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Restaurant Reviews

A Touch of Charm

In restaurants, mistakes are common. If, as George Eliot noted in the 19th Century, "One can say everything best over a meal," humble apologies should be graciously accepted at the dinner table. The rule applies not only to diners but to servers, be they family members or waiters in public restaurants.

Indeed, a simple "I'm sorry" can be the most powerful weapon in a waiter's tip-earning arsenal. Pronounced with the appropriate sincerity, these two words provide guests with assurances that they, their food, their drinks, or their bill have not been intentionally forgotten, neglected, or what-have-you. An "I'm sorry," or its first cousin, "my apologies," can simultaneously defuse tempers and sooth restless appetites.

And, as I recently discovered at Che, Pibe, an Argentine steak house in Miramar, "I'm sorry" also can make for a good laugh.

My amusement came at the expense of the waitress, who seemed to be one of only two handling the luncheonette-style counter and dining room. She was juggling two rather large parties, including mine, plus several families with small children, and everybody had a demand -- more water, wine, Parmesan cheese, ketchup. Frankly, she was in the weeds (overwhelmed, that is.) Never once did she snap, lose her temper, or even look vaguely frustrated. Instead she delivered whatever was asked, if not rapidly, at least in a somewhat timely fashion. As a former waitress, I was admiring her aplomb. So when she apologized toward the end of the meal for the slow service, I couldn't help chuckling. Under stressful circumstances, she had done a fantastic job.

That unassuming attitude permeates this two-year-old restaurant, which exudes modesty -- entrees top out at $16.50, but that's for a 16-ounce strip steak. A ten-spot is more the average for a main course; appetizers cost only a couple of bucks, and the portions are on the generous side of really big. But this long, narrow, informal eatery is hardly shabby. It's in a newish shopping center and the dining room furniture must have been an investment. The granite-topped tables, for example, are the same really expensive ones the previous owner of my house had installed in my kitchen (thanks, dude). And certainly no expense was spared on the centerpiece of the open kitchen, the grills, which are usually laden with cuts of meat, sausages, ribs, and an impressive variety of organs.

Each of these carnes is offered as a separate meal, complete with a choice of French fries, rice, cassava, or salad. But the best, most budget-conscious way to get a feel for the barbecue -- called parilla in Buenos Aires -- is to order the "Argentine Grill," a compilation of nearly every item including aromatic beef kidneys, curls of chinchulines (crispy intestines), and savory, buttery sweetbreads (thymus glands from calves). If you can't stomach, well, stomach, don't worry -- there's so much other material on the hot plate, ranging from shred-worthy short ribs to moist blood sausage to chicken slick with juice, it makes sense to order the whole shebang, which costs only $13.99 (for one; $26.50 for two) and take home what you don't like for your pet, who will adore what you ignore.

Or you might want to start your meal with the tongue in vinaigrette, which is served sliced and looks much less literal than it sounds. One of my dining companions described it as having a hot-dog consistency, and in a way I could see his point -- no doubt the mystery meats that are ground up for commercial frankfurters include beef tongue. But in flavor, it reminded me more of German veal loaf, slightly porous and supple, allowing the garlicky vinaigrette to essentially cure it.

If you'd rather have the taste of garlic on your tongue than in your tongue, however, you can try the tender eggplant in pickle or the matambre, beef rolled around vegetables and hard-boiled eggs that is roasted, sliced, and served cold; both are noteworthy palate-awakeners. The matambre is served with a side of Russian salad, a tasty, lightly mayonnaised potato salad that has at least as many cubed carrots and starchy peas as diced spuds.

Fair warning, though: If you haven't guessed by now, Che, Pibe is the real thing, and so are its grill cooks. Which means that, however you order your meat, you're getting it well-done, which is how the Argentines do it at home. If you're a rare meat fan, as I am, you can try begging, but most likely the best you'll get is medium-well. Still, the beef, especially the churrasco, is juicy and tasty, and a vibrant chimichurri goes a long way toward conditioning the palate to accept flavor over texture. Another option is to ask for the filet mignon with gorgonzola sauce, a smart recommendation made by our waitress. The just-pungent sauce not only enveloped the meat with flavor, mixing with the juices released when we cut into it, it also made a superb dip for the crunchy French fries.

It might be wise to stick to these basic rules, because going outside the grill box toward, say, cannelloni can have consequences. The interior of ours tasted like old, overcooked, creamed spinach and the marinara-cream sauce was decidedly gloppy. Fish is also a bad idea. The salmon steak was so tough, bony, and fishy that even my cat rejected it later in the evening. A side of boiled vegetables à la Birds Eye didn't help, although the three flavored butters -- basil, eggplant, and red pepper -- that are brought with fresh-baked rolls at the beginning of the meal add a touch of charm to the mundane. Which, come to think of it, is a good description of the Che, Pibe experience. Even without apologies.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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