Chef John Manion’s love affair with South America runs deep, starting with his nuevo Latino restaurant Mas in 1999 and followed by La Sirena Clandestina in October 2012, an homage to the cuisine of coastal Brazil where he spent his childhood.
Four years later, Manion opened El Che Bar, which took its name from an antique brass plaque he found years ago while milling about the shops in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, on one of his many trips to the South American city. While the West Loop restaurant’s menu found inspiration in Argentina’s famed asado-style eateries, Manion was hesitant to include classic Argentinian dishes. “I didn’t want to be a typical Argentine steakhouse,” he says.
But gradually Manion found himself increasing the number of steaks that came off the restaurant’s 12-foot custom-built wood burning hearth as he and his team evolved with the desires of patrons, welcoming those traditional dishes. That evolution of El Che’s menu is reflected in the recent adjustment to its moniker - El Che Steakhouse & Bar. “I don’t think we’re a traditional Argentine steakhouse now; rather, a modern, midwestern version of what that can be,” says Manion. “We really have embraced what El Che is conceptually as well as in practice.”
Take, for example, El Che’s Parrillada. Meant to be shared, it’s served on a custom wood platter featuring a variety of traditional meats, including morcilla, chorizo, tira de asado and sweetbreads ($90). On Tuesdays, the Parrillada is now on special for just $50. “It’s a representation of a Sunday afternoon in Argentina,” says Manion.
And in keeping with that vibe, El Che is once again open for dinner on Sundays from 5 to 9 p.m. “The neighborhood has drastically evolved in the few short years since we opened and we now have new residential neighbors springing up everywhere around us. Washington Ave. used to be desolate on Sundays, it’s bustling now,” says Manion. Hospitality folk have an added incentive with a half-off food special on Sundays to those in the industry.
Changes can also be found at El Che’s Chef’s Counter, which offers two guests an up-close view of the restaurant’s fire-breathing hearth and an interactive dinner service experience with Manion. In addition to its 10-course Grande Tasting menu ($120) and Tour de Beef ($85), a 5-course Chiquito menu ($65) is also available Mon.-Wed. At the nearby Hearth Table parties of 6 to 12 can enjoy a 3-course feast ($85). Optional wine pairings, tableside cocktails and food add-ons are available for both.
Happy hour has now been extended to seven nights a week from 5 to 6 PM, featuring half-priced bar snacks such as $2 empanadas, $6 Argentine provoleta with piperade and grilled PQM bread, and more. Drinks include a classic martini, caramelized rum old fashioned and pinguino punch, all just $7 – a very happy hour indeed!
Subtle changes are also reflected in the look of El Che with the interior organically becoming more of an expression of what the restaurant has become. Vibrantly colored classic Llama wool tapestry collected during Manion’s numerous South American trips can be found throughout the space as well as mates, the traditional drinking vessels for yerba mate, Argentina’s answer to coffee. Dominoes enclosed in a picture box are a relic of a trip Manion and his friend musician Frank Orrall took to Buenos Aires that ended up being the genesis of the restaurant. “Everything on the walls tells a story,” says Manion. “You can feel the soul of El Che now.”