The Secret to Spending Less at El Gaucho Than Applebee's

Dining around town on 13 bills.

Where? El Gaucho, 2505 First Ave., 728-1337, www.elgaucho.com

What will $13 get you? You can eat like a king but never go back, since the only way to get anything for $13 is to park yourself and not tip.

Recommended? Sure, if you're planning to move the next day.

El Gaucho is the kind of place you go to propose—or ask for a divorce. Lighting and layout is used to make the large restaurant feel intimate. There's live lounge piano, a cigar room, and an army of staff ready to jump if you so much as look uncomfortable. It's also the most expensive restaurant in the city. That said, the menu features some of the small sides and appetizers that restaurants like this normally use to get you to inflate your bill, but you can order them solo, and after you went into hock purchasing a ring, $13 is all you may be left with.

I fudged a tad on the $13. The southwest scalloped potatoes cost $6, as did the burnt cream (crème brûlée to the French). Combined, the total came to $13.12 after tax, so dig out the change in your car ashtray before you head in. All the food comes with free garlic bread, so it's quite a little feast. I had to stick to water to make it work, but there was enough food to need a doggie bag—and a lovely take-home bag it was.

For eating on the cheap at the most expensive restaurant in the city, the food wasn't half bad. The potatoes are soaked in a cheese cream sauce and baked with more cheese. A little spice gives it the name, and voilà. These are not the scalloped potatoes of Lutheran potlucks past.

The problem, of course, is missing out on the El Gaucho experience. With only a side and a dessert, you become painfully aware of the lack of ostrich fillet ($38) and accompanying glass of wine (starting at $8) you should be having at a place like this.

And then there's the parking; you should really use valet— you shouldn't make your future fiancée hoof it in stilettos from the spot you finally snagged in the Old Spaghetti Factory parking lot. But the valet costs $9 with validation—meaning you have to buy something. Unfortunately, you can't because a Diet Coke will run you $4.25. So you'll have to fork over the $12 it costs to park without validation, leaving you just enough to enjoy a glass of tap water with your beloved and tip the pianist.

 
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