Is there anything better than a properly done steak? The answer to that is: Yes, when it’s paired with perfectly crisp potatoes. I had such a meal at the new Cambalache in Fountain Valley. It was utterly transcendent—one of the best steak dinners I’ve had in years. First, there was the steak itself; it wasn’t a rib-eye or a Porterhouse, which wouldn’t take much to get right. No, this was a skirt steak, a finicky cut that can easily toughen to leather. And it wasn’t sliced against the grain as it is when relegated to platters of fajitas. This was the whole steak and nothing but the steak. On my plate, it resembled an airfoil wing—thick on one end and tapering to a point.
By its nature, skirt steak doesn’t melt in your mouth, so eating it did involve some chewing. But it was always pleasurable, never a chore, and my, oh, my, the dividends it yielded in flavor! The edges were caramelized and pockmarked with char as though it were a beefy crème brulé. The rest was so extraordinarily savory I swore some sort of marinade was involved; I checked the menu—only sea salt and pepper seasoned this grilled slab of cow.
It did come with chimichurri, a whole saucer of chopped parsley and garlic submerged in oil that I hardly used on the meat. All I required was its soul mate—the golden-crusted potatoes that my waiter claimed was roasted but I think had to have been fried. How else could they be so uniformly crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside? The best thing I did was to smash them with my fork into the steak juices that accumulated on the plate, sopping them up like a sponge.
At this point, I should mention that Cambalache is actually an Argentinean restaurant. It’s been open for about two months in a sleepy Fountain Valley strip mall that I often ignore while on my way to Huntington Beach. Entering it for the first time, I discovered that the exterior, which is low and squat, hid a cavernous space with high ceilings crisscrossed by wooden beams. There were paintings of elegant dancers in mid-embrace while lively tango music echoed throughout the room. Along one tall sidewall, Italian wine, tomatoes and pasta were on display.
As with other Argentinean restaurants such as Villa Roma in Laguna Hills (where executive chef Leo Razo used to cook), Cambalache also serves Italian dishes. Actually, that’s an understatement, as nearly the entire menu is Italian. There’s minestrone and pasta e fagioli as soups, a handful of paninis, two risottos, pizzas, a phalanx of pastas, and chicken and veal prepared in all the usual Italian ways, marsala and piccata among them. That night, I tried the shrimp and asparagus risotto. It was tinted yellow from saffron, which made it taste almost like paella. But sadly it wasn’t as loose or as creamy as a proper risotto ought to be. And as I crunched my way through undercooked rice grains a few minutes shy of al dente, it verified what I kind of suspected going in: Take a pass on the Italian stuff and stick with the Argentinean. This, of course, brings me to the empanadas.
Cambalache offers three: beef, chicken and spinach. And that’s all that’s needed. Each meticulously braided half-moon was constructed of a thick crust that was sturdy but also flaky and tender. Its most amazing attribute was that this pastry dam managed to hold back a torrent of juices that wept from the filling. Each was so juicy I almost asked for a spoon; as with dumplings, when it comes to empanadas, the juicier the better. And there might not be any empanadas in OC juicier or better than these.
If you’re going to do Argentinean here, you might as well go all the way. Don’t stop with the empanadas or the steak I mentioned earlier; get the parrillada mixta, a meat mosh pit that includes the skirt steak, flap meat, short rib, sweetbreads and two kinds of sausages: the blood sausage called morcilla and an Argentinean chorizo. The dish will arrive at your table atop a parrilla (a traditional, iron-grated grill) as though a parade float. That parrilla is equipped with a couple of smoldering charcoal briquettes, which not only keeps your meat warm as you eat, but also adds a slight smokiness.
The next time I go, I might bring a fellow meat-eater to conquer it. As with the tango, it takes two. Besides, while there’s nothing better than good steak and crispy potatoes, there’s something to be said about another soul with whom to share it—not to mention a bottle of red wine.
Cambalache, 8780 Warner Ave., Ste. 15, Fountain Valley, (714) 375-3305; cambalachegrill.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Entrées, $10-$36. Beer and wine.