Hours: 12:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.). Closed Tuesdays.
Atmosphere: Argentine Cafe.
Price range: Appetizers range from $1.50 to $4.35; entrees from $2.65 for a small pizza to $13 for a New York strip boneless steak (12 oz.); desserts from $1.30 to $1.80.
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Diner's Club, Carte Blanche, and Choice.
Reservations: Available but not necessary.
Special facilities: Bar area accessible to patrons in wheelchairs; on-street parking only.
Argentine singer Carlos Gardel (1887-1935), a legend during his lifetime, became even more famous after his death in a plane crash. Knowing this, I expected at the small cafe named after him on Columbia Road to hear his music and to eat beef that, if not imported from the pampas, at least was of superior quality.
In both respects we were disappointed. Although the jukebox had a number of Gardel selections, the clientele that night favored Beatles songs.
We should have taken the hint from the regular customers: they were having drinks and appetizers but avoiding the dining area, a shallow loft overlooking the main floor and the bar. Although the loft was suspiciously empty, we were pleased to see that the menu offered a tempting selection of appetizers and that the house wine was Borbones, one of our favorites.
We ordered an empanada, a deep-fried turnover filled with spicy beef ($1.60); fried bananas with a mysterious sweet-and-sour cream sauce ($2.25); a pupusa, a thick tortilla stuffed with cheese and covered with cole slaw ($1.50); and a house salad ($1.40), on the theory that you can gauge the standards of a restaurant by the quality of its greens. The salad was undistinguished--chunks of iceberg lettuce topped by a pale slice of tomato--but the other appetizers were unusually tasty.
The entrees arrived one at a time, as if the chef were not used to cooking for parties of five. Unfortunately, the children's orders arrived last, by which time they were trying to nap on the orange vinyl seats of one of the neighboring booths.
My "bife a lo Gardel" ($6.75), announced on the menu as a potato omelet and steak with sauce, was a letdown. A tough and tasteless minute steak sat on top of an omelet evidently made with leftover french fries. The sauce was the same flour-thickened onion-and-beef gravy that smothered the pair of thin, dry pork chops ($6) another one of us had ordered.
"El plate a la entreriana" ($5.75) was more original. It consisted of a bed of rice topped by a fried egg and sauce and surrounded by fried sweet bananas. I didn't think the flavors married well, but my friend claimed to like it.
We agreed that the children had made the best choices. The nine-inch pizza ($2.65) was excellent, once we became accustomed to the absence of tomato sauce: the dough was crisp, the slabs of mozzarella thick, and the slices of chorizo a brilliant substitute for pepperoni.
The "Milanesa" ($6.80) had the virtue of disguising the same unpalatable minute steak with a delicious, deep-fried coating of breadcrumbs. The french fries accompanying it seemed freshly made.
Desserts were a real treat. The dulce de leche ($1.35), a cocoa-colored and extremely sweet milk pudding, was used also to frost the arrollado ($1.30), a jelly-roll cake. The vigilante ($1.80), a classic Argentinian dessert, combined slices of delicate white cheese with quince. The rum cake ($1.40) decorated with whipped cream stood in a puddle of rum.
When the bill arrived, we did a double take. Our dinner for five, including a carafe of house wine ($5.25), a Coke (80 cents), three coffees (80 cents each), and tax came to $52.82. Although we could have eaten for $10 less perhaps, we still felt that the meal, considering its quality, was overpriced.
The back of the menu explains that the management has tried to recreate the atmosphere of the Cafe O'Rondeman in Buenos Aires where Gardel used to sing. Whether or not this neighborhood bar resembles that cafe, it succeeds in creating a warm and lively atmosphere. We will return again to absorb the ambiance and to sample more appetizers and the interesting selection of foreign beers ($1.75).