It wasn't a direct route. Uruguayan Oscar was working at the embassy when he met Argentinean Bernardo. They struck up a friendship that resulted in them selling homemade empanadas at the fledgling Market on Main in Maboneng. The filled pastry empanadas became so popular they decided to expand from a market stall into a showstopper space in Maboneng, a regenerated neighbourhood on the eastern side of the city. The cavernous space with its raw, yet rustic interiors, simple iron grill parilla and nods to gaucho life in the murals on the walls quickly became a popular hotspot.
Five years later the duo decided to make a move to the northern suburbs, to Parkwood, next to Rosebank, an area they say has always been the source of their client base. A once non-descript spot on Jan Smuts Avenue that has housed serial forgettable restaurants for years has now been transformed into another magical space that conjures the parillas of Buenos Aires.
The new premises have a similar rustic feel, a great bar area, and also spill out into a shaded courtyard. We were invited for lunch with the owners, who are as charming as ever, and (embarrassingly after years of being fans) finally learned to pronounce the name. It's not a reference to Che Guevara by the way, but a way to welcome someone. Ch-e (almost an exclamation), a greeting for a friend rather than the popular drawn-out "Shay", a Joburg pronunciation.
What makes the restaurant Argentinian, above and beyond the owners' provenance and the decor, is the cuts of meat served here. The two have been fastidious in sourcing a butcher – in the Kwazulu Natal midlands – to supply grass-fed beef, cut to their specifications. The cuts are big, and cooked directly over the fire on a low heat and the preference is to medium rare succulence rather than well-done meat favoured by many South Africans. Anthony Bourdain would have approved. The meat is never marinated. Just a smattering of coarse salt is added before it hits the grill where it can cook for more than an hour and still retain all the juicy goodness. We recommend the asado and the spider steak – an unusual cut from inside the hips with a slight marbling like a spider's web that gives the meat a rich flavour.
The steaks, of course, are paired with Che's chimichurri which comes standard as a side delivered just about as you sit down, an Argentinean herb-based-sauced so good that Che supplies it by the bottle. There's also a selection of Argentinean wines to accompany the meal.
The restaurant has an inviting bar with a good cocktail menu that pays homage to the duo's Latino background – from classics like mojito, Caipirinha and Cuba Libre, to Legui – a delicious combination of whisky, syrup, soda and lemon. A well-priced tapas menu of small bites includes seafood options and delicious vegetarian bites, and of course there are always those empanadas.
For dessert all are worthwhile options but the prize definitely goes to the dulce de leche Flan del Rio De Plata, described as a "flagship" dessert, it deserves its own flagpole – something Oscar takes credit for after "inventing" a machine (we are thinking of commending it to the Nobel committee) to perfect the process of making this deliciously rich caramel-like substance made from the slow boiling of sweetened milk (in this case a 17-hour process). Granted this reviewer has always rated the creme caramel as a kickass dessert.
Che Argentine is situated along Rosebank's Art Gallery Row, so a great stop between gallery-hopping.
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