When we first walked out of the cold, rainy mid-March day and into Gaucho, a new restaurant in the Strip District serving Argentine fare from a wood-fired grill, the smoke caught in our throats.
The small restaurant -- there are no tables, just three counters and one stool where diners can stand and eat -- smelled like a campfire. Firewood was stacked underneath the counters, and it was warm in the small, orange-walled restaurant despite the open front door.
Once you got used to it, the smoky scent wasn't overwhelming -- it poured onto Penn Avenue, likely drawing tipsy St. Patrick's Day revelers -- and the food from those fires turned out to be the perfect remedy to a cold day at the end of winter.
My husband, a pescetarian, was not deterred by the meat-heavy menu. We started with seasoned red potatoes called Gaucho papas ($2) and provoletta -- grilled, aged provolone with oregano, thyme, olive oil and lemon ($7).
The potatoes were good, but the provolone was inspired: Crispy slabs of provolone flecked with herbs were served atop thick, crusty bread and a side of arugula and olives with a lemon dressing. My husband, always complaining that food is under-crisped, was pleased with the crunchy bread and cheese.
Meat is the centerpiece of the menu -- five cuts of beef are offered in quarter-pound and half-pound servings, along with chicken and fish. I went with a quarter-pound of entragna -- skirt steak ($10) -- and my pescetarian partner opted for the day's special fish sandwich ($10), which was grilled salmon with greens and caramelized onions on ciabatta.
When the chef brought our entrees to the counter where we were devouring our starters, he set the steak in front of my husband, the fish in front of me, and said, "I don't mean to be presumptuous." We laughed and swapped meals.
The strips of skirt steak were smothered in chimichurri and perfectly cooked -- knives were unnecessary; the meat pulled apart easily with a fork. The salmon sandwich was comparable in size to a Primanti Bros. sandwich -- probably a good move if you're going to set up shop in the Strip District.
"It's rare that a pescetarian sandwich eats like a big, meaty sandwich," my husband opined, but this one did. Two "small plates," a quarter-pound of meat and a salmon sandwich was entirely too much food for two people; in the future, we'll bring a group of at least four to share a sampling of grilled meat and veggies and cheese.
Gaucho plans outdoor seating once the weather breaks, which will be lovely because the restaurant, with its open kitchen, will likely get toasty in the warmer months. So while it's still chilly, head down to Gaucho, stand at a counter, have a hearty lunch and enjoy the smoky smell embedded in your hair and clothes for the rest of the day.
Gaucho is at 1607 Penn Ave., Strip District; 412-709-6622 and eatgaucho.com. Gaucho is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays.
Annie Siebert: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.