A Different Kind of Steak House

I don't normally like steak houses. The spectacle of men, most of whom don't know a good steak from a bad one, happily forking out $30 for a T-bone that may or may not be mediocre is one I find profoundly depressing.

Chimi-Churris South American Grill, though, is different. Owned by Mariano and Gustavo Saldivia, a father/son team from Uruguay, it resembles the restaurants I remember from a visit to Buenos Aires 20 years ago. No trophy steaks in those places. When Argentines dine, they do so not for status, but for the pleasure it gives them.

It used to be said of Argentines that they ate steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But that, it seems, is changing. I read recently, much to my dismay, that Argentines now eat more pasta than they do red meat. This is alarming because, as Claude Levi-Strauss once told us, we are what we eat, which means that, any day now, we can expect to see a change in the Argentine character. I'm very fond of Argentines -- hi, Dorita -- and want more than anything that they stay as they are. Please, Argentina, forget the pasta. Return to your carnivore ways.

(So proximate are Argentina and Uruguay, Gus tells me, that, on a clear night in Montevideo, it's possible to gaze across the Plata estuary and see the lights of downtown Buenos Aires.)

The mood at Chimi-Churris is gentle, even intimate. A small, green structure, it looks modest from the outside. And inside, it's modest, too. But this works to its advantage. The place has a nestlike quality that's very romantic. Maybe it was the boleros on the sound system. Or, then again, it may only have been the smell of grilling meat, but after 15 minutes in this place, I was ready to propose to the first woman who crossed my path.

Open four years, Chimi-Churris closes at nine o'clock during the week, which embarrasses Gus, who comes from a country where people rise from their armchairs at 10 p.m., not to prepare for bed, but to head out for dinner. A pleasant man all too happy to talk, he finds himself serving several cultures. At lunchtime, the business crowd arrives at 11:30, people from the neighborhood turn up at noon, and starting around 2, the expatriates begin to trickle in. "We've had to adapt," he said.

Naturally, he brought up the World Cup. People in Uruguay are soccer mad, and just assume that everyone else is, too. Which, since I'm not, always puts me at a disadvantage. So I bluffed a bit and said soccer was a great game (a statement with which he agreed), and added that Uruguay was sure to win the championship next time (which, naturally enough, he agreed with, too), and after that Gus and I were buddies. (I know: Male bonding is a very mysterious thing.)

I don't, as a rule, eat a lot of beef. It's not that I've anything against it. And the health issue concerns me not at all. It's just that I like other things more. But at Chimi-Churris, I must tell you, I tasted one of the most delicious steaks of my life and, what's more, it set me back a niggardly $12.95. The entrana is as delicious as it is because the cut -- we know it as skirt steak -- comes with fat on both sides. This fat is rendered in the grilling but, while it's present, it seals the meat, producing a steak that's tender and succulent and practically drowning in its own juices. The entrana was a revelation. Even better, it comes with beautifully grilled vegetables -- thickly sliced squash and zucchini -- and superb roasted potatoes: great wedgelike things sprinkled with parsley and garlic and sporting a thick outer pigment. The interior is all mealy sweetness.

The menu, in addition to steak, features chorizo (excellent), kidneys (very good) , tripe (okay) and sweetbreads (so-so). (A plate comprising all four cost $9.95.) And that's not all. As befits a country that owes as much to Italy as it does to Spain -- nearly a third of Uruguay's population claims Italian ancestry -- there are several pasta dishes and a number of Milanesa offerings. Of the latter, I particularly enjoyed the Milanesa Nico ($11.95) -- a breaded chicken breast topped with sauteed mushrooms and served with a mustard-cream sauce. Fabulous. This, too, comes with those terrific potatoes. And a welcome sight they were. If I owned Chimi-Churris, I would serve their roasted potatoes with everything: with dessert, with coffee, even with liqueurs.

We also tried the lengua a la vinagreta ($6.95) -- beef tongue (there's no need to turn up your nose) marinated in garlic and parsley, topped with chopped hard-boiled eggs and served in a vinaigrette. Having eaten a lot of tongue growing up -- and being lashed by a few as well -- I expected something exotic, but this proved not to be the case. The flavors struck me as indeterminate. And worse, it tasted gummy.

Other dishes we sampled included baked oysters with bacon, red peppers and Parmesan cheese ($6.95). Really nifty. The oysters, we were assured, did not come from Galveston Bay; they'd never so much as seen Galveston Bay and, in all probability, hadn't heard of it, either. The provenance of these bivalves was Louisiana. The quail ($10.95) were great as well, though I really must stop eating those things. They look so vulnerable.

I was in such good spirits at this point, I was tempted to buy coffee for the house, but since it was now past closing time and, with the exception of Gus and his Dad, everyone else had left, I ordered dessert instead. We were brought a very delicious flan and a portion of tres leches. The latter had an extraordinary effect on my companion, who began to emit noises that, in some women, announce the approach of pleasure. Never again will I take a man to dinner!

Chimi-Churris South American Grill, 5712 Bellaire Boulevard, 661-1325.


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