Wednesday, March 29, 2023
March 29, 2023

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Vancouver’s El Gaucho not worth the hype

Food, drinks at Waterfront Vancouver steakhouse are OK but don’t create an experience commensurate with pricey menu

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El Gaucho in Vancouver offers Wicked Shrimp as a starter.
El Gaucho in Vancouver offers Wicked Shrimp as a starter. (Photos by Rachel Pinsky) Photo Gallery

El Gaucho served steak in Seattle from 1954 to 1985. Paul Mackay rebooted the steakhouse in 1996 and went on to open El Gaucho restaurants in Portland, Tacoma and Bellevue. His son, Chad Mackay, now runs these businesses as part of the Revelers Club, a collection of Pacific Northwest restaurants and hotels.

In November 2022, the newest El Gaucho opened at The Waterfront Vancouver. I visited on a recent Tuesday night. Weekend reservations are hard to get, and I’m not a great planner, so I opted for weeknight dining. The host greeted me and my two dining companions. We waited briefly for our table to be ready.

The main dining room was full, so we didn’t score one of the plush booths but rather a small square table wedged in between a booth and a wall. The room was elegant and dimly lit, a new place trying to appear old and rich with tradition.

For starters, we ordered Wicked Shrimp ($24) and the Tableside Caesar Salad ($34). The Wicked Shrimp arrived as a swirl of four plump shrimp in a slightly spicy red sauce, with toasted bread to sop up the extra liquid.

I ordered a dirty Bombay Sapphire martini with bleu cheese olives ($18). One of my dining companions had the Ruby cocktail ($18) made with citrus vodka, lemon juice and a splash of Chambord. Both cocktails were fine but came in ordinary glassware. The martini lacked icy viscosity and reminded me of something I could make at home.

Dining out guide

El Gaucho Vancouver

Hours: 4:30-9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4-9 p.m. Saturday.

Contact: 360-583-9001;

Health score: El Gaucho had yet to receive an initial inspection at press time. Zero is a perfect score, and Clark County Public Health closes restaurants with a score of 100 or higher. For more information, call 360-397-8428.

The menu lists Tableside Caesar Salad as $17 per person for a minimum of two people (in other words $34 for two, $17 for each additional person). To prepare this salad, our server showered grated pecorino and Parmesan into a large wooden bowl, followed by anchovies, egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil. He then rubbed lemon juice on two plates and sprinkled them with freshly cracked black pepper and Parmesan. He took romaine lettuce leaves that had been wrapped in cloth and mixed them with the dressing and croutons in the bowl before serving the salad on the prepared plates. The lettuce was crisp, but in large unmanageable, oddly shaped chunks. The dressing was a bit heavy on lemon.

Then came the steaks. According to El Gaucho’s website, the restaurant’s steaks are 28-day dry-aged Niman Ranch all-natural prime-certified Angus beef. They range from a 12-ounce Baseball Cut Top Sirloin ($47) to a 20-ounce chateaubriand for two ($160). Most cuts hover in the $74 (New York steak) to $83 range (12-ounce filet mignon).

We ordered the Steak El Gaucho ($89) and two bone-in rib-eyes ($78). The steak El Gaucho is an 8-ounce filet mignon topped with three thick spears of steamed asparagus and two quarter-size rounds of lobster covered in bearnaise sauce. The 18-ounce bone-in rib-eye, a flat piece of seared meat, arrived on a bare plate. It’s common for steakhouses to charge a separate fee and serve the steaks, sauces and sides on separate plates. Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris do this as well, but it does lead to an underwhelming presentation.

The meat was prepared just as we ordered it — medium rare. The filet mignon was bland and chewy. Despite the fact that it was only 8 ounces of meat, I got tired of eating it about halfway through. I also expected more than two tiny knobs of lobster in this pricey signature dish. The bone-in rib-eye was well seared, with just a whisper of bone. The rib-eye’s flavor was more interesting than that of the filet mignon, although neither cut offered the complexity of flavor and texture I associate with properly aged high-quality beef.

El Gaucho offers shareable sides like mashed potatoes ($12), mac and cheese ($14), corn ($14), and roasted Brussels sprouts with apples and bacon in a grain mustard butter ($14). We tried the mashed potatoes. They lacked flavor and had a thin, gluey consistency.

We didn’t order dessert, as the tab was already around $500 with tax and tip. (Although a 20 percent service charge is automatically added, the receipt leaves space for customers to add an extra gratuity.) The waiter brought a complementary fruit-and-cheese plate with two large strawberries, some grapes, compote, crackers and a small wedge of bleu cheese. This was a nice touch.

Service was a highlight of the evening. We had three people tending to our table: a waiter, a server who filled our water and bread basket, and a busser who took plates (sometimes a bit too early). They were attentive and professional throughout the meal.

When customers visit a fine-dining establishment, they’re paying a premium for a luxurious experience. These restaurants are supposed to create a feeling of extravagance that makes the high tab worthwhile — an owner or maître d’ checking in with guests at each table, candles and flowers, artistic presentation of high-quality food and drink, music that conveys a mood of luxury. Jorge Castro and his Pearl West Restaurant Group, which operates Dos Alas across the street from El Gaucho, could teach a master class in intentionally creating an eventful visit. Dos Alas can be pricey, but it’s never dull.

In this respect, El Gaucho didn’t deliver. A visit to this waterfront steakhouse feels more transactional than transcendent. I’ve dined at other legendary meat houses, including Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., as well as House of Prime Rib and Harris’ Restaurant in San Francisco. When I walked through the door at these places, my mood lifted. Each served extraordinary food and drinks in a charming environment that provided memorable evenings. They made me want to stick around for dessert.

I spent part of my evening at El Gaucho watching a woman across the dining room with her elbow on the table and her hand pressed to the side of her face. She could barely keep her head up as she watched her dining companion slowly cut and chew his steak. She perked up, clearly ready to leave, when the check arrived. It was an apt visual metaphor for my dining experience there.

Rachel Pinsky: