Review: El Gaucho Steakhouse

To many, El Gaucho epitomizes what a steakhouse should be. It feels sophisticated. The atmosphere is formal, the lighting dim and romantic, and lots of dark wood provides a backdrop to tinkling stemware and white linens. Live jazz wafts from the background as tuxedo-clad waiters scurry by with carts for tableside Caesar salads, the darkness punctuated by an occasional burst of flame from a bananas Foster in the making. To many people, this type of ambiance is it, as fancy as they will ever dine, a place where a strategically placed ring might magically appear, sparkling on a plate.

Ambiance: I’ve pretty much painted a picture. The bar fits right into the theme, also with white linens, though there are some good happy hour specials to be found here. The restaurant feels large. Though there are some two tops, many of the seats are booths, including the half ovals that allow a larger party to talk comfortably. Several rooms are available for private dining, and this is the only Portland restaurant I know of that still has a cigar room. One caveat, the tables closest to the kitchen can get a bit warm at times. Grade A.

Service was interesting. In every steakhouse I have been to, I asked a specific question about a cut of meat. The waiter here apologized for not knowing the answer, but unlike many restaurants, didn’t offer to try to find out. Most of the servers at places like this have been there for years. They have heard and seen everything, but I got the feeling that if they stepped out of their script, they had no clue what to do. When I asked if a wine by the glass was available by the bottle, the waiter said yes, just multiply the cost of a glass by four, as he walked away. His reply just didn’t seem to fit the service one would expect from an ambiance such as this, and also added quite a bit to their normal markup. No thanks.

Other than these admittedly minor hiccups, service was top-notch throughout the evening. The waiters were quite affable, giving helpful advice, such as how we could split side dishes among the three in our party to save a few dollars. The only “up-sell” I encountered was when I was going to order the smallest size steaks, and the server said we would be “much happier with the larger, slightly thicker steak that has a better flavor”. Maybe he was right; I didn’t go back to try the small one. Grade A-.

Drinks were excellent, perfectly made standards, though I can’t speak for the house specials which we didn’t try. The stemware is good, whether you are buying a bottle of wine or a glass. Sixteen different selections are available by the glass, with Oregon and Washington vineyards well represented. There is something for everyone on the bottle list, with choices from France, South America, Spain, Italy and Australia, along with a good number of domestics. I was surprised to find many choices in the $50-$70 dollar range, with some lower. Of course if you really want to seal a business deal, you can find wines up in the $2,400 range. Overall markup is normal for a restaurant at about 100% over retail. Corkage is $20.

Caesar salads are made tableside in the old school way. The waiter looked like he’d been doing this his whole life, and had the practiced rhythm of a machine. It took quite a while, but was fun to watch. However, the end result was unimpressive; I’d say Ruth’s Chris was better.  There was way too much grated cheese which muddled the flavors, with no brightness, nothing standing out. I would imagine it is difficult to get the balance right when  you are making the dressing in the dark and are unable to taste it. About the only good thing I could say (besides it being terrific fun to watch him make it), was the quantity was large ($12 each, 2 minimum). In the future I’m more likely to add the El Gaucho salad which is just greens and blue cheese dressing. Grade C-

Steaks are dry aged and perfectly cooked; all were served exactly medium-rare all the way through. The char was perfect, giving it a slight wonderful crust when we bit down. These are excellent steaks, loaded with flavor. The next day I went to cut the leftover and grabbed a chef’s knife. It cut as thin as sashimi, delicate little translucent strips.  16oz New York $59, 24 oz Porterhouse $62. Grade A.

Sides are fairly large, easily enough to share between 2-3 people. We tried roasted sweet corn with chipotle honey butter which was amazing for this time of year. It was loaded with midsummer corn flavor ($11 – ouch). Asparagus tasted like spring, fresh and properly trimmed/cooked, a line of flawless béarnaise was drizzled over the top ($12 – double ouch). Finally, southwest scalloped potatoes were spicy and decadent, loaded with cheese and cream -  a terrible idea with a heavy meal like this, but I wouldn’t have thrown myself on the grenade if I hadn’t ordered them – I do it all for you ($7). Grade A

