Border Crossings

U.S. businesses setting up shop in Mexico are hardly news. The current president of the country, after all, is a former executive of the Coca-Cola corporation's Mexican subsidiary. The gaseous beverage is ubiquitous enough in that country for a former poet laureate of Mexico to have dubbed it "La agua negra del imperialismo yanqui."

Mexican businesses setting up shop in the United States are considerably rarer. Currently, a restaurant company with two successful operations in Mexico City (and two smaller take-out shops) is building out the 6,500-square-foot structure at 4527 Lomitas, a short street located east of the intersection of Kirby Drive and the U.S. 59 South feeder road. Named El Buen Bife, the concept is additionally noteworthy in that it is not a Mexican-style restaurant. The restaurant's publicity materials declare that El Buen Bife "will be Houston's first restaurant to authentically re-create the entire Argentine concept of fine dining." It's scheduled to open in mid-October.

People who take note of buildings that seem to swallow restaurant investors' dollars whole have already taken to remarking about El Buen Bife's future home. The stand-alone structure has previously housed operations named The Field House Restaurant and Bar, Scottsdale's, a branch of Bellaire's Pico's Mexican restaurant (5941 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-662-8383) and a Cajun concept named Gator's, which was probably more famous for the enormous alligator sculpture on the roof than for its food.

The "Argentine concept of fine dining," otherwise known as a parrilla, features large quantities of range-fed beef, including offal or organ meats, cooked over a wood-burning grill. This can hardly play in a country where children have been known to burst into tears when they discover their breakfast milk comes from a pendulous pink sack located between a cow's hind legs. Consequently, the menu has been adjusted for local tastes and sensibilities.

According to a press release, "The finest Nebraska, corn-fed, prime Angus beef, aged to the specifications of El Buen Bife, will be prepared over mesquite wood." Feed-lot fattening, Angus cattle and the mesquite tree are not exactly representative of Argentine cooking. Many, many Houstonians, on the other hand, react to such phrases with nearly instantaneous Pavlovian gastric spasms.

Press materials also declare that "chicken, sausage, other meats and premium seafood like salmon steaks" will be on the menu, and that "El Buen Bife will also feature fresh salads tossed in light olive oil vinaigrettes, fresh breads, homemade pastas, exquisite empanadas made from family recipes with a variety of stuffings, a broad variety of fine wines including Chilean and Argentine selections, and superb desserts culminating in the 'Aconcagua,' named after a mountain in Argentina, a tower of white cake frosted with meringue and flambéed at tableside."

It's too early to tell if an Argentine parrilla will work in Houston. One of the more recent attempts to launch such a restaurant, La Estancia (414 West Gray, 713-807-1111), has since shifted its focus to a Latin-fusion, tapas-heavy menu. (See "Immigration Problems," by Robb Walsh, August 10, 2000.) Yet Brazil, Argentina's neighbor to the north, has enjoyed success here with its rodizio concept. Brazilian rotisserie-grilled meat houses such as Fogo de Chão (8250 Westheimer, 713-978-6500), Rodizio Grill (5851 Westheimer, 713-334-7400) and Fire + Ice (2801 Kirby Drive, 713-522-4500) all have found audiences in the Bayou City.

The principals in El Buen Bife are a husband-and-wife team, Juan Miguel Colin and Marta Malazzo. Colin, it is said, "began his business career as an industrial designer who manufactured and sold specialized camping equipment." Malazzo, on the other hand, "comes from an Argentine family of Italian descent who had long been in the restaurant business in Mexico," and "Juan Miguel's father-in-law owned one of the finest Argentine-style restaurants in Mexico City, Rincon Argentino."

Since Colin does not feel comfortable communicating in English, information about the operation comes from an advertising agency he has retained, Bernstein & Associates, as well as the A La Carte Food Service Consulting Group. A principal with the group, Chris Tripoli, who over the last ten years has worked for such A-list operations as Enron Field, Bush Intercontinental's food courts and the Vallone restaurants, says the unique feature of El Buen Bife will be the grill.

A release from Bernstein further elaborates: "The centerpiece of El Buen Bife, both visually and gastronomically, will be the enormous grill near the entrance, designed by [Colin] to resemble the quinchos or special barbecue grill kitchens attached to Argentine ranch houses."

Tripoli adds, "It's an interesting grill, because the cooking is done without any flame, but with tremendous heat. The wood is burned in the middle, and then the white-hot chips are raked over into the space under the grill. That results in a different flavor."

The Argentine theme, if mostly absent from the menu, will dominate the building's decor. Again, according to Bernstein: The restaurant is "inspired down to the last detail by the quinta or Argentine ranch house, a long low building graced with bells hung in arches around the roofline and a wooden watchtower. Inside, the walls of El Buen Bife will be decorated with artifacts representing the life of the gaucho."

Additionally, that other famous Argentine cultural practice, the tango, is promised. The dance, after sweeping the ballroom world in the 1920s, became a sort of joke by the time Groucho Marx took Margaret Dumont for a mock-seductive spin in one of the Marx Brothers comedies. In the last decade, the tango has been rehabilitated both in Argentina and abroad. Today, its mix of Latin dignity of form with frankly sexual theater is catching on with people weary of random discotheque convulsions. A. Lester Buck III, spokesperson and member of the rapidly growing Tango Houston organization, says that the president of the society, Tracey Mouton, has been in contact with Malazzo, and that various events, milongas and practicas are under discussion.

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George Alexander