Pittsburgh Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina
Can a restaurant celebrated for its tasty steaks and relaxed vibe keep its allure following a move to a massive Downtown space?
Gaucho Parrilla Argentina’s third iteration opened in mid-2020 in the space formerly occupied by Six Penn Kitchen.
Gaucho 3.0 is popular. There are upward of 150 seats, yet reservations are tough to come by (a tip: because of the way they set up the reservation system, it’s easier to book a table for three or four than it is for two). However, if ownership and management want the restaurant to be more than a place people pass through once or twice while they’re Downtown for a show, concert or game, they are going to have to tighten things up.
Old Gaucho seemed chaotic but never was. That was part of the show. Here, it often is chaotic.
Owner Anthony Falcon launched Gaucho in 2013 as a Strip District hole-in-the-wall homage to wood-fired Argentinian cookery. Intoxicating aromas wafted down Penn Avenue. Its tasty, reasonably priced steaks quickly became a sensation. Two years later, Falcon expanded the then-BYOB establishment into an adjacent space and went from fewer than 10 seats (plus an outdoor dining area) to more than 100. It worked. Gaucho 2.0 was a ton of fun.
Right now, Gaucho 3.0 isn’t.
Those of us who loved the restaurant in its old iterations will long for the high-octane energy of tiny and medium-sized Gaucho. First-timers will find themselves confused by a restaurant lacking identity and flow.
I’m sympathetic to the challenges. The move to Downtown was planned prior to the coronavirus pandemic; instead of being able to build on a well-earned reputation, Falcon and company had to navigate what, by nearly any measure, has been the hardest time to operate a restaurant since the Great Depression. And they had to do it in a 10,000-square-foot building full of outdated decor and cavernous rooms.
Restaurants aren’t necessarily defined by design, but it does set the stage. It would cost buckets of cash to renovate the entire space at once, even in the best of times. But without any sense of cohesion, which is how it appears right now, it’s hard to get a read on the experience. It looks, as a friend said, “Like a single person who lived in a small apartment moved into a house and they don’t have enough stuff to fill the house, so they got a bunch of free stuff to fill it.” Every room has a different feel; some parts of downstairs time warp to mid-2000s upscale dining, while there’s a room that resembles a country lodge in the far reaches of the second floor.
The kitchen is doing an OK but erratic job adjusting to the new space. The heartbeat of Gaucho is its selection of wood-fired steaks. In the Strip, the kitchen consistently delivered good quality meat cooked with attention to detail; the steaks were better than some of Pittsburgh’s high-end chain steakhouses yet were offered at casual restaurant price. Now, the prices are nearly (though not quite) on par with those establishments. This, naturally, primes expectations for something special.
Yet every piece of meat I ordered was undercooked by at least one level — meaning that a medium-rare order came to the table rare or even Pittsburgh rare. Finally, on my most recent visit, I ordered a strip steak medium and it came out medium-rare. It was what I wanted … but I shouldn’t have to trick the kitchen to get it that way.
At least that steak was boldly beefy and tender. The same cut was chewy, with zero marbling or savoriness, when I ordered Gaucho’s signature item, the asado platter, a few weeks earlier. The platter is $85, comes with all five of Gaucho’s steaks and is a carnivorous representation of how topsy-turvy the restaurant is right now. Flank and ribeye had great texture and full-bodied flavor, but the sirloin was chewy (more than it should be) and flat. The tenderloin was lost, lacking any luxury it’s supposed to have.
The move here, for now, is to get the flank steak on its own. At $26 for a 10-ounce portion, it’s the least expensive cut on the menu and the most consistently delicious. Just be aware that you’ll have to pay $2 a portion (or $6 for all four) for Gaucho’s supremely enjoyable selection of sauces; they used to be free at the old Gaucho but, aside from the asado platter and parrillada mixta, they are an à la carte item now. It’s a customer service miss.
Grilled vegetables were charred to bring out the innate sweetness and were seasoned nicely. Starters such as agrodolce salad and provaleta offered respective feel-good and indulgent satisfaction. And I loved the Big Papa potato; with its absolute classic Russet baked potato flavor, soft and fluffy with a leathery, salty crust, it reminded me in the very best way of the Ponderosa Steakhouse.
Other dishes, such as catch of the day (Atlantic salmon on a March visit), were so salty they were inedible. One of my former favorite sandwiches, rosemary braised beef, now was like eating stadium food: The meat was dry and the portion was small; the peppy horseradish sauce didn’t shine through at all; it needed more caramelized onion (the caramelized onions are the single most delicious thing at Gaucho); and the bun was generic.
The half-chicken and pork tenderloin on the parrillada mixta (which also contained the good strip steak) were cooked and seasoned nicely but went from warm to room temperature to cold shortly after arriving at the table. Was it plated on a cold plate? Quite likely; the larger-sized share plates we requested felt as if they’d been left outside to chill.
Informal service is part of what made previous iterations of Gaucho, which was counter-service, work; you felt like you were part of the party. Right now, it’s more confusing than anything. I don’t think front-of-house employees should be required to wear uniforms a-la-TGI Fridays, but there needs to be some indication of who is working, especially in a restaurant as big as this one. It’s hard to tell when the staff is wearing everything from athletic gear to hacky-sack-chic to oversized sweatshirts. The style of service had an equally wide range as the decor, from hyper-enthusiastic to distant-blasé.
Visits to Gaucho began with circumstances ranging from farcical to downright dangerous. Guests are hemmed into a tiny welcome area demarcated by a comically small retractable security rope and attended to by hosts who clearly aren’t communicating with each other or the rest of the staff. Most of the time, we found ourselves a little irritated by the events, but on one icy night, my companion and I wondered if someone would actually get hurt as guest after guest lost their footing in the revolving door. “Yeah, it is very slippery,” the indifferent host replied to the series of patrons who complained about the icy entryway.
I get that it’s hard to hire, train and maintain enthusiasm from a large crew when nearly every restaurant in town is struggling to find and retain staff (and when many of those new hires are novices to the hospitality industry). But here’s the thing: I didn’t once see any management on the floor working with that new staff. There was no sense of real-time training or helpful gestures to make things run better, or even the astuteness to ensure the safety of guests beyond taping a solitary “wet floor” sign to the inside of a door. When I look at the larger restaurants around town that have adapted as best as possible to the realities of the moment, the one common thread is that senior staff is always around to guide those with less experience through all of the unexpected moments that arise in every service.
Falcon ran restaurants in Las Vegas prior to returning to Pittsburgh, and now that he’s running a Downtown restaurant there’s an opportunity to bring some of that flair while stepping up the points of service and the design that made earlier iterations of Gaucho so wonderful. Downtown needs a restaurant that offers a pre- and post-show party. Having a locally owned steakhouse that serves consistent, tasty food at a slightly more affordable price than the finer-dining chain steakhouses is a boon, too. Strip District Gaucho was one of my favorite Pittsburgh restaurants. I’d love to see Downtown Gaucho do the work to be one, too.
Gaucho Parilla Argentina
DOWNTOWN: 146 Sixth St.