After the mains have been cleared away and you are pondering the dessert menus, a tray with a bowl of fresh fruit, Roquefort cheese, nuts and a nutcracker is brought to the table gratis. It’s a pleasant way to end the meal right there; however I had to move on to –

Dessert: bananas Foster is a steakhouse classic, though it was originally invented at Brennan’s in New Orleans. This dish is made tableside too, rolled out on a cart by a wonderful server named Sherwood, who  offers to “teach you how to make this at home”.  The El Gaucho version does not follow the classic Brennan recipe, but is close enough. Rum is flamed in a pan, a large pile of butter is added, a pile of brown sugar, then bananas, banana rum. Add more flame. Carefully lay bananas on plate, add two scoops of vanilla ice cream, pour sauce gently over entire thing. Sounds great, but though it was fun to watch the preparation, and the waiter was fantastic, the dish itself was just… ok. I believe the problem with this dish is that it really doesn’t get hot enough when prepared tableside. The brown sugar didn’t quite melt, leaving a grainy mouth feel. However, it’s fun, romantic, and I’d order it again ($9 per person, minimum order of 2). Grade A+ for the server, but the dessert was just a B+.

For some, El Gaucho is over the top expensive, and just not worth it. For others, it is the ultimate dinner out. When I look at my spreadsheet of costs between various steakhouses, El Gaucho is definitely at the upper end, but when compared to Ruth’s Chris, which I reviewed last week, the winner is clear, and between the two, The Cowboy takes the prize.

The total cost of an average meal for two, consisting of two cocktails, two Caesars, two steaks, two sides and two glasses of wine, priced in the center of the wine list, was $212.00

This is the summary of a group of four steakhouse reviews. You can see the:

  • Address: 319 SW Broadway, Portland OR. 97205
  • Phone: (503) 227-8794
  • Hours: Mon-Thurs 5pm-12am, Fri-Sat 5pm-1am, Sun 5pm-11pm
  • Website: ElGaucho.com
  • Map

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. JandJ says

    Great review, FD, and very consistent with our own experiences there. When we are looking for the very best steak and don’t mind paying the big bucks for it, El Gaucho is where we go (fairly rare, but that’s what makes it special). We’ve never been disappointed. I would probably rate the Caesar salad a bit higher than you did, but as with many things, it’s largely a matter of personal taste. We generally order the Chateaubriand for 2… just love the wonderful jus sauce that they make for the meat. Actually, it’s enough for 3 moderate eaters, so we always have lots of leftovers to take home.

    Can’t wait to see the rest of your reviews. I’ll be really interested to see if any of the remaining restaurants are able to outdo El Gaucho.

    • Food Dude says

      Thank you. I’ll be interested to see if the remaining restaurants are able to outdo Gaucho too. Oh wait, I already know ;)

      The Ringside review will post on next Tuesday.

  2. says

    FD, great review! I completely agree with you about Sherwood’s banana foster performance – he made our banana foster – probably the 100,000 that he had made, still as enthursed as if it is the very first one that he ever made. I admire that. I only wish I will have his polish performance when I make my 100,000 dog.

  3. says

    The steak was great; ditto, my martini. The Caesar was kind of bitter; the lettuce limp; the croutons meh. Steak more than made up for it. I agree re: bananas Foster: really fun to watch, and had he cooked the caramel a minute longer — and left out the banana rum, which to me tasted like bubble gum — it would have been truly stand-out. As it was, it was pretty good. I, too, would order it again.

  4. jimster says

    Pretty much what I would expect: Great meat, great drinks, very good service, most sides good but overall sides, salads, desserts not in the same league as the steaks. The extra fare is worth it compared to RC (and I bet Morton’s, too).

  5. Steve Wino says

    OK, so the question is, for us lighter eaters, will they throw us out if we try to split an appetizer, salad, steak and desert four ways? It sounds decadent but I think they’d have to wheel me out on a gurney. I don’t know how you do it, FD, but thanks for throwing yourself on the grenade.

    • Food Dude says

      They are so obliging, I think they probably would try to accomodate you, though not sure they would 4 ways. That seems a bit unfair, but I bet they would split everything for two. You can also get the smaller sized steaks.

