bitter but fresh whole greens. At the same meal, I had to try their version of Tortilla Española. I ordered the simple potato type but it came with strands of green and red pepper weaving through the egg-potato mixture. Although this rendition was a surprise and non-traditional approach from the Continental version, I enjoyed every bite of it.

Prosciutto and Hearts of Palm

Another appetizer that caught my attention was Prosciuto Ham with Hearts of Palm. This cold cut dish makes a nod to the large influx of Italian immigrants to this South American nation, and the starch to the country’s semi-tropical climate. The rolls of ham were drier and thicker than the paper-thin imported slices. But once I got used to the textural difference, I began to appreciate its flavors which were a bit salty, mildy “porky”, faintly barn-like (a good thing here) and a hint of vinegar that cut through its rich qualities. The hearts of palm were the perfect counterfoil to the meaty bites with their mild and slightly vinegary softness. The side of potato salad (Ensalada Rusa – a typical Spanish side) was merely “meh” since it was rather bland and the pieces of carrots and peas uninspiring. But I would ignore this boring partner on the plate and focus on its tasty friends. The order is a generous portion to be shared with another diner.

Locro Soup

On one occasion I was in the mood for one of the two soup offerings in the house – Locro Soup. Despite my waiter’s preference for his wife’s version, I still went ahead with the order. What arrived was a large bowlful of deliciousness. Bits of beef, pork, and sausage flavored a broth studded with fresh corn, potato, and greens. With each bite, I was enjoying its mild and subtle flavors along with a sense of comfort that each spoonful exuded. The pieces of meat were soft and still retained flavor, the corn slightly sweet, and pieces of potato gave the bowl some body. I would say that this is probably the Argentinian chicken soup for a rainy or poor health day.

Parrillada para Dos

Ensalada RusaArgentinian cuisine, like its neighbor’s, Brazil, is renown for meat dishes especially grilled meats. My dining partner, who spent his early formative years in Buenos Aires, and I went for the Parrillada Para Dos. The large caste-iron plate arrived with a huge mound of grilled cuts of meats. Initially, I was overwhelmed by such sight since meat is never the “main” in my meals. I slowly picked my way through the meal by judiciously tasting small portions. At the end, I found some favorites that I enjoyed: Morcilla (blood sausage, harkening back to my Spanish college days) was savory with its slight mineral and dark-spice qualities, Tira de Asado (beef short ribs) was meaty, moist and smokey, as well as the usual cuts of chicken and flank steak. Some cuts that I wasn’t particularly fond of: Molleja (beef sweetbreads) which was surprisingly chewy and with its organ bitterness, and Chinchulines (intestines) which had the same texture and after-notes as with the sweetbreads. The side Chimichurri sauce (regular and spicy versions) were properly made and it imparted its vinegary and onion qualities to each bite along with fragrant notes from oregano and parsley. The side of carrot salad topped with slices boiled egg was nothing than just its raw elements. However, a dousing of vinegar and salad oil made it more palatable. Again, the potato salad was “meh” per the previous paragraph.  For a higher price, there is the Parrillada Buenos Aires in which better cuts of meat are served.  Note of caution: these orders are meant for at least 2, but I would say 3 is just fine.

Grilled Ribeye Steak

Another grilled meat order by my companion was Grilled Ribeye Steak. My friend’s preference for its cooking temperature was medium-well, which is overcooked in my mind. But a taste of the meat revealed something quite surprising. The meat was cooked at the right temperature, judging by the lack of redness, yet it retained a level of moisture that made it palatable. But what grabbed my attention was the aged flavor that came with each bite, pointing to a good piece of beef cooked perfectly on the searing grill.  The sweet potato fries were properly fried and greaseless, tasting freshly cut and naturally sweet. The steamed mixed vegetables were perfectly cooked, not tasting raw but remaining slightly firm to the bite and allowing their natural flavors to shine through. Such well-executed vegetables only point to attentive and skilled hands in the kitchen. An order of T-bone Steak by another friend was equally impressive with the meat served at its proper medium temperature.  Steaks are a must order in this house.

Grilled ChickenGrilled Tilapia

In addition to the steak dishes, we decided to give some non-beef dishes a taste. Grilled Chicken Breast was my friend’s order for lunch one day. Again, I was impressed by another grilled dish with the poultry tasting well-seasoned and smokey while retaining moisture, especially for breast meat. My companion was very satisfied with his dish, and rightfully so. My lunch consisted of the Grilled Fish. The fillet was well grilled and still moist from the dry heat. However, I found it to be a bit too salty in certain parts, and the mud-like flavor inherent in Tilapia was a bit overwhelming. The saving graces were the amazing steamed vegetables and a proper salad that made up for the seafood’s shortcomings.


