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He Said, He Said: Buenos Aires Grill and Cafe

He Said, He Said: Buenos Aires Grill and Cafe
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Monthly Feature, By Woo Pig Foodie and Kevin Shalin

Woo and Kevin will check out a local restaurant, each at different times, and then write separate reviews. This month, it’s Buenos Aires Grill and Cafe.

Woo’s Take

I came to Buenos Aires knowing three things about Argentinian food, each of which made me very excited to try this restaurant: Argentina has a culture of cowboys called gauchos who have ranched cattle for centuries, Argentinians love to grill beef over seven different types of fires, and Argentinians make great, full bodied red wine. I was very excited to see what of this historical culture, if anything, was reflected in our meal.

I dropped by for lunch with a colleague, climbing down into the old (new) Juanita’s restaurant space. There are lots of tables outside on the lower brick patio which would make a nice spot for an afternoon cocktail and an appetizer while listening to some Argentinian music, but they weren’t serving outside at lunch that day. So traipsing inside I followed instructions and picked my own table. And I was glad for that, because if you want to escape that slightly dungeounesque downstairs interior, sit at the front bar or sit all the way in back where there are giant windows. That back banquette was a lovely private spot at lunch, flooded with good light. Pretty much a perfect spot to have a good conversation and to take food pics.

Without a doubt, the highlight of this meal was the service. Jonathan was excited to have us in his section, and to take time to walk us newbies through the menu. Since I have a firm belief that all good meals should begin with cheese dip, at Jonathan’s suggestion we started off with the Provoleta appetizer ($13.50). This version was a bubbling 6-inch cast iron pan of aged provolone cheese, grilled and topped with oregano and olive oil, and accompanied by toast rounds also soaked in olive oil and sprinkled with oregano. It was a gooey and tasty starter, forming strands of cheese as long as your arm that you had to curl up like spaghetti onto the small rounds. It was fun to eat. But the Achilles’ heel of cheese dip is that it always needs contrast; the Rotel to your Velveeta. Here, there was no contrast; no salt, no acid, so after a few bites, we left its single note of flavor alone.

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For my entrée, I wanted to try the beef. I had the Flank Steak sandwich ($14), which was served on a six inch roll and listed to come with caramelized onions and peppers and a side of chimichurri sauce (that’s ordinarily a tart mixture of vinegar, oil, parsley, oregano and garlic, which makes it analogous to a thick herby salad dressing. This one leaned more towards oil than vinegar, so it didn’t have that bracing sharpness that offsets the richness of grilled beef so beautifully). At Jonathan’s suggestion I had the sandwich with cheese, which was melted in with the steak. The beef was tender, the peppers and onions (not actually caramelized, just grilled) played along, and even the bread had good bite, but the sandwich was limited by an overarching aching for salt and seasoning, making the chimichurri a necessity. I poured the whole bowl of chimichurri on the sandwich. The chimichurri certainly helped, but it would have been far better had it been more vinegar-focused, because it would have cut that richness of the meat and brightened the sandwich as a whole.

My sandwich came with a huge amount of French fries, cut from fresh potatoes. I really like it when fries are freshly cut like this. While bountiful and seasoned with salt, I would have loved it if the fries were twice-fried because their delicious taste was offset by their wholly limp structure. It would be a small change to make, but one that would make a real difference to their fry game. I’d like to see that.

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My companion had the ham and cheese empanadas (3 for $8.50). The empanadas are dough pillows, filled with various ingredients. Some folks fry them, others bake them. Buenos Aires bakes them. I found the dough to be thin and light and clearly hand made. My companion thought that they needed more ham. Of course, I wanted more flavor. The simple taste of dough and ham and cheese had no spark, nothing that made me say, I need to order these again.

Overall, it was a fine place for a lunch, and the service was great. But each dish fell a bit short in flavor, seasoning, and salt. Those are easy fixes–and may not be things that bother you. I would come back if they made those small adjustments.

Kevin’s Take

Buenos Aires is located in the old Juanita’s space, and, truth be told, I was pretty excited to check it out. I’d never been to this historic spot and the thought of Little Rock adding a good Argentinian restaurant to our growing food scene had definitely piqued my interest.

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My three lunch companions and I arrived for an early Wednesday lunch. At 11:30 a.m., only 3-4 tables were filled with diners, certainly not a good sign for a new-ish restaurant. We started out with an order of Chicken Empanadas (3), which came baked, rather than fried, and ended up being so tasty that we decided to try the cheese and onion version as well. Both were excellent, but the tender, juicy chicken was definitely the winner. Unfortunately, the empanadas were truly the highlight of the meal.

Our orders of Grilled Shrimp with French Fries, Vacio (flank steak), and Chicken Milanesa Sandwich all had some positive traits, but the negatives were just to glaring to overlook.

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The grilled shrimp were well-seasoned and perfectly cooked, but were a tad undersized. The side of fries were fresh cut but disappointingly limp. Don’t get me wrong, the fries weren’t bad … I mean, come on, they’re fries. But there was nothing about them that stood out. Our flank steak, however, was the true head-scratcher. When the steak hit the table, it certainly looked the part with its beautiful grill marks, medium rare interior, and accompanying cup of chimichurri sauce. But the meat was woefully bland, like, I don’t think it was seasoned at all. No salt, no pepper, nothing. Even the chimichurri didn’t seem all that fresh. As for the Chicken Milanesa, I found it to have a nice, thick breading and an overall solid taste, but it was certainly nothing spectacular.

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Overall, prices were a tad high–which is to be expected given the downtown location–and although service was friendly, it was fairly erratic. Our server disappeared at times and also had to come back twice to clarify our order.

Granted, it was only one lunch and Buenos Aires is still fairly early in its existence, but there are definitely issues which need to be hammered out. Until then, I can’t imagine returning anytime soon, unless I start reading about several positive experiences from other diners. Nothing about our meal was terrible, but on the flipside, nothing besides those empanadas really stood out to inspire a return visit.

Here’s hoping for some improvement.