    • mzwong says

      They may have a bar menu that would cater to a smaller appetite. I know that I have often wondered about the quality of the “steak bites” listed on bar menus when dining alone and not wanting to get a huge steak. Are steak bites worth ordering? Are they just weird end pieces of meat?

      • qv says

        re:steak bites- depends on the place. If they use quality beef it can be quite good. Ringside’s steak bites are very tasty. Generally yes, they are pieces that get trimmed off to make for pretty cuts and even weights on the steaks served. If El Gaucho has them I can imagine they’d be delicious.

    • NYC-PDX says

      Yes, they will split everything for two people — we’ve done it before, splitting a salad, entree, side and dessert. They were very accommodating. And even though we split everything, there was still too much food for us to finish (and a bill that was still in excess of $100).

  6. zumpie says

    I agree about about the obliging! We went there for our anniversary and EVERYONE seemed to know why we were there, sweetly wishing us “happy anniversary” even when we weren’t seated. While it’s quite upscale, no one is even remotely snobby, quite the opposite.

    Another detail (like the complimentary cheese and nut course) I love is how nice their left over bags are AND how the hostesses tossed in a little box of their very nice chocolates, gratis. It’s $$$$ there, but completely understandable–and there are quite a few non-steak items, as well.

    So far I agree completely with your reviews, FD. I’ll even include that I haven’t had thier caesar, but I’ve heard less than complimentary things about it, too. But while we all know El Gaucho took the crown, what was your overall letter grade (I’m guessing A- or B++++++++++?)

  7. Melissa says

    I guess we should all hang our heads in shame eating generic corn flakes with powdered milk. Then again if the high end steak houses go out of business, more people will be forced to eat government cheese.
    Or is that what you want to happen?

    • Somnus says

      That makes five of us out of six that aren’t on food stamps, and some of us really enjoy high end steak houses and appreciate a thorough review.

  8. Melissa says

    Great review. I feel like I was there. Except I wasn’t. I know this because your prose has my stomach grumbling.
    One teeny question/the addup has two sides but it looks like you ordered 3. Was one comped/come with? Thanks.

    • says

      I’m wondering about that math myself, because the addup does not mention the Bananas Foster, which they clearly did order.

      Doing the math myself, I get $193 (2 Caesars $24, 2 steaks $121, 3 sides $30, 2 desserts $18), with prices for the cocktails and wine not specifically mentioned. For a total of $212, that would leave $19 for two glasses of wine and two mixed drinks, which seems low. However, if the correct total is actually $7-$12 higher (that is, by the cost of the third side), that would make the alcohol cost $26-$31, which looks about right.

      • Food Dude says

        The price I’m giving is for exactly the same at each steakhouse, not necessarily all the different items I reviewed here (we had 3 people at EG, 2 at the other places). If you look at the ruth’s chris review, the exact same items were ordered. That is to make it easy to compare each restaurant, especially when I put all of them together in a spreadsheet (after all the reviews are posted)

  9. JandJ says

    Gee, maybe you might want to reconsider “lurking” around this site. You see, it sort of tends to occasionally highlight restaurants that are fairly expensive.

    I couldn’t help but snicker when reading this. It seems so… well… Portland (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) :-) At the expense of being perhaps a bit insensitive, I guess the philosophy behind this post is: “if a few people are miserable, everyone else needs to be as well.”

    • mzwong says

      Yes, very Joan Baez of A_Lurker.
      Food Dude – you are hilarious.
      Those high end restaurants employ low end locals, so I say keep going and keep more people off food stamps!

    • abefroman says

      Sherwood Dudley has been around the PDX restaurant scene for a long time, too many places to list. He was at the Couch Street Fish House and Brasserie Monmartre back in the day. He is a great guy and has tons of knowledge and class. I think he is the maitre ‘d at El Gaucho.

  10. Butterballs says

    Let me say that El Gaucho is a passe platform. The ambiance is like 1970′s stankhouse saloon. I have eaten at chop houses all over the world and this is quite possibly one of the most laughable huff puff about nothing steakhouses I have patronized. Dining here had nothing to do with good food and more to do with throwing down more money than the table next to you. I would sugest updating options (think proprietary Red Steakhouses). To be fair Ruth Chris needs to update also.

    I simply found the experience boring and a waste of money.

