For this week's edition of Here, Eat This, we venture into South America, where hardy Houstonians possessed of a hearty appetite will find much to love in the pampas of Argentina.
Argentina is yet another beef-obsessed nation, much like Korea, where the cowboys in South America routinely consume 150 to 200 pounds of beef per person each year. Much like Texas, however, the country's varied cultural influences have created an atmosphere that blends foods and influences seamlessly.
Italian and German immigrants to the country brought their culture, architecture, music and food -- especially to the capital city of Buenos Aires, which could pass as an old European city at first glance -- and those cuisines have melded with Spanish and native Indian foods to create a national cuisine that's as much a melting pot as our own.
It's not unusual to find Italian dishes such as pizza and pasta, German dishes like schnitzel (repurposed here as milanesa) and Spanish dishes like empanadas all keeping company together on one menu. Argentines even have their own version of barbecue called asado. Argentine restaurants offer food that's accessible to even the shyest eater -- but there are still a few odd and interesting gems to be appreciated along the way.
As mentioned, this is the Argentine version of barbecue. Food writer and historian John T. Edge, speaking at the Foodways Texas symposium last weekend, noted that the word "barbacoa" (from which "barbecue" stems) originally referred only to the structure used to elevate and cook the meat over an open flame. Typical asados in Argentina 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 restaurants such as Pampa Grill -- is meat that's flavored with the rugged char of the grill instead of greasy smoke. Anything from chicken to beef can be cooked this way, although it's most common to find short ribs, flank steak, skirt steak and offal on the asado.
Morcilla and mollejas
I don't need to explain ribs or steak, but these two items are equally popular asado-style meats. If you order a parillada (a portable hibachi-style grill that's delivered to your table with the sizzling asado-cooked meat heaped on top), you'll probably find both among the piles of beef. Morcilla is the Argentine version of blood sausage -- a delicacy found across the world, also called "black pudding" -- served in giant, plump links that bear a creamy, nutmeg- and clove-laced interior once you cut through the tender skin. Mollejas are simply sweetbreads, those unctuous little offal rounds, crisped up on the grill and full of flavor.
Every culture has a pocket food. In Argentina -- as with its original colonial power, Spain -- it's the empanada. But there are a few specialty flavors to look for when you're browsing Argentine delis like Manena's or Marini's: Empanadas de humita bring to mind corn casseroles with their filling of lightly creamed corn and red peppers, while the empanadas de carne are filled with juicy ground beef mixed with green peppers, onions and chile powder.
Milanesa, one of the national dishes of Argentina, is the most popular lunch item at Manena's in far west Houston. While in Argentina it's traditionally served alongside a heap of mashed potatoes, here the thinly pounded, breaded beef cutlet comes with a side of thick, crispy french fries. You can also have your milanesa on freshly baked French bread, laden with tomatoes, lettuce, white onions, mustard and homemade mayonnaise -- a sandwich that I've often said is one of the best in Houston.
Sándwiches de miga
Another Argentinean specialty, sándwiches de migas are strongly reminiscent of the finger sandwiches you may have encountered at church potlucks and family picnics. Made with thin, crustless slices of white bread, the sandwiches are topped with an assortment of meats and cheeses such as prosciutto and provolone. More exciting varieties abound, though, like Roquefort with walnuts and celery or pimiento with red peppers, ham and eggs. In keeping with the dish's popularity as a cheap meal, a tray of sándwiches de migas costs $8 at places like Manena's and could feed four people.
Italians first came to Argentina in 1857, arriving in huge waves throughout the next 100 years until the 1950s. People of Italian descent now make up a majority of Argentina's population at 60 percent, or 25 million Italian-Argentinians. Naturally, Italian foods like pizza and pasta are enormously popular. You can try Argentine (and Brazilian) pizza at places like Piola in Houston, where toppings include Argentine favorites like ham, olives, sweet red pepper and anchovies. For a really authentic experience, try the Portici; it comes without tomato sauce but with a topping of crushed cherry tomatoes, oregano, mozzarella fior di latte and fresh basil.
Ravioles and ñoquis
Along with pizza, pasta is extremely popular. Ravioles like the classic sorrentinos -- shaped like sombreros and filled with ham, mozzarella and ricotta -- were invented in Argentina, not Italy. And ñoquis (Spanish for "gnocchis") are eaten for good luck on the 29th day of every month in honor of Saint Pantaleon, the patron saint of Venice, whose feast day falls on the 29th. Leaving a dollar or two under your empty bowl is said to bring further financial luck, which is further enhanced at the all-you-can-eat gnocchi days Piola hosts on the 29th of each month.
Alfajores and medialunas
These are just two of the baked goods Argentine bakeries are known for, among others like the fanciful cañoncitos topped with a thick swirl of caramel cream and the dulce de leche-filled colaciones that look like cornucopia horns. Alfajores are simply shortbread cookies sandwiched together with dulce de leche (or sometimes chocolate), while medialunas are flaky, buttery croissant-based pastries often eaten for breakfast, dipped in milky cafe con leche.
Argentines are crazy for cold treats, so it should come as no surprise that the best gelato-maker in Houston is from Argentina. Marcelo Kreindel makes the same cool, creamy desserts that are popular back in his hometown of Buenos Aires at Trentino Gelato. Trentino doesn't have a storefront, but it does supply most of the city's best restaurants and coffee shops with their gelato. You can also purchase pints of it at grocery stores like Spec's and Phoenicia, in typically Argentine flavors like dulce de leche and lúcuma.
Where to get started:
Pampa Grill: This small, family-run northwest-side Argentinean steakhouse specializes in beef in various forms and at very inexpensive prices. Flank steak, skirt steak, short ribs, rib eye and tenderloin can all be had for around $10 at Pampa Grill, although you will also find some terrific empanadas and pizzas straight from the brick oven. Other specialties include choripán, an Argentinean sausage sandwich, or even better, morcipan, a blood sausage sandwich.
Manena's Pastry Shop & Deli: Some of Houston's best empanadas and the most authentic milanesa this side of Buenos Aires are found at this little pastry shop on the west side. Sweet teeth will also be satisfied by expertly made flan and tiramisu among the dozens of other pastries baked fresh every day.
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The Original Marini's Empanada House: Tucked into a Westchase strip mall on Westheimer near the Beltway, Marini's is a family-run empanada delicatessen offering sweet and savory varieties of the fried pies. The Gaucho is the standard variety, with onions, spices and olives that accentuate the finely ground beef without overpowering it. Vegetarians and omnivores alike will enjoy the humita empanadas. Add an apple, banana or dulce de leche dessert empanada to your plate for a "balanced" meal. Don't forget to break off a corner and vent the pies before dining to avoid cooking your tongue.
Piola: This brightly outfitted Midtown pizza place is always packed -- especially its inviting patio -- with good reason: The pizza has only steadily improved since it first opened. Piola, which is headquartered in Italy but does a brisk business in South America, is also one of only two places in town where you can find catipury cheese (the other being Friends Pizzeria). The Salvadore comes highly recommended, with that catipury cheese melting into roasted chicken and spinach, and the Mantova -- beef carpaccio with Brie, diced tomatoes and arugula -- is a close runner-up. Not in a pizza mood? The restaurant also makes excellent gnocchi in-house, and its happy hour is justifiably famous for offering free bowls of the stuff alongside inexpensive Italian cocktails.