Polo is a popular sport in Aiken, South Carolina, and Argentina is the most polo-loving country on earth. Thus, the existence of Ruben’s Argentinian Steakhouse in deep Dixie makes perfect sense. Located on the south side of town in prosaic quarters that formerly housed a misbegotten pizza parlor, Ruben Martinez’ restaurant is a terrific destination for meat eaters.
Sirloins, ribeyes, boneless New York strips, filets mignon, T-bones, skirt steaks, and short ribs are house specialties, many cuts available in large and small versions. They’re cooked over charcoal and their potent red-meat flavor gets an extra layer of luxury as they are basted with a mix of oil, butter, and parsley when they cook. The meat is tender enough, but without a hint of insipid tenderization. By that, I mean that you will use a steak knife. On the other hand, you won’t need much muscle to ease it down into your chosen cut.
Among side dishes, grilled potatoes are a standout: large, soft hunks that have sizzled on the iron until some edges are crisp and crunchy, the whole motley mound plastered with herbs. Push one of these nice spud hunks through a puddle of steak juice: heaven!
To begin the meal: A sausage appetizer arrives as a spill of bite-size grilled disks along with a cup of chimichurri and little slices of crusty bread. The chimichurri, a signature condiment of the Argentine table, is distinctly garlicky, fairly bursting with the zest of parsley and oregano. It pairs well with the porky, coarse-ground fresh sausage this kitchen makes. Carpaccio is another delicious way to start the meal, although the big plate of tender leaves of raw steak is so yummy — flavored with onions, capers, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and lime juice — that it all too quickly decimates appetite you need for the hearty main courses.
While steaks are the go-to dish at Ruben’s, the kitchen’s repertoire also includes fabulous grilled garlic chicken that glistens with the magic mix of oil and chicken fat. The dish known as Ruben’s Special Chicken also is outstanding. That’s tender grilled boneless breast smothered with a slurry of caramelized onions, bell peppers, spinach, mushrooms, and tomatoes all in a luxurious cheese sauce.
Also on the bill of fare: pastas, breaded steaks and breaded chicken, even a few hamburgers. I don’t know about the brownie, cheesecake, or ice cream on the dessert menu, but I do recommend the flan. It is a large block of silky, cream-rich custard drizzled with caramel.
A welcoming place, Ruben’s has a staff of helpful young local girls out front and Argentinians in the kitchen — all of whom seem to care that a meal goes well. The one time a steak came out cooked beyond the medium-rare I had ordered, it was whisked away and quickly replaced with one done just right, accompanied by sincere apologies for the misunderstanding.