El Patio

South American
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Giant, brightly garnished savory pies called tartas, variously stuffed with ham and cheese, spinach, tuna and chicken, crowd the glass case just inside El Patio Argentine Cafe, an Argentine market and restaurant just off the Pike in Rockville.

At lunch on a recent chilly day, the waitress brings an immense slice of warm chicken tarta ($2.99; whole tartas are $18) to the table, with its sweet peas, roasted red and green peppers and chunks of juicy dark meat spilling out onto the plate. The cafe is popular with South American expats, and its 10 or so small tables fill by 12:30 p.m. Some customers have ordered sandwiches such as the grilled steak lomito ($6.95) and the small, chorizo sausage-filled choripan ($2.50 each; you'll want to order two).

Co-owner Rosana Gilmore, 35, along with her parents, Angel and Valentina Ribulotta; younger brother, Guillermo; and husband Jim, have made El Patio a tasty reminder of Argentina. The Ribulotta family, from the province of Entre Rios, have lived in the United States for 14 years.

Along the back wall and above the grocery items are two high shelves holding nearly 100 wines, almost all of them from Argentina. Chilled South American beers -- Quilmes from Argentina, Sambadoro from Brazil -- are served at the table and sold by the six-pack to go. Chorizo and blood sausages, empanadas and pastry crusts fill the freezer. "You come, you eat, you shop, you go home," Gilmore says.

When customer Maria Allende and her husband moved to Rockville from Buenos Aires two years ago, an Argentine neighbor greeted them with a box of pastries called facturas from El Patio. "It was just like at home," recalled Allende.

-- Matt McMillen (May, 2005)