Señorita Vino left her heart in Buenos Aires three years ago. To be precise, she left her entire person at Ezeiza International Airport after missing a connecting flight to Lima en route to Los Angeles. Her excuse: Perfume shopping in the duty-free section. Lame, I know. Or as my Buenos Aires cousins might have said after I boarded a rescheduled flight the next day, “¡Qué boluda!”
Argentina didn’t cry for me, but I certainly cried after realizing I couldn’t bring home any of the beautiful bottles of Malbec I bought in a hip little airport bodega, all because my bags had the good sense to make the flight and were, at that moment, Lima-bound without me. I’m sure by now my Argentine cousins have put those bottles to good use, their prize for rescuing me from the prospect of spending the night on the floor of International Terminal A.
Imagine my nostalgia-ridden joy when I stumbled across a gem of an Argentinian eatery in Los Angeles. Carlitos Gardel Restaurant sits on a nondescript stretch of the tourist mecca that is Melrose Avenue, about halfway between the stuck-in-the-the-80s boutiques and the posh Beverly Hills end. For those of you who may not be familiar with Carlos Gardel, you’ll certainly know who he is about five minutes after stepping into the restaurant’s retro-elegant interior. Framed reprints of newspaper clippings and old photographs line the walls, telling the story of one of Argentina’s most beloved musical figures, known to some as the godfather of tango music.
Sultry tango rhythms drifting in from the audio system serve as a fitting soundtrack for a menu of traditional Argentinian dishes: Empanadas, melted provolone and steak classics including milanesa, entraña a la parilla and churrasco. Signature Italian influenced-plates feature gnocchi, ravioli and seafood pasta.
The wine list is curated by the restaurant’s Buenos Aires-born sommelier, who is at the ready with helpful advice and pairing suggestions. I decided to take a break from Malbec and try what in my opinion is Argentina’s true wine star, Bonarda. This is a red grape with a wonderfully fruity character and a smooth feel on the palate. I chose a 2007 Lamadrid Reserva Bonarda. Gorgeous violet aromas, a hint of chocolate and lots of ripe red fruit. In a word, ¡Fantástico!
Bonarda was the perfect match for my Italian-influenced appetizer of burrata and prosciutto. The wine’s flavor and structure also complemented the main course, entraña (grilled skirt steak) served with pumpkin-infused mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables.
During my first trip to Buenos Aires, my cousins took me to a tango dinner theater where I proceeded to consume a juicy steak about the size of a coffee table. This, of course, while watching lithe dancers flit about the stage in spangled, form-fitting dresses. It’s a good thing my gym doesn’t have a branch in Buenos Aires, because I probably would have spent the next 24 hours on the treadmill. The portions at Carlitos Gardel are more than generous, much like every restaurant I tried in Argentina. This time, I showed some restraint and had enough leftovers for two more meals.
Dessert at Carlitos Gardel is the best incentive not to go loca on your main course. The peach layer cake with dulce de leche and whipped frosting is like nothing I had in Buenos Aires. The great thing about that is knowing I can enjoy it without having to board a plane – and risk missing another connection.
Carlitos Gardel Restaurant. 7963 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046. 323.655.0891 Dinner M-Sat, 6 – 11 p.m.; Sun, 5 – 10 p.m. Lunch M-F, 11:30 – 2:30.