The throb of tango music, the sizzle of grilling meat, crowded tables groaning under the weight of portable barbecues loaded with short ribs, sausages and yards of skirt steak that drape over the grills' edges. We're at Buenos Aires Grill in Northridge, it's close to 10 p.m. and the place is still rockin'.
Several groups of guys in soccer club jerseys, paying homage to Argentina's reputation as cattle country, are reveling in the restaurant's parridillas, or mixed-grill meals. But these meat-centered bacchanals are just one of the attractions at this popular, year-old Argentine spot.
In the high-backed booths, romantically inclined couples while away a few hours sharing a bottle of wine and a cheese tray or a grilled seafood platter as if they were in a cafe off Buenos Aires' famed Avenida 9 de Julio, the Champs Élysées of South America.
Extended families gather at some of the larger tables tucking into individual cuts of steak, the excellent canelones de espinaca (spinach cannelloni) or the lobster ravioli.
Apart from the seven cuts of beef steak, Italian-style entrees dominate the menu, which isn't surprising. Nearly half the country's population is of Italian ancestry; Argentines have been jokingly described as Italians who speak Spanish.
The brick-lined dining room, with its Old World mahogany-hued wine bar area and polished wood tables set with cloth napkins, is a stylish surprise, given the restaurant's location in an unobtrusive corner of Target's parking lot. The thoroughly democratic menu appeals to a broad range of appetites and pocketbooks.
You could have the $35 parrilla completa of skirt steak, bone-in short-rib slices, chicken legs and shrimp (easily sufficient for three) and share one of the generously portioned appetizers for a total of about $15 per person.
At the other end of the price and lavishness spectrum is the chef's special filet mignon porto, an updated continental surf and turf. The filet, which is more than 3 inches thick and served over a slightly viscous wine reduction, comes topped with an airy frizzle of fried leeks and is garnished with large shrimp that have absorbed some smokiness from the grill. With a vegetable accompaniment too, it's well worth $27.
Or you could drop in for a glass of wine and a round of delicious appetizers. The very popular pasqualina is a tall, creamy spinach and cheese tart. Crisp-tentacled rabas -- deep-fried baby calamari -- arrive on a grand platter flanked by marinara and tartar sauces. A bright Spanish paprika sauce flavors jumbo shrimp Española. And there are nine varieties of empanadas with fillings including ham and cheese, braised chicken and Bolognese-seasoned chopped beef.
Argentines don't mind slightly chewy meat, because most of the flavorful cuts are the leanest and most exercised. They go for asado de tira, Angus short ribs cut crosswise, or the entraña, Angus outside skirt steak. Others might prefer the rib eye or lomo (filet mignon). In the latest steakhouse fashion, sauces and toppings ordered separately include grilled, thin-sliced onions; mushroom bordelaise; wine demi-glace; Gorgonzola; or fried eggs. The best accompaniments are the charmingly lumpy mashed potatoes and the creamed spinach served in an iron dish. The grilled veggies were actually steamed, and the fried potatoes, undistinguished.
The chef's specials include a fine roulade of chicken and a chicken piccata in light wine-butter sauce dotted with capers.
For lunch or dinner, choose from more than a dozen heroically sized (but not heroically priced) sandwiches served on long, very fresh lengths of crusty baguette. Fillings include sirloin strips sautéed with onions, roasted peppers and provolone cheese; chicken Milanese-style (lightly breaded) slathered with marinara and mozzarella; and grilled onion and portobello mushrooms. Naturally Buenos Aires Grill serves Argentina's famous choripan, a sandwich of juicy, spiced sausage anointed with the country's national condiment, chimichurri sauce.
Service is enthusiastic and welcoming if not polished. One night a waiter brought over several bottles of wine, unannounced, and with the flourish of a host at a dinner party poured generous samples of Cabernet and Malbec, urging our group to compare them (moderately priced Argentine and Chilean wines comprise the list). Thereafter he frequently checked on our welfare, courteously waiting -- in typical Argentine fashion -- to bring the bill until requested.
The espresso machine turns out excellent coffee drinks, and there's a short list of desserts that includes panqueques Argentinos, two crepes rolled around dulce de leche and topped with crunchy caramelized sugar and a flourish of dark chocolate sauce. There's also a swell flan made with dulce de leche, a flavor that, like the Buenos Aires Grill itself, you don't have to be Argentine to love.
Buenos Aires Grill
Location: 8856 Corbin Ave., Northridge, (818) 772-5552; www.bsasgrill.com.
Price: Appetizers, $1.60 to $12, sandwiches, $5 to $12, entrees, $12 to $27.
Best dishes:Pascualina (spinach-ricotta tart), rabas (fried calamari), filet mignon porto with mashed potatoes, canelones de espinaca (spinach cannelloni), lobster ravioli.
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Lot parking. Beer and wine. All major credit cards.