    Sincerely, a CEC and Certified Sommelier

    • Food Dude says

      “Sincerely, a CEC and Certified Sommelier”
      I’m glad you added that, or I would have completely disregarded your comment, and would have assumed you haven’t been reading the entire steakhouse thread.

  11. Vaugirard says

    And were your fellow Portland customers dressed in shorts, flip flops, baseball caps and joe college t-shirts?

  12. snowyaker says

    Sounds like it’s worth it. Still wish you would throw yourself on the Urban Farmer grenade to compare it with the others. I haven’t ate here, but did have two great steaks at Urban Farmer when it opened. I liked it. Probably won’t go back and shell out the bucks again but it was good. I’d be interested to hear how it stacks up. When it comes to steak, I can usually do about as good at home. When I eat out, I want food I can’t cook at home.

    P.S. I know you had this discussion prior to starting the steak series. Still, just sayin’

  13. Joie says

    I was sooooo excited to spend my B-Day At El Gaucho!! I called ahead to let them know it was my B-Day because usually fine dining establishments usually do something about that. My husband and I were there on July 31st and had reso’s for 7:00 and I made sure we were on time. Having worked in a number of fine dining establishments in Chicago I was really interested to see what El Gaucho was all about.
    We walked in and the hostess greeted us in a hohum way, no big deal I guess she thought we were there for her. Right before we were to be seated another customer came up and interrupted her seating us making us just stand there waiting on her instead of telling that customer she’d be right back, bad! Now mind you this is suppose to be Fine Dining k? We were finally seated and the service was truly nothing to speak of and we almost had to pour our own wine because it took forever for them to get back to us, remember with fine dining you don’t ever pour your own wine! The food was OK no big deal, and when we were finished w/dinner the busboy came by and asked if we wanted to take our unfinished bottle of wine home, we weren’t finished yet!!!!!. What about the bowl of fruit you’re entitled too, what about dessert, what about coffee, nothing!!!!! So now I’m getting pissed!!!!! I looked at my husband and said we’re being rushed out and he agreed. You know when someone is trying to get rid of you.
    I told him I’m sitting here all night until I’m finished I’m not going any where!!! So finally we get the fruit bowl and all the waiter did was sit the dessert menu down didn’t bother to explain what was on it like they do in a REAL FINE DINING ESTABLISHMENT!!!!!! So now I’m waiting for cake and candle right? NOTHING!! we did get dessert no fan fare or anything. Now I’m ready to go and when my husband went out for a smoke Wallace the waiter has the nerve to come and say with candle in hand I’m sorry I forgot to say happy birthday and put the candle in the mud cake you ordered. I looked at him like he was a nut and he got the message and left. Fine Dining my ass, you’ve got a lot to learn Portland Oregon, I mean really!!! so sad. Never again and I’ll make sure I inform everyone I know please don’t bother find somewhere else to dine.

    • zumpie says

      While I’m generally the very first to criticize Portland restaurants (I’m from NYC and would definitely agree that Chicago boasts some very fine estalishments), your review rings a bit hollow, Joie. Your repeated use of the expression “fine dining” sounds like a suburban someone who just discovered the term in Ladies’ Home Journal and normally dines at Red Robin.

      As noted above, I’ve always been very impressed with El Gaucho—honestly I find it the only really decent place in Portland. And I say this as someone who read the reviews on their site beforehand and thought, “yeah, right. Whatever”. I foudn their service attentive, professional and elegant—without being the least bit snotty or pretentious. I very much enjoyed my food. I also visited on a special occassion, my anniversary, EVERYONE there knew it was my anniversary, even when I wasn’t at my table, I remember the Maitre D’ acknowledging it.

      I am sorry you didn’t have the same experience that I did, but based on your writing, I really question your background in “fine dining” in Chicago or anywhere else.

  14. Mario says

    I’m a firm believer in the adage “The best way to ruin something that you love is to tell other people about it.” Thus I agree wholeheartedly- El Gaucho is the place to be.

  15. PestoGal says

    I thought the ambience was really dank and old. It smelled like they used to let people smoke in there (maybe carry-over from the cigar room?), which resulted in a musty, stale smell. The bathrooms were off in a hallway that was kinda sketchy. The main dining room was nice, but I thought the atmosphere was old and tired.

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