This 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
Argentinian 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.
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.
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.
Besides 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 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.