Piqueo was a critically acclaimed Peruvian restaurant in Cypress that not only received admiration from the Houston Press but also earned a place on restaurant critic Alison Cook’s Top 100 Restaurants list for the Houston Chronicle in both 2014 and 2015.
Unfortunately, “critically acclaimed” does not always translate to “neighborhood favorite.” Owner Gerry Sarmiento and his wife, Adriana, struggled with getting diners to embrace Peruvian cuisine in the same way the locals did the Italian fare at Mezzanotte, their other restaurant in the same shopping center.
In January 2016, they decided to close Piqueo and reopen as 429 American Grille, hypothetically destined to be a “steak and burgers” place. Sure enough, there’s a bold sign out front with the new name. The vibrant red and orange walls have been redone in risk-free beige, helped along a bit by pops of ocean-blue and spring-green in the stunning oil paintings that adorn the place.
Rebranding a restaurant is incredibly tricky. There’s a risk not only of losing customers who loved the original concept, but of not finding the expected market for the new one. There are tough decisions on what to keep from the old concept and what to let go. The evolution can be a slow process of trial and error.
There’s evidence that 429 American Grille isn’t done with the process of “becoming.” With holdovers from Piqueo still on the menu, 429 American Grille is part steakhouse, part Peruvian restaurant and part “New American,” a nebulous category definable only by a lack of definition. What is New American? A catch-all category, and anything it needs to be.
It’s what allows a sultry, Mediterranean-inspired combination of lamb merguez sausage on top of respectable hummus garnished with two shrimp to coexist with humble macaroni and cheese with bacon. Of the latter, a forkful leaves gleeful, dangling strands of yellow cheddar and white provolone in its wake. The added bacon neither constitutes a pork-fest nor is an afterthought. It is just the right amount.
The beef empanadas, one of the holdovers from Piqueo, aren’t what they used to be, unfortunately. The picadillo beef inside is still outstanding — complex, with a push-and-pull of spicy notes and raisiny sweetness. Just a plate of that with some rice on the side would be quite a treat. Unfortunately, the empanadas are baked now, not fried, and the casings seem more like limp refrigerator dough than the brawny, crisp shells of the past.
As for 429 American Grille’s identity as a steak and burger house, that mission is only half-accomplished. The six-ounce grilled Angus filet mignon is better than such a lightly marbled cut of beef has any right to be. (It’s a dish that Mezzanotte always excelled at too.) Four different kinds of sauce are available: the 429 Steak Sauce (think homemade A.1.), chipotle & molasses, horseradish mustard and chimichurri. The house-made steak sauce and chimichurri proved the best matches for the filet, although all the sauces are well-made and balanced.
The burgers, though, need work. Our server failed to ask for our cooking preference on a half-pound venison burger, which emerged from the kitchen woefully gray and dry. On another visit, a different server did ask, and as a result, a half-pound Wagyu burger was succulent, drippy and medium-rare, and blushed pretty pink in the center. It was topped with caramelized onion and provolone and served open-faced. Perched on the other half of the bun was lettuce, an unnecessary extra dose of onion (red, raw and sliced, in this instance) and a big slice of tomato. The tomato was distressingly green and unripe in the center, so it was set aside. The bun was soft and pliable yet still managed to hold its integrity until the last bite, even with a generous slather of basil-infused mayonnaise. What the burger lacked, though, was the tang and pop of a tart element, like dill pickles or pickled red bell pepper. The rich, mild Wagyu desperately needed it.
This temperamental back-and-forth between the exemplary and the imperfect is endemic. Light, firm planks of fish encased in delicate shells of crispy, browned batter were accompanied by outstanding house-made tartar sauce punctuated by perky bits of dill pickle and mild onion. So why serve previously frozen french fries alongside? (Aim instead for the vastly better, sturdy, crunchy onion rings, which we were told are made in-house.)
Suddenly, though, a single dish burst through what was shaping up to be a murky menu: wonderfully fresh shrimp atop creamy grits — but accented with Spanish sherry sauce. It’s utterly brilliant: a simple, classic, Southern dish viewed through a sophisticated international lens. “It’s like shrimp and grits by way of Peru!” said a dining companion. Here resides what this restaurant probably needs to be: a home of familiar American dishes accented with international elements that add adventurous flavor. That perfect filet mignon with either chimichurri exemplifies this direction, too. So does another menu item, the chicken chicharrón, which is effectively “hot wings” but smothered in a Peruvian blend of soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice vinegar and ginger, which was in turn inspired by Japanese cuisine. (The chicken chicharrón was No. 22 on the Houston Press 100 Favorite Dishes list of 2015.)
The wine list is heavily new world and not particularly inspiring, but Sarmiento easily plucked a classically styled pinot noir from the list — the 2012 Cumins Road from Oregon — that proved a flexible companion through the twists and turns of dinner. There’s an underrated cocktail program as well, the star of which is the Red Rum. It’s simple, composed only of aged rum, an orange-flavored rum and a twist of lime, but it’s one of those cocktails whose sum is greater than the parts. Sarmiento initially came up with it for himself as an after-work treat, but it was so good, it had to go on the menu. The coca sour is another Piqueo holdover, for good reason since it’s a blend of pisco, naughty-sounding coca leaf liqueur (coca leaf is what cocaine is derived from, but this liqueur isn’t going to produce the same effect because the addictive alkaloids have been removed), lime juice and simple syrup. Other than that, the cocktail menu focuses on people-pleasers like margaritas, martinis and mules.
If 429 American Grille’s options are to serve either a menu that matches what the name implies (burgers, steaks and fish and chips) or a menu that marries the owners’ vast knowledge of international cuisine with ingredients familiar to Cypress residents, the latter is vastly preferred. While restaurant concepts have to be adapted for what the general public seems to want (after all, people get in the restaurant business to make a living), their identities should be at least somewhat defined by the knowledge and strengths of their owners. The true heart of 429 American Grille is one that reflects the melting pot that America actually is — not one that beats in anticipation of burgers and steaks.
429 American Grille
13215 Grant #1800, Cypress, 281-404-4190. Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Beef empanadas $8
Bacon mac and cheese $7
Chicken chicharrón $9
Shrimp and grits $9
Lamb merguez sausage and shrimp $9
Fish and chips $14
Wagyu burger $14
Venison burger $16
Six-ounce filet mignon $29
Iced tea $3
Red rum cocktail $11
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