Ruben Aguilera owned a restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina, before opening Che Gaucho Argentine & Uruguay Grill, a parrilladas, last year in a nearly hidden shopping strip off Old Pineville Road. The setting is shoestring-budget basic: flags of Argentina and Uruguay obscure the front windows, a scattering of functional bare-topped tables are just enough to seat 50, and the bar stools are too low for the small bar. A television is tuned to a Spanish station, and the walls are dotted with large format photography of gauchos, Argentine cowboys. The silverware is lightweight.
South American restaurants, specifically mom-and-pop shops, have had a challenging time in Charlotte. The list of places that have come and gone include Peruvian, Brazilian, Argentinian, Venezuelan and Ecuadorian restaurants. While high-end renditions seem to have a longer life, the economical spots are the places enjoyed by area ex-pats. Che Gaucho has that kind of personalization with a hands-on owner.
What counts most here is the friendly service, the piquancy of the superb garlicky chimichurri, and the savory, less-expensive cuts of beef. In fact, Argentina's cuisine is heavily into meats. Beef is key to the grill menu while the sausages, brought by the large influx of Germans during the last century, round out the menu. Wine aficionados know Argentina is the world's fifth largest producer of wine, but there are only a few bottles offered here.
One of the highlights of the menu is the stellar selection of appetizers. The empanadas arrive both generous in portion and flavor with the beef edging out the chicken in taste. Sausages include the salchicha parrillera, a thin sweet Argentine chorizo; classic peppery Spanish chorizo; and morcilla, an imported blood sausage. Lovers of gobs of melted cheese will enjoy the hot slab of provolone flecked with bits of oregano that completes the starter list.
Other small dishes include a handful of salads. Most are heavily sauced with mayonnaise, including the Russian with large chunks of potatoes. The signature salad is a bed of cold white rice with a smattering of thinly sliced iceberg lettuce mingled with slices of hardboiled egg and tomatoes. Again, the dressing is a mayo that tastes much like Miracle Whip. The lunch menu offers large sandwiches, including the flank steak sub, slicked with mayo and layered with a fried egg, slices of ham, and thickly cut bacon.
In the great gaucho tradition, grilled beef is the focus of the entrée menu. A pampas-styled combo platter for two is presented on a tabletop food warmer heated with lava rocks. There are deliciously charred slabs of thin-cut short ribs and another portion of flank steak. The beef is imported from Argentina and is imbued with the earthy gnarled flavor of grass-fed cattle. The grill is completed with sausages, chicken and crispy sweetbreads. I'm not much of a dead-red eater, but Che Gaucho satisfied even repressed primal atavistic urges.
On the weekends, boxes of miloja, a South American Napoleon filled with caramel, are stacked on the bar counter. Spanish is the lingua franca here. Although most of the servers are somewhat bilingual, your order may be lost in translation. But your server will compensate for any mistakes with a gracious attitude. In fact, you get the feeling everyone wants you here.