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 Canela

La Canela RestaurantA couple of years back, a college friend invited me to dinner at the newly opened Rockville Town Center in Maryland at a new Thai restaurant (read blog). On my way out, we stumbled across another new establishment serving Peruvian cuisine that peaked my curiosity since I knew of only one locale serving such fare located in DC which has been a regular haunt of mine and my dinner group (read blog). After perusing its menu displayed by its door, I have been meaning to stop by to try out its appealing menu. Well, more than two years has passed by and last Sunday was the opportunity for me to stop by with an online coupon in hand.

CevicheEntering the doors of La Canela, you are enveloped by a space that exudes an ambience of Spanish Colonial with wrought iron in its windows and banisters, further weighted down by heavy and chunky wood furniture. I chose a table by the window in order to get some good light for the food photos. Perusing the menu, a half-portion of Fish Ceviche stood out due to the smaller plate size and its must-order aura due to its reputation within this South American cuisine. The bowl arrived neatly dressed with the various elements showing a rather careful hand putting the dish together. One bite into the dish spoke its language: the star ingredient here was the pieces of mild-tasting and very fresh mahi-mahi that was slightly milky from being “cooked” from the tart lemon juice while still retaining the slightly raw sashimi-like texture and flavor, as if it were a form of Peruvian Sushi. The other notes in the sea-sweet fish pieces were some slight heat from fresh red aji (chilies) and fragrance from cilantro. To balance out the acid, a piece of boiled sweet potato and some imported Peruvian corn kernels (choclo) provided the necessary sweet relief. But I was blown away by the super-size of the corn and its thick skin that reminded me of hominy, which immediately whisked me away to the Motherland of corn in the Andes. The pickled red onions added a note of more acid and some pungency that dressed these mild flavors. This was an excellent rendition and great-tasting Ceviche, making it the perfect opener from this cuisine.

Yuquitas de Cangrejo/Crabmeat CroquettesWith lots of value on the deal, I decided to try another appetizer that caught my attention due to its unique description – Yuquitas de Cangrejo. Two plump croquettes arrived with a bowl of pinkish side sauce. Breaking into them, the stuffing of crab meat in a reddish sauce revealed itself. One bite into it, I was perplexed by the flavors and textures. The outer casing was soft and quite sweet, reminding me of sweet potato rather than the more mealy and bland Yuca root listed in the menu – my waiter confirmed that the later was the tuber used, which I beg to differ. The stuffing was quite generous with the crab meat, listed as “jumbo lump” on the menu, mixed with a “Sarza Criolla” sauce that tasted a bit spicy and tomato-based. However, due to the sweetness of the “yuca” and the slightly sweet and spicy stuffing sauce, the mild seafood was nearly lost in the whole mix, and pretty much did not stand a chance with the other flavors, this being a common flaw found in many restaurants dealing with this delicate ingredient. The side spicy mayo-based sauce, “Recoto Emulsion”, was tasty but yet another foe to the poor pieces of crab.

Arroz con Pato/Duck with Rice

Arroz con Pato was the first dish listed in the Entree section, which sounded very appealing to me. The impeccably dressed plate arrived with the different elements carefully arranged – photos never lie. But the proof is in the pudding, or in the tasting. The main star, listed as Mallard duck on the menu, had its skin cooked crispy but the fat underneath was not completely rendered as I would have liked it, but that was easily solved with some gentle scraping to salvage the luscious crackling. The meat underneath was rich, well-seasoned, still quite moist, and falling off the bone, a la confit, which I was enjoying every morsel despite being a bit greasy. The side of rice was interesting and quite tasty, listed as cooked with green aji, cilantro and dark beer, which lent some fragrant vegetal, a mild chili bite, and slightly bitter hop flavors to each grain, studded with sweet red peppers, green peas, and that-so-intriguing Andean corn – my only quibble was that the rice could have been cooked with a bit more moisture. The side sauces were intriguing and matched formidably with the strong dark meat: the yellow one was made with mustard, cream and parmigiano; the green was a combination of mustard, green aji, and olive oil that exuded some of its fruity notes. The side “salad” of pickled onions and tomato bits seems de rigeur with each dish served here, providing some acidic pungency to clear the palate from the rich duck flavor. Despite some minor flaws, this is a very tasty duck dish and it was worth ordering.

Torta Tres LechesWith a bit of value left on the online deal, I decided to order some dessert, and I chose a Latin American favorite – Torta Tres Leches, since the Pastry Chef was on vacation and my initial choice, Chirimoya Panna Cotta, was not available. The cake arrived looking pretty with a Creme Anglaise and Raspberry Coulis pattern sitting on top, accompanied by some fresh blackberries and some whipped cream. One bite into it revealed a rich light cake made moist by a soaking of the “three milks”, a mixture of regular, condensed, and evaporated milk. It was a relief that this dessert was not too sweet, but the cake was a bit too rich for me, since the raspberry coulis was not fruity enough to maintain my interest, and the lack of some vanilla notes in the cake mix was no help either. This dessert was not bad (I’ve had better) but I think that Panna Cotta amiss from the days’ offering would have been the ideal finale. The Peruvian Doughnuts sounded very appealing with its unique description, but alas, I’m on a diet, supposedly.

La Canela RestaurantLa Canela takes Peruvian cuisine to a higher refined level judging by the well-prepared and beautifully presented dishes.  The opening half-portion Ceviche was the perfect appetizer with the so-fresh fish barely cooked by the acidic lemon juice, and matched by the intriguing Andean super-corn and sweet potato.  The Crab Croquette was a mismatch of ingredients in my mind, but the cooking was nearly flawless.  The Duck with Rice dish was quite a masterpiece with the piece of leg and the interesting rice cooked to near perfection; fortunately their minor flaws were compensated by their satisfying flavors.   Although the Tres Leches cake was not bad and didn’t keep my interest for long, I sense that the other desserts listed would have gone well with me if only they were available if the Dessert Chef were not playing hooky.  Yes, waiting two years was a bit too long to come back to pay this restaurant my first visit, but better late than never.

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