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Alberto Falchetti worked as a waiter at some of Houston's best eateries in the 1970s. While he toiled at Tony's and elsewhere, he dreamed of opening his own restaurant someday, and the restaurant he dreamed of was an authentic Argentine parrilla.
In Spanish, parrilla means "grill," and like the English word, it also describes a restaurant that specializes in charcoal-grilled meats. In Argentina, the double "l" isn't pronounced like a "y" as in Mexico. Argentines make a "jsh" sound instead. So parrilla in Buenos Aires is pronounced like "Parisian" without the "n."
One month ago, Falchetti's dream came true. Along with two other South American partners, he opened La Estancia. The restaurant is named after the most famous parrilla in Buenos Aires, the legendary La Estancia on Calle Lavalle, where chefs dressed as gauchos grill meat over wood-burning fires in the restaurant's front windows while you wait in line for a table. It's not a fancy or expensive place; its main attraction is a veritable mountain of meat at a modest price. It sounds good, but North Americans are often disappointed by the parrilla experience.
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In 1997 I visited Buenos Aires to write about parrillas for a travel magazine. As a Texan who loves beef, I thought I'd blend right into the Argentine beef-eating culture, but compared to my Argentine friends, I looked like a budding vegetarian. When Argentines sit down to eat beef, they seem intent on systematically devouring the entire steer. Every time we went to a parrilla, the Argentines insisted on ordering the parrillada, a huge mixed grill.
At one of my favorite parrillas, Don Alfonso in the Belgrano district of Buenos Aires, a full parrillada was enough to feed more than a dozen people. Four of us ordered a 1/4 parrillada, which arrived at the table on a charcoal brazier to keep it hot. Piled on the grill we found pork sausage, beef sausage, blood sausage, grilled tripe, grilled kidneys, grilled sweetbreads, a massive pork chop, several ribbons of the beef ribs called asado tira and a big flank steak called matambre. This tower of meat set us back $25, or $6.25 each.
My Argentine friends also dragged me along to a backyard barbecue, or asado, held in a small town outside Buenos Aires. There, I was served the same organ meats I saw on the parrillada -- kidneys, sweetbreads and tripe, which were brought to the table before the choicer cuts. In Argentina, it seems you are expected to prove yourself worthy of a steak by gnawing your way through a whole lot of offal first. Properly prepared, sweetbreads and kidney and tripe are terrific, but grilled, they are awfully chewy. I was doing my best, but my jaws ached at the sheer effort of it all. And I realized that there was no way the average American tourist was going to eat this stuff.
So I came up with a strategy for my travel story. I recommended that North Americans skip the parrillada and check the menu instead for lomo, or tenderloin. This was strange advice coming from me. I never order filet mignon in American steak houses because I find the cut mushy and relatively flavorless compared to sirloin strip or rib eye. But Argentine tenderloin is among the best beef I've ever eaten. It is tender enough to cut and chew with minimal effort, but never as squishy as the American cut. With a rich, gamy flavor, Argentine beef is leaner than American prime or choice. Grilled medium rare over a charcoal-fired parrilla, Argentine lomo is easy to love. When I ordered lomo, the typical sides were french fries and a green salad, usually served family-style, which fit my American tastes perfectly. I came to like this Argentine dinner so much, I started re-creating it when I got home, down to my own chimichurri sauce.
Thanks to my experience with parrillas in Buenos Aires, I was well prepared for my first visit to Houston's La Estancia. I was comforted by the restaurant's appearance. With its stone walls, tile floors, dark wood tables and cowhides on the ceiling, La Estancia looked just like a parrilla in Buenos Aires. The same sort of wood-burning grill was set up in the exposed kitchen area, and the same charcoal braziers can be brought to the table. And of course, they had a parrillada on the menu (recommended for two), which featured short ribs, sausage, sweetbreads, tripe, skirt steak, kidneys and a pork chop. Since I already knew that nobody at the table would like it, including me, I skipped it.
The menu advertised Argentine beef, so I confidently ordered the filet de lomo ($19.95), as well as a rolled flank steak specialty called matambre a las brasas ($16.95). I also ordered the Ensalada Estancia, which included red peppers, artichokes, mushrooms, tomato and cucumber ($6.50).
While we waited for our meal, I searched the wine list in vain for an Argentine Malbec served by the glass. La Estancia had six Malbecs on hand, but a Chilean jug wine called Walnut Crest was the only thing available by the glass, the waiter told me. I sent him to the bar with instructions to ask if there wasn't some Argentine red wine, any Argentine red wine, that I could pay for by the glass. He chatted with the bartender and returned with a glass of Walnut Crest ($5.50). "Sorry," he said, as he put it down on the table. And indeed it was.