Torta Tres LechesBesides empanadas and grilled proteins, this cuisine is also renown for desserts, and the display counter and tower not only tempt you with the sweet offerings but also serve as a reminder for the diner to save room for a sweet ending. Alforja was one of the orders. A huge cookie sandwich arrived comprising of two discs stuck together by caramelized condensed milk with bits of dried coconut shaving. I initially found the cookies a bit too dry and overwhelming, but after removing one of them, I started to enjoy the other elements with the better balanced mix. Another order was Quince Tart. I found the dough flaky but a tad too thick for my taste. The topping was not too sweet but fruity, reminding me of English fruit tarts – the British influence is present in Argentinian culture, and this dessert is a nod to the Continent. The last order was Torta Tres Leches. The cake was moist and rich from a soaking of slightly sweet combination of milk and condensed milk, topped with some whipping cream and colorful sprinkles. Even though we were stuffed from our meal, we were relishing every morsel with its rich and light qualities beckoning us to take another bite. No surprise it is the house’s top selling dessert.

El Patio RestaurantEl Patio is not a fancy restaurant and it does not purport to be one either.  But what dishes they serve, some are well-executed and very tasty, from the incredible Empanadas that are the perfect main-openers (or an assortment as my main course), to the Parrillada with some tasty (and not so favorable) cuts of meat, to the perfectly aged and grilled  steaks and chicken accompanied by perfectly steamed vegetables, and to the assortment of tempting desserts.  Judging by the low dish and wine prices, this establishment is not out to make a huge profit, but one that is committed to serve good home-style cooking for the expat and the locals.  The amiable and charming service gives an impression that everyone is welcome to just kick back and enjoy Argentine cuisine. I definitely will be back for more of their wonderful offerings in this unassuming diner.

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La Limeña

La Limeña

Plantain Chips, Fried Corn, Aji SaucesRecently, I paid a visit to a Peruvian restaurant (read blog) in the Rockville Town Center which left me quite satisfied with their offerings.  Perusing online, I came across many glowing reviews for another locale nearby serving the same South American cuisine – even a couple of co-workers had mentioned about their positive experiences at this establishment.  And so, with some enthusiasm and such affirmations in mind, I made a couple of trips to this newly discovered restaurant for this review.

La Limeña is tucked in a maze of strip malls, located just off the main thoroughfare, Route 355, in Rockville, MD, a suburban town that is growing in population as well as some good eats.  Walking in, you immediately notice the charcoal fueled grills and rotisserie with skewered chickens being turned as that day’s offering.  Past a display counter of glowingly seductive desserts, the dining room is actually smaller that what I imagined, perhaps due to the above-mentioned space-takers past the entrance.  But the dining room is welcoming with their granite tables filled with a line of smart-looking wait staff appearing eager to please the clientele.

Anticucho/Beef Heart

EmpanadaWhile munching on some complementary plantain chips and fried corn kernels (tasted like crunchy popcorn), I perused the menu and recognized some dishes from my recent blog and from past experiences with another eatery, as well as, interestingly, some Cuban dishes.  But I chose to stick with the South American cuisine.  A co-worker had mentioned to me to try Anticucho, which is grilled beef heart.  Two large skewers with large pieces of the offal arrived with a roasted potato and some pickled onions.   The pieces of heart were an interesting texture and flavor; the meaty morsels had a steak texture but with a firmer bounce much like skirt steak, and the flavor was much like beef but with a faint bitter note to remind you that this was not a regular cut of meat.  The salt level was sufficient to counteract the bitter note, paired with a faint smoke scent from the grilling, and a mild paprika-like flavor from the marination.  I was returning to these bites as I was trying to wrap my taste buds around these new flavors and textures.  Even though this dish was a novelty for me, eventually the skewers were a bit on a one-note level, and my interest was weaning off.  Another appetizer I had to savor was Empañada de Carne which is famous from this part of the world.  The pastry arrived with some powder sugar dusted on top, reminding me of the Moroccan sweet savory pastry, Bastilla, that I recently wrote about.  Breaking into it, the pastry was quite tender and flaky.  However, going through the filling, I was a bit nonplussed by the use of ground beef (instead of meat pieces), an insufficient amount of seasoning and moisture, and the lack of and the uneven distribution of raisins and olives (a single piece).  I must say that this was quite a let-down for a pastry that I am fond of, and surprisingly, in this restaurant.

Ceviche Mixto

A trip to a Peruvian eatery usually is not without an order of their famous appetizer – Ceviche. Here, I went for the whole package, Ceviche Mixto, which arrived with pieces of shrimp, squid, and fish, accompanied by some fresh corn, fried corn kernels, and pieces of sweet potato.  This rendition of the semi-cooked seafood was quite different from the version I wrote about a few blogs ago.  The pieces of shrimp were parboiled judging by their firm quality, the squid rings and tentacles similarly cooked but pliable and non-rubbery, and the pieces of fish were acid-cooked and had a bit firmer bounce than the other place, partly due to the thinner slices compared to the thick cubes in the aforementioned place.  Aside from the textural differences, the marinade was a creamier looking liquid with its strong lime juice and a good chili hit that added the necessary acidic and spice to the whole mix that made the whole dish delectable and completely irresistible.  The side accompaniments adequately provided the sweet and crunch as a foil to the soft tart seafood.  I could see why many customers were ordering this large appetizer as their main course as I satisfyingly finished my dish off.

