After 6 days of power eating our way through Toluca and Michoacan, tasting every thing from huitlacloche to mamey to green chorizo the taste buds had hit traditional Mexican food overload. Impossible as it may seem, all we wanted was a break from the sensory assault. Something nice and something simple. Which is how 15 of us ended up at Restaurante Cambalache in the Polanco district of Mexico City. Arguably the best steakhouse in D.F., the restaurant is a two-story affair decorated with a lot of rough-hewn woods and open, flame spitting grills next to the front entrance. As we were led up the steep stairs to the 2nd level I couldnt help but notice the stylishly dressed, sophisticated and mostly male, clientele; this is not a jeans and T-shirt casual place.
Because portions are large, our table of 4 elected to forego starters and order salads instead. My dining companion and I split a terrific watercress salad. The watercress leaves had been stripped from the tougher stems, lightly dressed in a lime based vinaigrette and topped with a few too many marinated white onions that retained their crunch but very little of their bite. It was a very light and refreshing salad. Our table mates each ordered a Caesar salad that was classically prepared tableside with great flourish. Whole, perfect, inner leaves of romaine were tossed into the salad bowl along with large, flat croutons and generous handfuls of freshly grated Parmesan, the end result of which was a very good and very traditional rendition of the classic Caesar. Though somewhat overdressed, it sure didnt stop the couple that had ordered it from enjoying and finishing every last bite. Others in our extended group ordered the Ensalada Cambalache, a house salad composed of chopped romaine, 7 or 8 types of different vegetables and a good quantity of fresh hearts of palm. Still others ordered the Blue Cheese Salad, also made table side with what appeared to be at least a half pound of blue cheese.
Though there are several other menu choices such as rabbit, lamb, pork and chicken as an Argentinean steakhouse, the keynote of the menu was beef. Beautiful, robustly flavorful and buttery tender beef. And a whole display case full of raw options will be gladly brought to the table to allow the guest to choose a particular cut of beef if so desired. Beef orders for one weigh in at 14 oz., the steaks that can be ordered for two, weigh in at a hefty 28 oz. Entrees are a lo-carb, Atkins dieters delight. Our table selected 2 skirt steaks, both ordered medium rare and both arrived medium rare. They barely needed a knife to cut them they were so tender. Other tables in our group ordered rib-eyes, filet mignons or kebobs. All were as good, or better, than our skirt steaks. Silver gravy boats contained two sauces for the steaks. One a rather nondescript tomato based sauce, the other a garlicky chimichurri sauce, which turned out to be a good foil for the richness of the meat.
The entrees come with no sides since the menu is entirely a la carte. There are a number of the usual steakhouse suspects, but the side to order is listed simply as Souffled Potatoes. Dont expect anything remotely resembling soufflé. What arrives is one of the most delicious and creative versions of french fries. A bed of crispy shoestring potatoes covers a large dinner plate making a nest for a deep, enormous basket fashioned completely out of shredded potatoes and then deep-fried. The basket is filled with thinly sliced potatoes that poof and expand when they hit the hot oil. (I think these are actually called Potatoes Anna, but Im not entirely sure). Every part of this edible study in potato is crisp and virtually greaseless, with the chips in the basket being especially addictive. One order of Souffled Potatoes was easily enough for our table of four.
Dessert offers a number of options. A large slice of NY-style cheesecake, or perhaps crepes flambéed at the table. My table mates selected a sponge cake that had been filled, rolled jellyroll style, frosted and served with some additional caramel sauce. I opted for two scoops of vanilla ice cream that had been adorned with a generous amount of finely chopped nuts, over which an equally generous amount of whiskey was poured. Also on the dessert menu, and definitely not to be missed are the array of flaming after-dinner coffee drinks such as Irish Coffee, Mexican Coffee, and several house creation. A special cart decked out with a shiny round chafing dish and a multitude of liquor bottles is rolled up to the table and the waiters make quite a display of preparing the drinks. They are not afraid to pour on the liquor and coax the flames into dramatic displays of near arson. Not only is their 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 Californian wines thrown in for good measure. We drank a Spanish Rioja Reserva and an Argentinean Malbec. Both were excellent and moderately priced by American standards.
Service was quick, efficient and professional and there was what seemed like a whole fleet of service staff on the floor ready to make sure guest needs were met. It helps to know a little bit of Spanish as the waiters dont speak much English. Theyre good sports about most things and its not too terribly difficult to make yourself understood. Menus are available in English if needed.
1 watercress salad, 2 Caesar salads, 2 skirt steaks, 1 souffled potato side, 2 desserts, 2 bottles of good wine, plus tip came to $2500 pesos, which is approximately $235 US. 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 be easily shared.