Minus a few empanada shops, there are only a handful of Argentine restaurants around San Diego, so I perked up when I heard that San Telmo Argentine Café had opened in the Gaslamp.
531 Broadway, Suite B, Downtown San Diego
Argentine cuisine has a fair amount in common with American, mainly having to do with cowboy culture. That is, grilled beef figures prominently. Spanish and Italian cultures take up more room in Argentina's melting pot, so cuts of beef are butchered differently.
And any steak sauce we might prefer plays second fiddle there to the green, herbal sauce chimichurri. However, the biggest difference may be how steaks are cooked, the focus being less on rare the center remains, and more on achieving uniform color and tenderness.
So it's no surprise the restaurant's signature, San Telmo Sandwich ($13) features steak. In this case, New York strip, served with sautéed Portobello mushroom, Swiss cheese, and pesto aioli on a ciabatta roll. I ordered at the counter, choosing the San Telmo over pork and chicken sandwiches, and another featuring sliced ribeye.
At $2.50 apiece, I definitely had my eye on a few empanadas as well. Options include beef, chicken, ham and cheese, or onion and cheese. Each are available baked or fried, and the baked menu includes a spinach ricotta option. I wanted one of those for sure, and since San Telmo had sold out of its morning batch of them, the cook offered to bake one fresh if I was willing to wait 20 minutes.
I was, especially considering I ordered both cheesy ham and onion empanadas from the fried menu. These came out first, and their melted insides oozed out of the crispy fried crust when I cut them open. The gooey onion empanada particularly won me over, all the onion's fibers had broken down to leave the saucy, aromatic cheese just savory as can be. Armed with the side of decent chimichurri provided, I indulged happily.
When my baked empanada arrived, the crispy crust was replaced with chewy, toasted texture, while the spinach filling proved less saucy and more substantial. I'd have gladly eaten several more.
So it was a bit of a let down when I sunk my teeth into the steak on that sandwich. I'd expected it to be more tender, and be more flavorful. Instead, the bland and listless beef leaned more than it should have on the pesto aioli and sautéed mushroom to make the sandwich interesting.
While this bodes well for vegetarians looking for a quick, casual Gaslamp meal, it's not a great showing for a national cuisine dominated by steak.