The International Festival (iFest) is upon us once again. And this year, the multi-weekend festival has chosen Argentina as its spotlighted country. That means that much of the music, art and -- most importantly -- food that will be showcased will be Argentinean. And for meat-loving Texans, that's a very good thing.
Argentina has a rich cattle-based tradition and economy, just as Texas does. It has cowboys and steaks, but it also has a broad range of other culinary influences that makes Buenos Aires as varied a melting pot as Houston.
You see German influences in its milanesas, the beef pounded thin and breaded just as Germans make their schnitzel. You see Italian influences in pasta dishes like ravioles and canelones that are eaten as frequently as beef. You see tea from Britain alongside indigenous drinks like yerba mate, and you see influences from both Jewish and Muslim culinary traditions coexisting side by side.
In short, Argentinean cuisine is a perfect match for the adventurous Houston palate. Whether you're unable to make it to iFest this year (for shame!) or you come away inspired to learn more about Argentinean food after you go, here are five Houston restaurants in which you can explore some of the richness of Argentina's cuisine.
This little bakery in West Houston specializes in Argentinean pastries, from sweet to savory. The sweet range from delicate horns filled with rich dulce de leche and dusted with confectioner's sugar to airy, palm-size cream puffs drizzled with chocolate, or glistening palmitas sprinkled liberally with large crystals of sugar or brightly lacquered alfajores. Manena's also makes my favorite tiramisu in town, dark and oh-so-creamy. The savory are its empanadas, baked and flaky and filled with everything from humitas (think creamed corn and red peppers) to luscious shreds of beef. And I still think the milanesa sandwich seen above -- with tangy mayonnaise and onions, on crusty French bread, with nary a trace of grease -- is one of the best sandwiches in Houston. In the tradition of eating gnocchi on the 29th of the month for good luck is firmly in place here: It's the only day of the month you can get Manena's homemade potato dumplings.
Marini's is another empanada stronghold in Houston, this one with an enormous range of options for the pastry's fillings. Get traditional with ham and cheese or beef "gaucho," or go Texan with barbecue brisket or a Viva Zapata with refried beans, Cheddar cheese and jalapeños. Marini's is also housed in a completely charming and inviting space in West Houston's sprawling Carillon Center (which happens to be on the other side of the Beltway from Manena's, if you're interested in doing an empanada crawl...). Its original location, of course, was at 1517 Westheimer -- where Nabi is now -- where the Marini family first introduced Houston to its empanadas in 1971. And don't forget dessert: Marini's has specialty desserts like a PB&J and a S'more empanadas that you won't want to miss.
There are churrascarias and rodizios and South Americans steakhouses galore in Houston. And then there is Tango & Malbec. Its odd name is a little off-putting, but rest assured there is more to this beautiful Galleria-area restaurant than meets the eye: It's a true Argentinean establishment through and through, run by an expat from Patagonia. As a result, T&M's food focuses less on traditional Buenos Aires cuisine and more on that of the Rio de la Plata area, combining Uruguayan influences with Argentinean. That means you can get the traditional asado and steaks that Argentina is known for, as well as more interesting options like spaghetti a la Ushuaia (homemade seafood pasta) or ostrich milanesa. Ostrich milanesa not your cup of tea? Then try the wild boar.
We gave Pradaria a Best of Houston® award in 2009 for Best South American Restaurant -- even though churrascarias are a dime a dozen here. That's because Pradaria does it right, with an enormous variety of rodizio meats served tableside by friendly waiters in full gaucho costume. From basics like rib eye and picanha -- the juicy top sirloin that's doubled over into a C shape on the skewer -- to sweetbreads and such seldom-seen specialties as cupim, Pradaria has it all, and a salad bar to boot. Oh, and sushi. Seriously.
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I saved my favorite for last: Pampa Grill is one of those restaurants where you feel immediately at home. It's both market and cafe at once, and it fills up with half the Argentine ex-pat population in Houston on the weekends, at big family-style tables with parrilladas (hibachi-esque grills bearing untold pounds of meat) all around. At night, it also makes a smart date spot: You and your beloved can split an enormous parrillada, eating steak and blood sausage Lady and the Tramp-style, while enjoying the bottle of wine you picked up from Spec's -- Pampa Grill is BYOB, and has one of the lowest corkage fees around.