For years, I wrote to the sound of tango music from the '20s and '30s — Don Barreto, Roberto Firpo, Ada Falcón and, of course, the king of them all, Carlos Gardel, who died in a plane crash in 1935. Not that I'd ever been to Argentina at that point: I just loved the music. And when I moved to L.A. and found a restaurant named for the singer near West Hollywood, I had to try it. That was 1996, just after the Bozoghlian family from Buenos Aires bought the place and turned it into one of the most welcoming, and festive, restaurants in town.
Mention Carlitos Gardel to someone who knows it and you're likely to get an effusive recommendation. It's my friend Jimmy's favorite date restaurant. For another set, it's the default for birthdays and other celebrations. The other day, driving down Melrose Avenue, the restaurant's sign caught my eye, and I realized it had been quite a while since I was last there. Why not see what's doing with this beloved, long-running place?
It's doing quite nicely, thank you. Mother Azniv Bozoghlian (the name is Armenian) directs the kitchen and the cooking is less fancy restaurant fare, more Argentine home cooking. Son Max found a passion for wine and has put together an extensive list of the best bottles Argentina has to offer, along with a few Italian and French labels. Son Gerard is a warm presence in the dining room.
And on the weekends, which is when you want to go, the whole family is there, including the paterfamilias, Carlos, who works the bar area in back and, of course, writes up the checks. Friday and Saturday nights, a musician who once worked with the Moscow Philharmonic and goes only by the nickname Goga teases out old tangos from a keyboard set up at the back.
No crudo or baby beet salad here. The appetizers don't flirt with the trendy but go back to a more gracious age of dining. Hongos are meaty mushroom caps stuffed with a forcemeat of chicken, breadcrumbs, vegetables and herbs in a red wine sauce. Fine deep-fried squid comes with a zesty marinara sauce. The empanadas are a must. But my favorite is matambre de pollo, boned chicken rolled up around a filling of hardboiled eggs, ham and cheese, served sliced, with a classic creamy insalata russa on the side.
Though the restaurant's famous papas fritas Provenzal are also listed as an appetizer, wait for the main courses to order them. One order of these incredibly fragrant, crisp fries showered with garlic and parsley is plenty for six. Splichal couldn't do it better.
Restaurants with tablecloths are practically an endangered species in L.A. Here, tables are draped in white cloths, which does a lot to tamp down the noise level. Even with music swirling all around us, we could still hear each other. Linens also bring a sense of occasion to the evening. One friend kept remarking at dinner, "I feel as if I've dined, not just eaten."
And so we did. I can verify that the spinach and ricotta gnocchi, often available as a special, are tender little bites sitting on a pool of marinara sauce. Pastas are decent too. Remember that a huge percentage of Argentines have family from Italy generations back, so Italian food is as popular there as it is here.
The primary reason you go to Carlitos Gardel, though, is for the steaks. The beef is grass-fed Angus, and even less expensive cuts, like the skirt steak, have a deep beefy flavor. That skirt steak, actually, may be my favorite. Stretched out lengthwise to what looks like easily a foot, a skinny foot, it is juicy and chewy, a steak with texture.
Order the mini bife and you'll wonder how or why this is called a "mini." That's because in Argentina, we like our steaks big, explains a waiter. The mini New York cut is about 9 ounces, but the regular bife is some 18 ounces. Really, the mini is plenty, napped fancily in a black peppercorn, white wine and mushroom sauce with some bite.
Listen up for the steak specials too. One night it was a 40-ounce rib-eye for $80, which four of us shared, though there was some tussling over who got the bone. The kitchen brings in big cuts of beef and breaks them down themselves.
The other way to go is with the parrillada, or mixed grill, for two, which is ample for three, maybe even four if you don't have big appetites. A small grill arrives on the table, with coals underneath to keep the meat warm. You get skirt steak, short ribs, blood sausage with a hint of sweet spices, spicy Argentine style chorizo and flattened sweetbreads, which are cooked until they're crispy at the edges. It's quite the carnivore's feast.
With any meat, you get a sauceboat of chimichurri sauce, basically roughly cut parsley, garlic, olive oil and lemon — and highly addictive. On request, they'll bring you one generously spiked with hot red peppers. You also get home-style mashed potatoes colored with a little pumpkin to give them a pale orange-gold tinge. For me, they're a little pasty. The carrots and broccoli aren't particularly inspiring either.
But the wines are. Top red wines from Argentina are expensive, and the list reflects that, but you can also find some less pricy Malbecs, such as the Luigi Bosca Malbec DOC from Luja´n de Cuyo. F+or fans, the selection of high-end Argentine wines is expansive. Max even took out the small stage to make room for wine storage. I also ferreted out a fine 2004 Giacomo Conterno Barbera d'Alba and a truly beautiful 1998 Marquis d'Angerville Volnay premier cru "Champans," both at a very fair price for the quality and vintage.
Mrs. Bozoghlian takes great pride in her desserts, which she makes herself. Her signature is the postre Gardel, a tall slab of genoise layered with peaches, dulce de leche and meringue, which looks as if it would be achingly sweet but skirts the edge. There's a basic — and excellent — chocolate cake with nuts in the batter. And sometimes an ethereally light ricotta cake, simple and direct. When the waiter presents the full complement of desserts for a show and tell, it's hard not to be tempted. She blesses her desserts, the waiter tells us. How could you not be tempted?
At Carlitos Gardel, of course you should indulge. The normal cautions and rules don't apply at this restaurant outside of time and place. Let Gardel's music and mother Bozoghlian's honest cooking work its magic. Here, it's Buenos Aires sometime in the past and all is well —- Mr. Bozoghlian in the back, glasses pushed down on his nose, adding up the bills, his son Max decanting a wine, Gerard giving a short history of the restaurant to newcomers as laughter and the scent of garlic and grilled beef wafts over the quaint dining room.
Rating: One and a half stars
Location: 7963 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 655-0891; http://www.carlitosgardel.com.
Price: Dinner appetizers, $3 to $10; salads, $8 to $12; main courses, $18 to $44; desserts, $8 to $12. Corkage, $20.
Details: Open for dinner 6 to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday from 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Lunch is served 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Wine and beer. Valet parking, $5, dinner only.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. Four stars: Outstanding on every level. Three stars: Excellent. Two stars: Very good. One star: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.