“Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”
For most Americans, that line from the musical Evita encapsulates our collective knowledge of the eighth-largest country in the world, the second-largest in South America. A curious mix of mostly Spanish and Italian immigrants, Argentina is as mysterious to us as its history, culture and cuisine. But a little restaurant tucked away in a Northern Kentucky shopping center aims to change all that.
For more than seven years, Argentine Bistro has quietly showcased an assortment of authentic dishes of this exotic South American locale. It began as a tapas restaurant, but after several chefs and name changes, the bistro now offers a more conventional menu.
Finding Argentine Bistro may prove an adventure, even with the most sophisticated GPS-enhanced smartphones. Located in the Crestview Hills Town Center, the bistro is a refreshing beacon of originality in a sea of mostly ubiquitous, cookie-cutter retail and restaurant chains that line the labyrinth “boulevards.” Weathered signs point the way to “Argentine Bean” (its former name), directing drivers to the rear, southeastern corner of Dillard’s, where the bistro resides.
Once inside, we allowed the intimate, homey grandeur of dark wood furniture, mismatched chairs, thick drapes and white tablecloths to whisk us 5,000 miles south, forgetting for a moment that the parking lot lay just outside. As I admired the Argentinian “Sun of May” emblem on a far wall, the hostess offered us the pick of any remaining table, a simple task, as all but a couple were empty this early Saturday evening.
The waiter handed us an abbreviated tapas menu to start things off.
The appetizers are largely made up of focaccia bread, meat and cheese plates. We chose two notable exceptions that are Argentinian staples: the veggie and meat empanadas ($8 a pair), savory puff pastry turnovers served with a small side of olive tapenade.
The empanadas soon arrived hot, boasting heavy fragrances of meat and olives. Bistro’s chef, Sara Bloomer, purposely leaves their description generic, as the veggie and meat filling recipes change seasonally. Tonight, the veggie empanadas enjoyed a potato-based core aided by an extra side of electric-green chimichurri sauce, while the meat option revealed a hearty, shredded pork filling whose richness matched well with the tapenade. The pastry dough itself was crisp, flaky and deliciously seasoned, artfully sealing fillings with a crimped, zigzagged top.
The dinner menu includes seasonal soups, salads and a surprising number of Italian dishes. Nearly half of Argentinians are Italian, whose ancestors immigrated beginning more than a century ago. Entrees also highlight the innate meatiness of the region, as beef, pork and lamb dominate Argentinian cuisine.
My girlfriend chose the Lamb Ragu ($16), with ground lamb, roasted red peppers and herbed feta cheese served over rigatoni. I opted for the Beer Braised Pork Hash ($16), a rich casserole of cubed, roasted sweet potatoes, pearl onions, mushrooms and bacon, topped with a fried egg.
As we awaited our entrees, I noticed a peculiar thematic undercurrent in the dining room. Photos and paintings dotted Argentine Bistro’s landscape, all featuring a dapper older gentleman in various action poses. I concluded he was “Uncle Tio,” the elusive figure quoted on the menu. There he quips, “Good food, a fast horse and a fine lady … what else is there?” Uncle Tio seems to be the restaurant’s unofficial gaucho mascot, the Argentinian answer to Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World.”
The entrees were presented with little fanfare, as the pork hash, with its vibrant-yoked fried egg topping, needed no introduction. Served in a mini crock, the hash’s leaden meatiness would have been overpowering had it not been for the sweet pearl onions, which offered welcome bursts of relief from the heaviness of this satisfying dish.
While my girlfriend’s ragu imparted little distinctive lamb flavor, the salty, acidic one-two punch of the feta-chimichurri topping helped elevate an otherwise ordinary pasta dish, pairing amiably with the tomato sauce.
We were tasked with picking desserts from their out-of-place, refrigerated display case containing outsourced and house-made sweets. The homemade, flourless chocolate cake was perfectly dense and brownie-like, accompanied by welcome scoops of vanilla ice cream. The Bistro’s apple dumplings, served warm and filled with raisins and walnuts, offered just enough sweetness to successfully cap off a filling meal.
Argentine Bistro introduces flavors from a far-away land that are recognizable, approachable and familiar.
Go: 2875 Town Center Blvd., Crestview Hills
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday