A Carnivore's Paradise
Take a trip behind the scenes and see the journey the meat at Pampa Grill takes from asado to parrillada in our slideshow.
If you're a red meat fan, there's very little in town that beats a parrillada for two at Pampa Grill, which should rightfully be subtitled: A Carnivore's Paradise.
The best things on the menu here are meat-based: that parrillada, which is a hibachi-style grill of meat delivered to your table, overflowing with nearly every cut of the cow; the sweetbreads and morcilla (blood sausage) I always order as appetizers; the meat-filled empanadas, which are tightly crimped with a fine texture that dances between doughy and flaky; the mozzarella-topped milanesas that are pounded thin and crisply breaded like South American chicken-fried steak.
Even better, you can take the empanadas and the blood sausage home with you if you like them, because Pampa Grill is a market, too. Sure, the market section is small and only a "market" in the same sense that fellow Argentinean restaurant Manena's is also a market. But the selection is thorough and includes Argentine specialties that can be difficult to find in Houston.
This is undoubtedly one of the reasons that Pampa Grill is packed with what seems like every member of Houston's small Argentinean diaspora, as well as a host of other South Americans, each and every night. In fact, it was a South American — chef Arturo Boada, who hails from Colombia — who directed me to Pampa Grill in the first place, saying: "It is simply the best Argentinean food I've found in Houston."
Of course, the gracious BYOB policy could be a big draw, too: The corkage fee is a mere $2, and the servers encourage you to linger over your wine and meat as if you're at some wonderfully civil bacchanalia.
I took advantage of that inexpensive corkage fee and brought a bottle of Finca e Bodega Malbec Tomero on my first night at Pampa Grill. It was an inexpensive wine, in keeping with the "inexpensive" theme of the night, but I imagine a serious connoisseur could have quite an evening here pairing finer wines with the dusky, clove-filled blood sausages or the unctuous sweetbreads.
As soon as our waitress saw the bottle, she happily whisked it away and returned moments later with it uncorked and two broad-bowled wine glasses in her hand. It was such a swift and practiced motion, I could only imagine the dozens upon dozens of times she does this ritual each night. It's helpful, too, as most of the servers here speak limited English and you don't have to gesture your way through asking for the bottle to be uncorked or for the glasses.
Thankfully, the menu lists items in both English and Spanish. Don't just point and grunt; make an effort to order the "parrillada para dos" con "empanadas de espinaca" and learn a phrase or two. The service will be better for it, and you may find yourself receiving welcome guidance in new directions, as with those plump blood sausages.
I've always had terrible luck with morcilla in Houston. It's difficult to find in the first place, and what you do find is usually unpalatable: chalky and coppery with the flavor of overcooked blood. Not so here at Pampa Grill, where the morcilla is served in giant, round links that ooze forth their creamy interior once you cut through the tender skin. I wouldn't have ordered Pampa Grill's morcilla were it not for the encouragement of our waitress that first night.
The reaction of my dining companions to the sausage has been roughly the same each time: "If you didn't tell me there was blood in here, I'd never know." Some simply can't get past it, despite the smooth, dusky taste that's warmed up with ample amounts of clove and nutmeg (and despite the fact that it's not all blood; there's regular pork in there, too). But they're missing out: The fine, buttery texture of a well-made blood sausage is one of the greatest culinary triumphs there is.
"Are these made in-house?" I asked our waitress. I had to know how this little restaurant had managed to succeed where others consistently fail so spectacularly.
"No," she told me. "We order them from a place in Miami that specializes in Argentinean food." Ah, so that explains it. And the morcilla isn't the only Miami import here.
Owners Mauro and Aura Perez — a husband and wife team — are from Buenos Aires by way of Miami, where they ran a small restaurant serving comida típica, basic Argentine comfort food like empanadas. The Perezes lived there for eight years and ran the restaurant for five of those before embarking on an adventure to Houston in 2009. Mauro explained the basic reasons for the move to the Houston Press in February 2010: "Houston has nicer people, and it's also less expensive."
Less expensive also meant that Mauro and Aura had more room to create an authentic asado-style restaurant, where grilled meats, sausages and offal are on full and heavy display. Typical asados are the precursor to a George Foreman grill: foods are fastened to a large, tilted grilling area that allows the fat to drip off while the meat is cooked over hot coals. The result — as seen at Pampa Grill — is meat that's flavored with the rugged char of the grill instead of greasy smoke.
When you order a parrillada here, your meat will be kept warm with some of those same coals in the hibachi-style tray that's delivered to your table. You can choose from two different parrilladas (both of which are meant to feed two people, but could easily feed three to four): one that omits the traditional offal like chinchulines (intestines) and mollejas (sweetbreads) for $27.50, and one that includes them for $10 more. Each includes two sides; stick with the buttery mashed potatoes and a simple green salad, as the frozen vegetables are mushy and the french fries mealy.
Both parrilladas, however, are heaped high with short ribs, flank steak, skirt steak, grilled chicken, chorizo and morcilla. They're all cooked to order, too. And when you say "rare," the kitchen takes you very seriously, delivering a blackened tray topped with steaks that glisten a bloody persimmon color when you cut into them.
I wasn't a fan of the chinchulines on the more expensive parrillada, for the same reason I ended up disliking a chicken sandwich on another visit: The texture was tough and rubbery (even for chitterlings) and they were bland and underseasoned. This isn't a problem I've noticed with any other meats at Pampa Grill, and so I'd recommend getting the less expensive parrillada and getting an order of sweetbreads for an extra $6.
The sweetbreads are a must, if only for the brilliantly soft and rich texture underneath that robust char. On the table are two jars: one with a garlicky chimichurri for your meat, and one with salsa criolla for your offal. Spoon a bit of that sweet pepper-and-onion salsa over your mollejas for a uniquely South American take on the sweetbreads you normally only see in tacos here.
After all, part of the allure of Pampa Grill is eating as Argentinians would. And they order milanesas and meat by the table-full. In fact, after one not-so-memorable meal of ravioli and a chicken sandwich, the friendly woman behind the cash register joked: "You should have ordered the parrillada." Perhaps she'd seen how little of the food we'd eaten after ordering; there was no way she could have missed it in the small, cozily crowded restaurant that day.
And she was right: I was kicking myself for branching out from Pampa Grill's standards and going off the ranch, as it were. Meat is the way to go here, and you go big or go home.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.