I have a friend who is enchanted with Don Felipe restaurant because it suits his international tastes. An Italian who likes to travel in South America, he enjoys listening to the murmur of Spanish while he dines. And he loves being serenaded by tapes of the late Carlos Gardel. This Argentine singer was the foremost interpreter of the tango until his death in an airplane accident in 1935. His recordings are still in demand.
In ambiance, Don Felipe is thoroughly Argentine. Ranch-like accouterments--hides and so forth--bring to mind gauchos and the pampas. Even the burgundy napkins stuffed into the glasses resemble horns. The wine list offers a good selection of South American products (try the Trapiche Pinot Noir from Mendoza, Argentina). And there are a couple of fruit-laden sangrias, one of them made with white wine.
The menu combines hearty steaks and grilled meats with a strong dose of Italian food. Italians were the largest single group to arrive in Argentina in the period of heavy European immigration that extended from the mid-19th Century to the early decades of the 20th Century. Thus their strong influence on the cuisine.
"The ravioli is excellent," my friend said appreciatively. Since he makes ravioli himself, including the dough, his opinion should count. He relished the tangy marinated eggplant--I thought it was delightful too. And he took home the remains of a plate of tiny fried smelts to dress with oil and vinegar. Served cold like a salad, this is a traditional dish in his Tuscan family.
I liked the agnelotti catarina-- fat stuffed pasta in a pale tomato-cream sauce--and the spaghetti with pesto sauce, which was lighter on garlic than I expected. One of the best salads here is tomatoes Calabrese, a platterful of jumbo tomato slices seasoned with Italian dressing and sprinkled with chopped parsley, onion, garlic and oregano.
But you don't need to order salad with the steak dinners--and they're a great buy for $10.95 or less. The steaks share their platter with parsley-topped tomato slices and a load of French fries. Sometimes I can't resist ordering, in addition, the French fries Provenzale, although that is indeed overkill. These fries are tossed with chopped parsley and garlic, a simple idea but great. A large order is $4. And large means large, because food at Don Felipe is served with a generous hand despite the low prices.
An antipasto platter laden with potato-carrot salad, cheese, salami, palm hearts and other vegetables served three for $7.50 and would make a hefty lunch for someone really hungry. There is also a wonderful appetizer of rolled beef, sliced to reveal a mosaic-like vegetable stuffing. An Italian would call the meat braciole. In Argentina, it is matambre. The slices are arranged on a bed of lettuce with potato salad, red pepper strips, celery, carrot and olives. A great presentation for $6.50.
The Argentine side of the menu includes the parrillada, an assortment of short ribs, skirt steak, sausages and variety meats presented on a charcoal grill. Zesty green chimichurri sauce accompanies the meats. The full serving is $16.50. A half parrillada, which is enough for two, unless they are ravenously hungry, is $10.50. Don't linger over this dish. If the meats are allowed to stand on the grill, they dry out.
Don Felipe offers three treatments of the long, thin cut of beef called milanesa. My parmigiana style was sturdy, chewy stuff and so heavily breaded that I could slip the coating off in a sheet. I preferred its accompaniment, spaghetti with meat sauce--a hearty order of food for $8.95.
Dessert is a must. The lemon-flavored bread pudding doused with caramel sauce is terrific. And the panqueques are something to dream about. These are crepes stuffed with dulce de leche, which resembles soft caramel, and burnished with crackly browned sugar. A bargain treat at $3.
If you enjoy Don Felipe's style, walk a few doors north to Catalina's market. This is the source of the meats and some of the other ingredients used at the restaurant. The shelves hold an intriguing array of Latin products, including several brands of dulce de leche and wines from Chile and Argentina. You can also buy empanadas, stuffed pasta, chimichurri sauce and other essentials for Italian-Argentine dining.
Don Felipe Restaurant, 1050 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 464-3474. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Accepts American Express, Diner's Club, Visa and MasterCard. Park in the lot behind the restaurant or on the street.