Parihuela/Seafood Stew

Trucha Frita/Fried TroutContinuing with the sea theme, a couple of these dishes were ordered by my dining partners.  Parihuela is a coastal seafood soup from Peru (as listed on the menu), and the bowl arrived brimming with sea creatures crawling out of the sea, I mean soup.  A taste of the broth indicated the use of a good dosage of garlic, some tomato sauce and white wine for some slight fruitiness, and a good seafood stock for some body.  I did not get to taste the pieces of crab, mussels, clams, squid and scallops that looked very fresh and quite large in size.  But the orderer left nothing behind, an indication with his level of satisfaction with this bowlful, which he expressed later; the side of perfectly cooked white rice provided the starch to make this dish a meal.  The other companion’s order was Trucha Frita al Ajo.  A whole boneless trout was lightly floured and pan-fried, partnered with some of that well-cooked rice, fried batons of yucca, and the ubiquitous onion salad.  The fish was still moist and tasted fresh with some good proper seasoning that made each bite delightful – a light slathering of butter and some toasted garlic chips added some more flavor and texture to the soft sweet flesh. The side of fried yucca was “meh” according to the diner, but what more can you do with fried root starch.

Aji de Gallina/Chicken Stew

Pollo a la BrasaAji de Gallina is a renown Peruvian dish that I had seen on menus, and I decided to order it this time.  Pieces of stripped chicken (dark meat, my preference), arrived coated by a yellowish sauce.  According to the menu description, the chicken has been cooked in a concoction of milk, yellow aji (mild Peruvian pepper), and spices to produce this rather thick stew.  The first forkful reminded me of some good Chicken Pot Pie filling, and I kept going back to it for its savoriness and sense of comfort-food that the rich stew spoke to my tongue. Yes, it is a simple dish with uncomplicated flavors, but I could imagine this as a go-to dish when one is under the weather or longing for some TLC.  The single olive (sigh, but so tasty), boiled egg, boiled potato, and rice made up the rest of the meal to round off the experience.  An order on another day was Pollo a la Brasa, or Rotisserie Chicken.  The first mouthful pointed towards a moist and smoky chicken, albeit a bit oversalted for my taste.  After getting past the skin, the seasoning was adequate for the meat.  The side of black beans was very appetizing, with their not-so-overly softness (obviously freshly made), their slight oregano scent, and a level of smokiness from liquid smoke since I didn’t taste any meat flavor in the bowl.  Interestingly, beans do not automatically come with rice here; hence, I had to get some from the seafood soup diner.

Picarones/Peruvian Doughnuts

Lucama Ice CreamUsually not one for sweets after a meal, I knew I had to try a couple of interesting sounding desserts.  The first was Picarones. Basically, they are doughnuts made from sweet potato and pumpkin flours, served with a caramel-like honey.  The beautiful dish arrived with this thin and light fried rings that were slightly crispy on the outside but spongy inside.  There was a faint sweet overtone in the dough that reminded of its nature, tasting different from the usual bland wheat flour version.  But what took these bites to the “I’m addicted” level was the Chancaca honey that exuded its molasses character along with some bitter orange-like notes which competed for my gastronomic attention as well as the fried bites.  Another order was Lucuma ice cream that was recommended by my waitress and is known as the most popular dessert in house.  The carotene-orange scoops arrived in a beautiful cup along with an alfajor, a caramel-filled flaky cookie sandwich.  The first mouthful was revealing: there was a level of creaminess, a moderate vanilla-note, and a texture that pointed towards that exotic subtropical Andean fruit.  The mouth feel of these scoops was slightly akin to smooth sweet potato that was an indication of the fruit’s exotic presence in this frozen custard, along with a faint maple syrup-like flavor.  This unique cold bite got my tongue’s attention, even in the midst of late fall, and I was done with the whole bowl before I knew it.

AlfajoresLa Limeña offers some truly wonderful authentic dishes from the motherland.  Yes, I was not very impressed with the Empanada and a bit underwhelmed by the beef hearts, but I warmed up to the rest of the menu quickly.  The Ceviche was as good as it gets, the seafood soup brimmed with incredibly fresh shellfish and crab in a well-made soup, the fried trout was moist and complemented by the fried garlic chips, the charcoal-cooked chicken was smoky and savory even with its slight heavy-handed saltiness, and the Aji de Gallina spoke of Peruvian comfort food.  But, it was the desserts that impressed me the most with the Picarones moistened by that incredibly tongue-haunting honey, as well as the subtly exotic Lucuma ice-cream that kept me digging into the bowl.  No wonder this place is full all the time with families, couples, and many ex-pats who seem to savor a piece of their nostalgia from this establishment.  The ending complementary of Alfajor was the sweet gesture to seal this gastronomic experience for anyone, reviewer or not.

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