Food Review: Los Gauchos Rides Into Richmond With Argentine Cuisine 

click to enlarge The Choripan sandwich is thick with house-made chorizo and chimichurri sauce on a crusty roll.

Scott Elmquist

The Choripan sandwich is thick with house-made chorizo and chimichurri sauce on a crusty roll.

I mean it in the best possible way when I say that Los Gauchos feels like a family startup. When she’s unsure about something, the young woman taking our order says she’ll ask the chef — “my papa.”

Ignore the chalkboard, I’m told, and order from the laminated menu on the counter. It’s a small but pleasing list, assuming you have a predilection for meat.

Most dishes come with a descriptor, a pause and — if interest is shown — a fuller explanation, possibly with a bit of cultural history. Questioning the inclusion of lettuce and tomato on a steak sandwich de Milanese ($9.50), our server assures us, “That’s the way most people eat it in Argentina.”

The food and, depending on your budget, value are what people will talk about after they visit, because the dining room, serenaded by Spanish radio, is no big deal. Walls that are the same blue as that of the miniature Argentine flag in a corner hug a dining room with not much more than an L-shaped counter that seats eight, plus five wooden tables.

The simplest of pleasures are Los Gauchos’ shiny golden-brown empanadas ($1.60-$2 each). They’re too hot to hold, but too flavorful to put down once they’ve cooled a bit. As fillings go, there’s not a loser in the bunch, whether it’s meat, chicken, ham and cheese, or spinach — the latter surprising the owners with its popularity. Their portable nature and the resulting buttery fingers explain their availability by the dozen ($16.50-$19.50), and why I can’t resist them on all three visits.

Allow me to introduce you to the Choripan ($7), a sandwich as obscenely thick as the September issue of Vanity Fair but with far more substance. Chorizo — house-made after the chef couldn’t find any here to meet his exacting standards — is split in half, grilled, slathered with classic chimichurri sauce and tucked inside a crusty roll with those perennial favorites, lettuce and tomato.

The savory green chimichurri, made from parsley, garlic, oregano, oil and vinegar, is an Argentine staple on grilled meats such as churrasco ($18.75, with two sides), a boneless cut sliced like a steak, grilled and served with salad and potatoes.

I could quibble that the ensalada verde is slightly overdressed, except that the routine trio of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and red onions is considerably enlivened with a judicious sprinkle of salt that piggybacks on the meat and sauce like soul mates, while the ensalada rosa delivers a creamy potato salad studded with peas and carrots.

For more heft in a handheld version, there’s sandwich de lomo ($9.50), ubiquitous in Argentina as fast food, hangover food and comfort food, depending on time of day and circumstance. Basically, it’s a steak sandwich on steroids, with a slab of tenderloin stacked with ham, egg, chimichurri, plus the usual suspects — lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise — on a toasted roll. You may hate yourself in the morning, but it’s pure pleasure going down.

Unless you want to undercut the true Argentine experience, don’t neglect ordering a mate cocido to sip with your meal. Made by boiling tealike yerba mate in water, it’s strained and sipped in traditional cups through a straw. One on the counter resembles a coconut and another channels a headless monster.

Our server warns us of the drink’s bitterness and when we decline sweetener, makes a U-turn, calling back, “I’ll bring you sugar.” It needs only a sprinkle to enliven the earthy finish of Argentines’ favorite drink morning, noon and night.

Los Gauchos benefits from a casual vibe and friendly staff who treat diners like extended family. After mentioning that there are three chefs splitting kitchen duty, our amiable server breaks down the culture for us.

“You put three Argentineans in one place? Oh, no!” she says, laughing. “They are all so hardheaded.” Maybe so, but they sure cook well together.

As you chomp a foot-long churro ($2) filled with dulce de leche, your fingers sticky with cinnamon sugar, you’ll likely wish Los Gauchos was closer to home.. “If they were in the city proper, they’d be crushing it,” my companion says, mouth full.

Los Gauchos
Tuesdays-Sundays 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
6935 Lakeside Ave.
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