The El Gaucho burger, priced $8 on the happy hour menu. Photo by Peter Haley/The News Tribune.
It’s happy hour week at the TNT Diner blog. Why? Because we can all use a dose of happy. I’ll have reports of five happy hours around town this week. Today, read about El Gaucho. Tomorrow, you’ll hear about Merende. Friday, you can read about Pacific Grill, Stanley & Seafort’s and Duke’s.
Now for today’s offering….
El Gaucho’s happy hour usually makes me happy as a clam. Or at least that was the case before I sampled El Gaucho’s clams. I’ve given them my designation as "Tacoma’s grittiest." But the sand-laden clams at El Gaucho were just one of a few problems with their happy hour eats. Mostly happy hour there is a guaranteed good deal, and well executed – and the snazzy appeal of the deeply sunken dining room, a handsome room, tuxedoed servers and live piano music makes it a must-stop for any late night wooing you might need to do. Happy hour bar eats are half off during designated hours. A taste of what I sampled during two happy hour visits:
El Gaucho burger, $8: Hands down this is the best deal for bar eating at El Gaucho. This tall tease of a bacon cheeseburger might make you swoon with its smoky-rich tower. A juicy half-pound ground sirloin patty – certified Angus beef – comes on a substantial roll. Your server will ask you how you like yours; and for me, the answer is "medium" – a little pink in the center. Toppings skew seriously smoky with thick-sliced, chewy bacon, mildly spiked pepper jack cheese and an aioli with a peppery tongue tease of chipotle heat. Red onions, tomato and iceberg lettuce crunched cool against layers of warm cheesy goo and smoky rich chew. The burger comes paired with crispy, perfectly golden fries that taste exactly like they’re supposed to – potatoes. I would have liked some kind of dipping sauce or even ketchup for my fries, but none was offered, and I was halfway through my fries before my server returned.
Smoked chicken focaccia sandwich, $8: Like the El Gaucho burger, this sandwich is a well executed bar nosh at a bargain price. Smoked chicken – smoked in house– is paired with a mild pepperjack cheese and roasted red peppers. Zip was delivered in the form of a smear of pesto, and chewy bacon added one more element of smokiness. Chewy focaccia made a sturdy cover. Smoke-shy diners might find this sandwich a real palate bruise. Stay away if you can’t take the smoke.
Crab cakes, $8: Sea Grill (Rest In Peace) formerly held my designation as the bar with the best crab cake on its happy hour menu. Now El Gaucho, its sister restaurant, carries that crabby torch. The El Gaucho crab cakes are bigger than those at the former Sea Grill, and they deserve bonus Dungeness points for trending more crab than filler. Served with a roasted red pepper pesto, the crab cakes go down swell with a frosty mug of brew – select drafts discounted to $2 during happy hour.
Tuna tartar, $7: I liked the presentation and customization diners can do with this dish. Chopped tuna drizzled with lemon and soy sauce is presented with a plate of ready-to-assemble ingredients – toasted pine nuts, neatly chopped pears, capers, onions and chopped hot peppers. With the accompanying toast points, diners can build their own tuna bruschetta with as much or as little flavor as one needs. The tuna had such a velvety texture, I wanted a double order.
Tenderloin Diablo, $8: Beef is what El Gaucho does well and the kitchen treats these chunks of tenderloin to a zippy chili-laden sauce with just a hint of sweet. The fork-tender chunks went quick.
Baby back ribs, $8: These ribs certainly were tender, but most certainly lacked flavor, I couldn’t even detect any seasoning. The kitchen was on autopilot that night, it seemed. The accompanying barbecue sauce tasted cloying and of burned molasses. Not only did our server agree the sauce tasted terrible, she did nothing to apologize for it. She even boasted that she had told the kitchen that the sauce was bad. So why was it served?
Steamed clams, $6: These clams personified "Grit City." I couldn’t understand why there was so much sand in these clams. Were they even cleaned? An oversight? I hope so. The clams remained mostly untouched in the wine butter sauce, my dining partners gave the dish a firm rejection.