94-60 Corona Avenue, Elmhurst, NY 11373 (b/n Junction Boulevard and 94th Street; map); 718-271-8198; elgauchitony.com
Setting: A pair of bustling dining rooms with more Spanish spoken than English. Like what you see? The restaurant's also a meat and gift shop.
Service: Charming and accommodating, even if they don't all speak English fluently.
Must-Haves: Skirt steak, flap steak, eggplant escabeche.
Cost: Appetizers $4 to $10, Mains and steaks $12 to $25
Recommendation: Recommended. Editor's pick for a budget steak night with great beef, sides, and an atmosphere that encourages having a good time.
For years, my answer to "where should we go for steak" has always been the same: the Argentinian, of course.
The Argentinian in question is Mario José, the man behind El Gauchito, a steakhouse and butcher shop on Corona Avenue between Corona and Elmhurst. It's not just my favorite steak-on-a-budget restaurant; it's my favorite place for steak, period. No, they're not dry aging prime cuts of ribeye, and prices have inched up over the years. Most of the steak isn't even from Argentina—Mario gets the bulk of his grain-fed beef from Nebraska, which makes for easier purchasing at a quality that passes his standards.
But they grill some great steak here at a more than reasonable price, and every visit feels a little like a party. If steakhouses or fine dining restaurants with big beef menus feel too staid for your tastes, get yourself to the Argentinian.
El Gauchito calls itself a carniceria—meat shop—and parrillada, which can be roughly translated as barbecue restaurant. The meat is grilled over an open flame that is less hot and fierce than a New York steakhouse salamander broiler, which results in less overtly crusty steak that boasts a concentrated, slow-cooked flavor augmented by hints of smoke. The method—when done right, not the easiest thing to do—is especially friendly to humbler steaks that top steakhouses often ignore.
You go first and foremost for the skirt steak, called Entraña ($24.95) on the menu, which is far and away the restaurant's best cut of meat. They default to cooking it medium rare, sometimes even when you request otherwise, but they're right in doing so—skirt steak walks a fine line between too-rare and inedibly chewy or overcooked and dry. El Gauchito nails it every time, a simple but beautiful grilled length of beef that almost overhangs the plate it's served on. The crust is a rich, purple-tinged mahogany, heavily dosed with salt; it gives way to a buttery, resoundingly beefy interior without a trace of chewiness. After all these years, I'm still impressed by how much the kitchen coaxes from this unassuming strip of diaphragm.
Those who prefer thicker steaks should order the Flap Steak or Vacio ($21.95), something of a cross between sirloin and flank. It's a 16-ounce cut a little over an inch thick and served at a slightly cooler medium rare than the skirt. And it's even more buttery, with a richness approaching grilled short rib. Slice it thinly against the grain and eat it with rice and beans, or better yet, let the naturally long fibers of the beef pull off in lobes as you cut your way through. Relish them like fine pulled pork, as flap steak's notorious chewiness is wholly absent here.
I'm not one for covering up a great piece of meat with steak sauce, but for El Gauchito's chimichurri I make an exception. The oily sauce is loaded with herbs and garlic, made piquant by touches of chili and vinegar. Not that the beef needs it, but I'll just say I go through several helpings over the course of the meal, which the amiable servers are quick to refill.
There other cuts to choose from, like short ribs that lack depth compared to the skirt and flap, offal (sweetbreads and kidney, not at their finest), and plenty of sausage, including a mild but juicy chorizo that's upstaged by a much better morcilla, a custard-like blood sausage perfumed by garlic. Meats come a la carte ($4 to $24.90) and in several combinations ($17.80), as well as in a massive mixed grill ($24.90) that'll give you the most variety for your buck. But you're best off sticking to the cuts of meat that play to the restaurant's strengths: that skirt and flap.
Two great steaks does not a great steakhouse make. But what El Gauchito lacks in consistency it makes up with starters and sides that go well beyond the steakhouse staples. The perks start on the house: thinly sliced salami folded inside provolone, dressed with olive oil, oregano, and chili. It's made even better by that chimichurri, enough to make a request for it before the steak arrives. The famished should stuff it all in one of El Gauchito's warm, fresh rolls for an impromptu pre-steak sandwich.
Here's something you won't find in your typical steakhouse: superb Berenjenas (Eggplant) en Escabeche ($6.90), thick-cut rounds that are briefly boiled and then soused in a sharp, spicy vinegar-garlic sauce. Or light and crispy Spinach Croquettes ($6.75, two per order), delicately fried snacks with a fresh mineral backbone. Steamed cauliflower baked in bechamel ($8.90) may be more likely at Smith & Wollensky, but it tastes especially fresh here. Even dull-sounding Provencal Potatoes ($4.90) are a standout, the boiled spuds tossed with refreshing amounts of parsley and garlic. Though I'll advise skipping the Provolone alla Parrilla ($7.90), fried provolone topped with more olive oil and oregano, which doesn't deliver what you hope it might.
The sides that come included in the price of a steak are more conventional, such as fries (nothing special but fine), salad (skip), or garlic sautéd-spinach (do it). But there's also black beans with rice, flavored by the grassy sweetness of bell pepper, which make a solid addition to any steak. And fried green plantains (tostones) are fine if smothered in chimichurri. You'll also find a limited seafood menu, with items like Camarones (Shrimp) Provencal ($15.90) better executed than you might expect. But let's be clear: you're here for the meat, and such dishes are only for conscientious objectors.
Do stay for dessert, though primarily those made with the restaurant's homemade dulce de leche, a deep, almost molasses take on the milk caramel. (They sell very good dulce de leche at the butcher counter, but sadly not this version.) Thick squiggles of the stuff ride over fresh cinnamon-laced churros ($5.90), which are sometimes shatteringly crisp, other times less duller but still satisfying. Perhaps better is an order of lacy, eggy crepes ("panqueues," $5.90) stuffed with dulce de leche and soaked in caramel sauce, surprisingly light and less sweet than you'd expect.
Rare is the restaurant that's both home to a local community and thoroughly welcoming to those from outside it. El Gauchito is such a place. You'll hear more Spanish than English spoken across the dining room, and most tables are there to party, sangria at the ready. The staff are itching to make sure you do the same, and I've never seen a diner treated with anything less than a genuine sense of lighthearted pleasure.
Of course, the more curious you sound about the food, the more excited they become to share everything they know. The menu merits considerable exploration, so you'd do wise to listen to your server's favorites. After all, these steaks are too big to handle alone.