After 6 days of power eating our way through Toluca and Michoacan, tasting everything from huitlacoche to mamey to green chorizo, the taste buds had hit overload with traditional Mexican food. Impossible as that may seem, all we really wanted was a break from the sensory assault on the palate............something nice.............something simple. Which is how we ended up at Restaurante Cambalache. Located in the Colonia Polanco section of Mexico City, it is arguably the best steakhouse in D.F. A 2-story affair, it is decorated with a lot of rough hewn woods in various states of finish. The first thing you notice, however, upon entering is the very large and very hot open flame grill spitting flames. As we were led up the steep and narrow staircase to our table on the 2nd level I couldn't help but notice they stylishly dressed, polished, sophisticated and mostly male clientele; this is not a jeans and T-shirt kind of place.
Portion are large, no, make that enormous, so our table of 4 elected to forego the starters and begin with salads, something we hadn't eaten in nearly a week. My dining companion and I split a terrific watercress salad. The leaves had been stripped form the tougher stems, lightly dressed in a lime based vinaigrette and then topped with a few too many marinated white onions that, thankfully, retained none of their bite and all of their crunch. It was light and refreshing. Our table mates each ordered a Caesar salad which was prepared with great skill and flourish at the table. Whole, perfect inner romaine leaves were tossed into the salad bowl along with large croutons and many handfuls of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Thought somewhat overdressed, the end result was a beautiful, traditional version of a classic Caesar. Two other salads on the menu captured our imagination but not our order. The ensalada Cambalache is the house salad composed of 7 or 8 different types of vegetables and a good quantity of hearts of palm. The other was the blue cheese salad, also made at the table, with what appeared to at least a half pound of imported blue cheese.
Though there are several other meat choices on the menu - such as rabbit, lamb, pork and chicken - Cambalache is an Argentinean steakhouse, so beef is the focus. Beautiful, robustly flavorful and buttery tender beef. A massive display case full of the raw options will gladly be rolled table-side to allow guests to choose a particular cut of beef if desired, and these cuts are not wimpy. A beef order for 1 person weighs in at a heft 14 oz. Cuts for 2 people tip the scales at 28 oz. making these entrees a low-carb, Atkins dieter's delight. We ordered 2 skirt steaks medium rare and that is exactly how they arrived, medium rare. A knife was barely needed to cut them they were that tender. The steaks were served with two sauces, one a rather nondescript tomato based salsa and the other a garlicky chimichurri which complemented the richness of the beef well. Good or better choices than the skirt steak would be the rib-eyes or filet mignon. Kebobs with huge chunks of tender meat and equally huge chunks of vegetables are perfectly grilled and delicious as well.
Entrees are strictly a la carte but there are a wealth of side dishes from which to choose. The side to order, however, is listed simply as Souffled Potatoes. Don't expect anything remotely resembling a souffle, though. What arrives is one of the most delicious and creative versions of French fries. An enormous and deep basket fashioned out of long shreds of potato is deep-fried and then nestled into a bed of more deep-fried shreds. The basket is filled with thinly sliced potatoes that "poof" when they hit the hot oil creating a chip with a crisp exterior and airlily wispy interior. Every part of this study in potato is virtually grease-free and eating just one virtually impossible. On order of the souffled potatoes was easily enough for our table of four.
The dessert menu is extensive and includes the usual suspects such as crepes Suzette and NY-style cheesecake. My table mates opted for the sponge cake that had been filled and rolled and topped with a rich caramel sauce. I choose 2 scoops of vanilla ice cream over which a 2 shots of whiskey had been poured and a few fistfuls of nuts thrown in for good measure. Kind of like a root beer float for adults. As the ice cream melted it rounded out any edge to the whiskey and the nuts enhanced a lot of the woody notes in the alcohol.
Also on the dessert menu and really not to be missed are the array of flaming after-dinner coffee drinks, many of which are house specialties. A specially designed rolling cart decked out with a gleaming chafing dish and a multitude of liquor bottles is delivered table-side and the theatrical display begins. The waiters are not afraid to pour on the liquor and coax the resultant flames into dramatic displays of near arson. Not only is the performance entertaining, the drinks are actually quite good.
And speaking of drinks, the wine list features an interesting selection of Argentinean, Chilean, Spanish and French wines with a few Californians thrown in for good measure. We drank a Spanish Rioja Reserva and a Malbec from Argentina. Both were excellent and moderately priced compared to wine prices in American restaurants.
Service is quick, efficient and professional and there was what seemed like a whole fleet of service staff on the floor ready to make sure every guest's needs were met. If helps to know some Spanish as the waiters don't speak much English. They're good sports about most things and it's not terribly difficult to make yourself understood. If all else fails, menus are available in English.
2 salads, 2 skirt steaks, 1 order of souffled potatoes, 2 desserts and 2 good bottles of wine plus tip came to $2500 pesos, which is approximately $235 USD. Half the cost of the meal was the wine. It is possible to have a very satisfying meal for far less than what we spent, particularly if you remember that portions are huge and can easily be shared.
Restaruante Cambalache is located at Arquimides 80 in Colonia Polanco. The phone number in D.F. is 5280-2080. Reservations are probably advisable.