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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.
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.
Two of the things I had liked best about eating steaks in Argentine parrillas were the chimichurri and the Argentine Malbec. Chimichurri is Argentine steak sauce, a blend of parsley, garlic, hot peppers, olive oil and wine. It tastes like a parsley pesto and goes great with steak and french fries. Malbec is one of the five Bordeaux varietals; in Argentina, it produces a sturdy, inexpensive red wine that tastes great with steak and french fries, too.
When our dinner arrived, I realized the lack of Malbec by the glass was not going to be the evening's only disappointment. The matambre a las brasas -- a flank steak rolled around a stuffing of spinach, hard-boiled eggs, ham, bacon and cheese -- was beautifully presented, and the tender meat tasted great. But I was expecting the whole flank steak. What we got instead were several thin slices arranged across the dinner plate, hardly the portion you expect for a $17 entrée. In fact, there wasn't even enough meat on the plate to make a decent appetizer. In an Argentine parrilla, skimping on the meat is nothing short of blasphemous.
The $6.50 salad wasn't going to fill anybody up either. It consisted mostly of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers with some raw mushroom slices on top. I looked at the menu again. The salad was supposed to have artichoke hearts. "Where is the artichoke?" I asked the waiter. He took the salad back to the kitchen and had some artichoke hearts applied.
The Argentine parrilla experience I knew and loved was not happening -- no Argentine red wine, no big bowl of salad, no plate of hot french fries. At least the chimichurri was decent. Then the lomo arrived. I doused it with the sauce, cut into it enthusiastically and gobbled a huge hunk. The meat was terribly mushy in the center and without much taste. I immediately suspected a sham.
Tenderness is not considered a virtue in Argentine beef. The range-fed meat I ate there was leaner, tougher and tastier than the average American cuts. I could barely chew the sirloin, and even the lomo stayed pretty firm. So how could this mushy fillet I was eating be genuine Argentine beef? I fumed. On my way out, a kindly man asked me how my dinner was. He said he was the owner. I didn't introduce myself, but I expressed my doubts about his lomo.
He was mortified. "I absolutely guarantee this is Argentine beef," he assured me. I told him that it tasted nothing like any beef I had eaten in Argentina, and that it seemed like the same sort of squishy fillet you could get at any American steak house.
He shook his head sadly and agreed. "In Argentina, you eat fresh beef," he said. "But in order to import it, it must be frozen." Freezing breaks down the lomo, so it isn't as firm anymore, the owner told me. Next time I should try a firmer cut, he said.
La Estancia's West Gray location has been the site of two failed restaurants, and some say it is a doomed spot (see "Miami Spice," by George Alexander, July 6). The first time I ate at La Estancia, the restaurant had been open a few weeks; it was a weekday night, and only three tables were occupied. The second time I visited, about two weeks later on a Saturday at 7:30 p.m., there was nobody else eating there.
Once again I asked the waiter if he could get the bartender to pour me some Argentine wine. I watched intently, hoping to see the bartender reach for a good bottle. Instead, he upended a 1.5-liter jug of Walnut Crest cabernet and poured all that was left into a glass, topping it off with a splash from another bottle of Walnut Crest that was already open. I wondered how long he had been saving the dregs of that old bottle. I walked up and asked the bartender why he had poured my glass of wine from two bottles. He shrugged and said it was the same brand. The man with whom I had discussed Argentine beef on my last visit was seated at the bar. "That's good wine," he said. "Not the commercial stuff."
The waiter apologized again as he delivered an awful, flat, oxidized glass of "old" Walnut Crest to my table. This time I ordered the bife de chorizo, known in the United States as rib eye ($18.95). I didn't bother with the overpriced salads. When the steak arrived at the table, I was surprised by the thinness of the cut. It looked to be three quarters of an inch. But it was cooked medium rare, and both the flavor and texture were excellent. The wood-fired grill had left a nice char, and the meat had the kind of full-flavored, gamy taste I remembered from South America. It was served with a lame mixed-vegetable melange of peas, slivered carrots, soggy green beans and small boiled potatoes. While I ate, a couple sat down at a nearby table.
The same man sitting at the bar came by my table and asked how my dinner was. I invited him to sit down. He told me his name was Alberto Falchetti, and he told me about his history and how he had always dreamed of having this restaurant. I asked him how it was going. He said business was good, but his sad expression and the empty tables all around said something different.
Falchetti was cursed with a difficult dream. Even if he had opened the real Buenos Aires La Estancia here on West Gray, I'm not sure it would succeed. Argentines and Americans don't eat in the same way. "I know," Falchetti said. "Americans are picky. When they see kidneys, they say, 'Ew, what's that?' " he said mockingly with his hands prissily extended in front of his face. "We have great tongue we could be serving here, but I don't dare even mention it."
I told Falchetti that my bife de chorizo was a great improvement over the filet de lomo, but that I missed the exuberance and the family-style side orders of Argentine parrillas. It was his opinion, forged no doubt as a waiter at Tony's and other high-dollar eateries, that picky Americans wouldn't like big bowls of salad or plates of french fries. He told me that he had adapted the Argentine parrilla to accommodate American tastes. I was sure Falchetti saw this as a move to scale up the concept, but the affected formality just made the place boring.
I also told him that the wine he had praised at the bar was terrible. I pushed my half-finished glass across the table and dared him to taste it and tell me it was good. He picked it up, sniffed it and set it back down. "You should have told the waiter you wanted better wine," he said. "We could have cracked a bottle."
"I did ask the waiter for better wine," I said. "And you were sitting at the bar when he came over and asked about it."
For my own selfish reasons, I wish I could convince Alberto Falchetti and his partners to serve good wine by the glass and inexpensive side orders like they do in Argentine parrillas. But I'm not sure it would make any difference. As I walked out the front door of La Estancia, I ran into the couple from the next table. "How was your meal?" I asked.
"Mine was awful," said a woman named Terri Bamberger.
"First time you've been here?"
"Actually, I've been here three times, and it's been three different restaurants," she said.
"What did you have?"
"I had the fillet. It was dry and chalky on the outside and mushy and tasteless in the middle," she said.
"Will you be back?"
"I don't think the restaurant will be back," she said, laughing as she headed for her car.
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