El Raigón

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A Caveat

I have for years bemoaned the lack of Argentine restaurants in the Bay Area. They are a dime a dozen in Los Angeles - where there is even a chain of Argentine steakhouses - but here we've always have to contend with part-time or half-hearted affairs. So when El Raigón opened several months ago, I couldn't be happier. It received great reviews right away, both from critics and diners, so I've been looking forward to going there for a while. The only thing that has kept me away has been Michaela - at two and a half years old she's become restaurant-unfriendly, so I try not to take her to expensive places. El Raigón qualifies as one. We finally got babysitting arranged for a Saturday night in October 2004, and headed there.

El Raigón is on a side street in North Beach. Finding parking proved to be very difficult; we finally had to park many blocks away. They offer valet parking but at a different location, not knowing San Francisco that well we weren't willing to drive around to find it. Hint: provide a map or directions.

El Raigón occupies a pleasant, simple room that with its liberal use of wood reminded me of a steak house back home. The only decorations were leathered-covered boards and a myriad of boleadoras which occupied one wall. It was simple, but quite pleasant.

Service was quite good. I was immediately seated when I arrived, and received a "Buenas Noches" from the host behind the bar after saying my name. I guess my accent makes my nationality pretty evident. The waiter was cordial and knowledgeable and the host came to ask how everything was - and promised to tell the chef my complaint about the food being too salty.

The menu is short and to the point. It offers five different cuts of meat plus five other dishes. Unfortunately it did not include vacío, my favorite cut.

We started with the empanadas caseras ($4 for two) and a provoleta ($8). The beef empanadas were disappointing in that they weren't as flavorful or juicy as either those I make at home or the ones we enjoyed during our last trip to Argentina. The shells were good and flaky and reminded me of the La Salteña brand. I was happy that they did not contain hard-boiled egg (at least that I could see), as I usually don't like egg in my empanadas.

The provoleta - cooked herbed provolone cheese - had been baked rather than grilled, as is usually the case, and it was quite good. It had a very nice crust and wasn't in the least oily. I would order it again.

Mike decided on the Bife de Chorizo ($25), a thick steak that resembles a New York steak and a favorite cut of his during our last trip to Argentina. I had the Ojo de Bife ($25), described as a center cut rib eye, a cut that is not commonly served as such in Argentine restaurants or homes. It's a very lean cut, and I was worried that it would be dry, but the waiter assured me that it was juicy and he was right. The steak was cooked perfectly medium rare, just as I ordered it, and it was delicious, juicy, flavorful and tender. Indeed, I'd describe this cut as a compromise between a Filet Mignon and a New York Steak - it's almost as tender as the former (but not quite) and almost as flavorful as the latter (but not quite). A good middle ground. The only problem it had is that it had been over-salted; this was particularly apparent at the ends though less of a problem in the thick middle.

The Bife de Chorizo had exactly the same problem. It was also cooked perfectly and very juicy as well as quite tasty, but it was too salty. El Raigón uses Montana grass-fed cattle for their steaks and while this is apparent in the quality of the meat, I have to say that neither steak tasted at all like Argentine meat. They didn't have that gamey, special flavor that I so cherish and miss and reminded me more of the steaks we get at Costco (which are good) rather than anything we've had in Argentina. One can only hope that the US will once again lift its ban on Argentine meat (damn that hoof and mouth disease!).

El Raigón offers 5 different side dishes ($4 each) and Mike went for the pure de papas (mashed potatoes) while I had the papas rostisadas (roasted potatoes). I liked the roasted potatoes though these, too, were over-salted and so hot that I wasn't able to eat them until I was almost done with my steak, but they were quite tasty. The mashed potatoes, however, were the real winners. They tasted just like the mashed potatoes we have had in Argentina, with a strong and full potato flavor. Needless to say, Mike didn't like them as much. I was disappointed that they didn't offer fried potatoes, as Argentine style fried potatoes are great.

Neither of us had wine with dinner, though they offer several types of Argentine and Spanish wine by the bottle and the glass, and instead we had sodas (they are canned).

They have five choices for dessert, all $7. I decided on the panqueques de dulce de leche, which turned out to be minuscule crepes filled with dulce de leche with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. They were very good, but I would have preferred a larger portion! Alas, I'll have to make them myself.

Mike decided on the ice cream, which they get from Tango Gelato. He was disappointed that the only Argentine flavor offered was dulce de leche (you can get other great flavors at the store) but happily ate all three scoops. We miss Tango Gelato a lot since it moved from Fruitvale to San Francisco.

In all, we had a very good dinner. It felt very expensive - a similar dinner in Argentina would cost about 8 times less, but we are not in Argentina and quality food in the Bay Area is not cheap. I don't think I'd be raising back to El Raigón, but that's mostly because it doesn't have what I want which is Argentine beef. People without such hangups are likely to enjoy it a lot.

El Raigón
510 Union St.
San Francisco, CA
M-Th: 5:30pm 10:00pm, F-Sa: 5:30pm 11:30pm