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El Raigon

An Argentine Steakhouse in North Beach

For anyone who's enjoyed grilled meats prepared in the Argentine fashion, a trip to an Argentine steakhouse is rife with anticipation. Will they have the gargantuan, grilled cross-cut short ribs that seem to be attainable only in South American restaurants? How are the empanadas, sweetbreads, blood sausages and chorizo? The chimichurri sauce? Is the wine list rife with excellent Malbecs? According to some connoisseurs, San Francisco's El Raigon has slipped from its place of high regard in the handful of years since its opening. While the food gets high marks for the most part, we can't help but agree that the service and overall organization seem to hold back what could be a stellar restaurant.

Once affiliated with the Ristow winery, El Raigon is headed by ranch owner Wil Harris, wine importer Alberto Lataliste, and Argentine-born local TV personality Consuelo Lyonnet. Chef Eric Hollis, born in Argentina, has worked at Stars, La Folie, Kokkari, Aziza, and Sushi Ran -- a serious, modern pedigree that is less apparent in this environment due to the predominantly (and necessarily) Argentine menu. Having trained in Buenos Aires at La Brigada under traditional Parrilla master Hugo Echevería, Hollis' menu offers everything you'd want from an Argentine Asado -- that is, if the kitchen has it in stock.

On a recent Thursday night, we were seated for our 8:30pm reservation after a short wait at the small bar. A very long wait ensued before a server came to greet us, at which point we ordered empanadas ($7) and were told they had run out of them. Luckily, we weren't planning on ordering grilled sweetbreads ($9) on this trip, as they were out of those as well. Maybe we were just excited about having an Argentine meal, but we were truly disappointed about the empanadas. Especially on a Thursday in June, when business is likely booming a bit more than usual due to tourism, it seems short-sighted to run out of two items so absolutely key to an Argentine menu.

We did enjoy a subtle, grilled blood sausage ($6), almost fluffy in texture, as well as a gorgeous piece of grilled chorizo ($6) that was so good we ordered another one later in the meal. An arugula salad with a simple red wine vinaigrette and parmesan ($7) was larger than one would expect, though a touch bland. Mashed potatoes ($6) were ethereal without being too buttery.

The appetizer and side dish prices are pleasingly low in comparison to the a la carte entrée prices ($23-$33), which have garnered much complaint from consumer reviewers online. Considering, however, that the meats are all range raised in either Uruguay or Montana, and are served in a town where an entrée can often cost upward of $37-$42 or more, the prices aren't so crazy.

We found the cross-cut beef short ribs ($24) to be infinitely tasty, if a bit gristly (as the cut tends to be), and the beef tenderloin ($33) to be fairly velvety -- not the *most* velvety piece of meat on the whole planet -- but definitely buttery enough on the inside and crispy/smoky on the outside to merit plenty of ooh-aah sound effects.

That's the thing about the Argentine grill; something about the charcoal/wood combination that they use for the parrilla creates a magnificent result every time. Simply pair high quality meat with a skilled Argentine grill master and you've got a meat-tastic dining experience without fail. (And anyone who's been to a hundred half-assed barbecues knows that it takes more than a hot grill to cook a gorgeous piece of meat.)

Accompanying most of the grilled dishes was a cold relish of diced tomatoes, onions and the like, which successfully complemented the deep, wood smokiness with a bright, fresh pop of flavor. A little urn of chimichurri sauce, blessedly balanced in the garlic department, graced the table throughout the meal.

Although we felt neglected by our server for much of our dinner, the overall effect of dining at El Raigon was one of near gluttony and grill-induced delight. We drank a fantastic Argentine Syrah/Malbec from Mendoza, value-priced as South American wines tend to be. The space is warm and intimate, with low brick walls, cattle ranch décor, and fewer tables than one might expect. Just up the hill from Washington Square Park in North Beach, El Raigon is a great destination for meat-loving foodies, but due to the price tag and spotty service, one should give it a try first before hosting a group or important guests.

Argentine Steakhouse
North Beach

Reservations Essential? Yes.