September 22, 2011

Bar Guide: Gauchos shakes it up with Latin twist on bar classics

The drink menu offers many South American twists on classics.


Many people familiar with the Portland dining scene have heard of Gauchos Brazilian Steakhouse, the all-you-can-eat, rotisserie-cooked meat-on-a-sword restaurant at the corner of Custom House Wharf and Commercial Street.

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Matt Mullen, the bar manager at Gauchos Brazilian Steakhouse on Commercial Street, pours a Grand Martini, made with equal parts Jose Cuervo and Cointreau and a splash of Grand Marnier.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


WHERE: 100 Commercial St., Portland. 774-9460;

HOURS: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

PARKING: With the tourist traffic coming at a slower pace now that summer is over, metered spaces are easier to find on Commercial Street. Or pay by the hour at either the Casco Bay Garage near the pier or the Custom House Garage a block away on Pearl Street.

SPECIALS: Happy hour every day from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., with all bar menu items and martinis for $5

PEOPLE WATCHING: During the week, you will find the friendliest crew of downtown Portland professionals unwinding after work. Later at night and on the weekends, expect more young professionals and tourists.

BARSTOOL COMFORT: Funky metal bar chairs with cushioned red "pleather" seats, black and gold metalwork and convex ladder backing

GUILTY PLEASURE: The Grand martini (Grand Marnier, Jose Cuervo Especial and Cointreau muddled with fresh lime and sugar; $12)

But most are not familiar with the amazing bar at the restaurant or the atmosphere and menu it offers.

I've never been to Argentina or Brazil, so I can't speak to Gauchos' South American authenticity. But I do know that when you enter Gauchos, you immediately forget you are in a building near Portland's working waterfront. And the bar area is enough of a reason to visit on its own.

The focal point is the semi-circle bar that curls into the space between the two doorways to the dining areas. About 15 unique metal-worked stools make the bar a place where you can take a group of friends or co-workers for a quick drink and bite to eat. If you visit on your own, as I did, the outgoing staff and friendly regular patrons of Gauchos will make sure you don't feel alone.

The drink menu offers many South American twists on classics that take your favorite cocktails and create a new way to experience them. One of the most popular is the Capirrinha Traditional (cachaca with muddled sugar and lime; $8). Cachaca is a Brazilian sugar cane liquor that is fermented in wood or copper, then boiled down three times to a concentrate. It's used in many of the drinks featured on the martini list.

With all of Gauchos' new and different blends, it might seem overwhelming to order your staple drink. But have no fear, as bartenders such as Matt Mullen are quick to offer guidance and info about what compares to conventional flavors. With a $5 martini and mixed-drink happy hour from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. every day, you don't have much to lose if you choose to test a few.

If you are feeling particularly bold, you can order one of Gauchos' signature flaming drinks. With fall coming into full swing, try the pumpkin pie martini (Bailey's Irish Cream, Kahlua, DeKuyper ButterShots schnapps and Goldschlager garnished with cinnamon sugar; $9), which is perfect for a chilly evening in the Old Port.

Or order the creme brulee martini (Stoli Vanil vodka, DeKuyper ButterShots schnapps, Bailey's Irish Cream and Bacardi 151; $9) and experience a muy caliente mixed drink experience.

Gauchos' wine menu is also a lesson in South American flavors, with many wines coming from vineyards and labels out of Chile, Argentina and Brazil. Since this is a South American steakhouse, you would be remiss not to try the house-made sangria ($6.50 per glass, $24 per pitcher), a blend of fruits, juices and house wine.

Gauchos has a climate-controlled walk-in wine cellar, so bottles ($26 to $48) are served to your table at the perfect temperature. Wine by the glass ($6.50) is only available in the house blends of white zinfandel, chardonnay, merlot and cabernet savignon.

With such a South American-flavored wine and drink menu, you might expect to find a beer list with Spanish ales from obscure and unknown breweries. Instead, it's a lesson in comfort and standbys, with domestic favorites like Budweiser ($3.75) and various Shipyard brews ($4.25). The import list is equally standard, featuring Heineken ($4.50), Guinness ($5) and Stella Artois ($4.25), but with the added touch of Corona Extra ($4.50) and Presidente ($4.25) if you are looking for something a little off the radar.

Gauchos is known for its protein-intense meals ($27.95 to $29.95 per person) featuring meats skewered on a sword and delivered directly to your table when your dining card is green for "go." At the bar, the menu is equally appetizing, but it's buffet-style and a little less expensive.

The less adventurous diner can enjoy bar staples such as scallops wrapped in bacon ($8) or chicken wings ($7) served with red and green pepper slices instead of celery and carrot sticks. I went for a more daring dinner selection and chose the Milanesa ($8), a well-sized, thinly sliced piece of steak that is breaded and fried. Maybe not the most healthy option, but certainly delicious.

Elisa Doucette is a freelance writer who lives in Saco.


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