Monday, September 22, 2008

Restaurant Review: La Casa Argentina

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 13/09/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

During the years I've lived in Prague, a good amount of my precious time has been spent touring American visitors around the city. Those who are making their first trip outside the United States usually end up regaling me with some charmingly idiotic comments. When glimpsing Týn church or some other Gothic structure, for example, more than one has uttered something to the effect of, "Oh my God, that looks just like Disneyland!!!" Out comes the camera. Snap snap snap.

That's when I muster up as much of the patient schoolteacher in me as I can and explain that it isn't Týn that looks like Disneyland, but the other way around.

"Can you take a picture of me in front of the castle thingy??" Never mind.

What my culturally-challenged friends are referring to is the Sleeping Beauty Castle, the pastel-colored fairy tale structure built in 1955 at the heart of the Disneyland theme park in California that has become a Disney – and, by extension, American – icon. For them, this side of the pond is like a storybook come to life, the realization of a hundred childhood fantasies of old-world princesses, horse-drawn carriages, and ornate palaces.

Smug Europeans like to snicker at this American fetishization of their culture, but it would be unfair to say that we don't have a few exotic fixations of our own. Take, for example, our capital city's current mania for all things South and Central American: La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban-themed bar on Kaprova, is packed nightly, a Peruvian restaurant and club just opened its doors in Old Town, and even after years as Prague's most popular cocktail, no one seems to have gotten sick of the mojito.

The simmering hub of all this Latin loving – the South American craze's local Disneyland – has to be La Casa Argentina. It's a large steak restaurant done up to be as stereotypically Argentinean as possible, with tango dancers, native fauna, and Maradona jerseys galore.

The mini-tour of Argentina starts in the Salon Caminito, a big room painted with murals meant to mimic the famous Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca. That's followed by the winter garden, where water trickles down a rocky wall and iguanas live in a hollowed-out fake tree trunk. The back room features a wooden bar modeled after a ship and is nicknamed "the port." Finally, there's a hallway decorated with flat screen TVs and football memorabilia and, in the basement, the Bodega Mendoza, a sort of private salon / wine cellar.

For all the investment put into La Casa Argentina's interior, the food is pretty abysmal. Most of the dishes I tried were heinously over seasoned. The cream of corn soup with shrimp (110 CZK) accomplished the impressive feat of being both bland and sickeningly salty at the same time. Ditto the goulash soup (113 CZK), which the menu claimed would be served with Argentinean beef sirloin and homemade bread, but ended up including only a smidgen of the former and none of the latter. The ground beef and chicken-chorizo empanadas (178 CZK) were inoffensive, if a bit on the chewy side, but the salad served that came with it had been salted mercilessly, too.

At least Casa Argentina manages to get the important part right: the steaks. In both quality and preparation, they are unquestionably awesome, and must be some of the best in town. Ranging in price from 335 to 1305 CZK depending on the cut of meat and its size, all of the beef is imported directly from Argentina and is cooked on an open-fire grill (or parrilla) according to your desired temperature.

My tenderloin (468 CZK for 200g) was charred on the outside and succulently red and juicy on the inside; the beef on its own is so flavorful that it really doesn't need that spoonful of herbed butter slapped on top (the waiters also push customers to order additional dipping sauces, even though all of the steaks already come with chimichurri, a traditional spicy condiment).

A restaurant that takes its beef as seriously as this one does ought to make a pretty good burger. But the one my companion tried (the "Black Ranch burger," 355 CZK) was downright bad – the meat patty wouldn't stick together and kept falling apart in big chunks, and it was completely over salted besides. Even more baffling is the fact that the kitchen doesn't cook the burger to order; when my friend asked for it done medium, the waitress responded that the patties were pre-cooked and they didn't make them on the grill. Why on earth not, especially when they have that fancy parrilla going over there in the kitchen?

The service in general was pretty lousy, with surly waiters constantly jumping into our table to grab plates and empty Mattoni bottles but disappearing when it was time to pay the bill. And prepare yourself for a long wait between courses, too.

If this whole Latin craze gets you excited, I suppose you could give La Casa Argentina a shot. For the most part, though, it's a watered-down version of the real thing, a shoddily-made fairy tale castle that relies on its exotic appeal to lure customers.

And just like in the real Disneyland, the food is bad and overpriced. Except for the steaks, of course. Those are in a category of their own – although when they're surrounded by all that phoniness, they're almost forgettable.

But not quite.

La Casa Argentina
Dlouhá 35
Praha 1
Tel: 222 311 512

Open Mon – Sun 10:00 – 02:00



Anonymous said...

El Barrio de Angel in Andel has imported Argentine beef, good service, decent interior, is much cheaper and has a good wine list that won't break the bank.

Anonymous said...

Tried El Barrio,, Steak was not as good, Service getting in was great but then went downhill and had issues with getting drinks. Anyone else have some good places to go for a really good steak?

Anonymous said...

I was wondering about the latin restaurant craze the last time I visited Prague. My wife and I always try to manage an evening at La Bodeguita del Medio. The food is as good as one would expect from a French bistro though there is nothing Cuban about it. But we don't go there for the food. The place is casual and much fun with Cuban music and salsa dancers. It's open late, too.

By the way, I'm an American and have never visited any of the Disny venues, thank you. We are not all insipid fools with bad taste.

Tiago said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tiago said...

I lived two years in a furnished apartments buenos aires in my twenties and there I tasted Argentinean food I got absolutely fan of it. Nos just their spectaculars beefs but also empanadas, humitas, tamales, milanesas, berenjenas al escabeche, FACTURAS, dulce de leche and many other are outstanding