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Meaty treats at the Gaucho Grill

Photo by Joy BastWith my personal three-year moratorium on all things Argentine (because of that awful Madonna movie) lifted, I became intrigued by the existence of Gaucho Grill in my new and favorite glitz center, Park Place. I remember when this expanse of Irvine office park was nothing but a blanket of green grass and sci-fi business towers. But then came the California Pizza Kitchen, and it all caved in—a neon-blistered Edwards monsterplex, food joints, retail gigs and an organic-looking Mother's Market.

For those of us who stop by at night, we know Park Place is an oxymoron. There is no place to park your car here, damn it, and trolling around the lot waiting for some schmo in a Beemer to pull out of a much-too-narrow space is more annoying than the wait at Houston's, the crown jewel restaurant of the center.

But right across the way from Houston's is Gaucho Grill—much smaller, less trendy, less expensive than and every bit as good as its larger rival. And the wait—if there is one, I've yet to see it—is far shorter.

Here's what you need to know about Argentine food as it relates to Gaucho Grill: meat. Lots of it, most of it beef, served many ways. No surprise—Argentines are among the biggest meat eaters on Earth. Since the 19th century, with the advent of steam-powered ships plying the Atlantic, Argentine cowboys have raised oceanic herds of cattle on the Pampas, the nation's vast, grassy plains; think of it as the South American version of the Midwest. The beef shipped off to Europe and a growing United States was so great that it actually catapulted Argentina to near world-power status before heinously corrupt dictators sucked up the nation's wealth and murdered its middle class.

Where were we? Beef, which remains a staple of the downsized Argentine lifestyle. So it's no surprise that Gaucho Grill serves lots of steak. Good steak, and pretty affordable.

More Argentine-styled than authentic, Gaucho Grill has a diverse menu of salads, sandwiches, chicken and seafood, but it's the beef that matters. The steaks here range between 10 ounces and 14 ounces and between $11 and $14. No, they're not as good as those you'll get at Ruth Chris Steak House (also in Park Place, for twice the cost), but they're quite good, and they come with side dishes, instead of à la carte, as they do at Ruth Chris.

I opted for the garlic rib-eye with sides of rice and zucchini. Ordered medium, this steak was prepared well-done and served with a pile of nearly caramelized garlic on top. No steak sauce needed here—the garlic was very mild and mixed quite nicely with my fine cut of steak. Adding to the good meal was the tasty rice, cooked with green and red peppers.

If you do want a taste of real Argentina, there are bits of it at Gaucho Grill. The ultimate meat-eater's special is the plato mixto, a beast of a dinner including a half-chicken, a skirt steak, chorizo, morcilla (a black sausage) and mollejas (grilled beef sweetbreads —and a sweetbread is a hypothalamus gland, kiddies). It's reminiscent of the Brazilian churrasco in that huge gobs of meat are tossed at you. But Gaucho Grill has no intention of damaging its customers: the plato mixto serves two to three.

Gaucho Grill, located at 3041B Michelson Dr., Irvine, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (949) 251-9111. Dinner for two, $30, food only. Beer and wine. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.
 
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