The half-pound Uruguayan lomo, a butterflied slice of South American tenderloin, is the best thing to order at Sal y Pimienta (“Salt and Pepper”), the new steakhouse at bustling CityCentre in West Houston. Grass-fed beef can be tough by American standards, but S&P’s lomo is right on the money: rich, gamy, slightly chewy, and superior to American tenderloin, whose tenderness can make it mushy. Wash it down with a glass of Tannat, an inky Uruguyan red that tastes like a cross between Malbec and Syrah, and you’ll be living large, Rio de la Plata–style.
Buenos Aires and Montevideo face each other at the mouth of the River of Silver, which is where Sal y Pimienta draws its culinary inspiration. The cuisine of that region is part gaucho-style grilled meats and part Italian—pasta and pizza with a South American twist—all of it washed down with lots of red wine and espresso. This is not a theatrical, meat-on-a-sword Brazilian steakhouse like Tejas de Brazil, located just across the street from S&P. Residents of the Rio de la Plata region favor a more multidimensional cuisine.
To wit: S&P serves excellent empanadas, a salad of mixed greens topped with tart ceviche, fried calamari cut into thick rings, canelones (pasta crêpes in cream sauce), and ñoqui. Wait a minute, you say. Who goes to a steakhouse for gnocchi? On the 29th of every month, superstitious residents of Buenos Aires, or porteños as they’re called, eat gnocchi for good luck. I stopped by on the 29th just for the gnocchi. The fluffy little dumplings came with three sauces in the colors of the Italian flag—white, green, and red. The white—blue cheese, actually—and pesto cream sauces were so sumptuous, it was easy to excuse the third, a too-sweet tomato sauce that tasted canned. I felt very lucky indeed.
But unless you’re a vegetarian, you won’t be thinking about ñoqui after S&P’s waiter trots out an oversized cutting board loaded with glistening meat. On a recent night, it featured Uruguayan grass-fed whole loin (i.e., that delicious lomo), as well as entrecôte, a Niman Ranch dry-aged tomahawk bone-in ribeye and double-cut tomahawk pork chop, Australian grass-fed lamb chops, American Kobe ribeye, USDA Prime ribeye, USDA Prime strip steak, and a buffalo tenderloin.
North Americans are happy to choose a single top-notch steak and dig in, but that’s not the way it’s done in Argentina. In a Buenos Aires parrilla, the typical order is the parrillada, a charcoal brazier heaped with five or six cuts of meat plus sweetbreads, kidneys, and sausages. Beef is cheap in Argentina, so a parrilla evening isn’t a luxury à la American steakhouses.
At S&P, Uruguayan owner Gianfranco Percovich, who once managed Tango & Malbec in the Galleria area, accomplishes a neat balancing act; his American customers see the place as a top-end steak house, while the South Americans consider it a real, old-fashioned parrilla (though not a cheap one). I ate a perfectly cooked medium-rare USDA Prime ribeye one night and the most authentic parrillada I’ve had in the US a few nights later.
According to the menu, S&P’s parrillada serves two. But when four of us split the spread along with a side order of lomo, we ended up with way more meat than we could eat. The charcoal brazier was loaded with tender medium-rare lamb chops, juicy grilled chicken, coarse ground sausage, morcilla—a black, creamy blood sausage—and some nicely chewy sweetbreads.
There was also a tough matambre (flank steak), an even tougher inside skirt steak, and a length of asado tira(ribbon-cut short ribs) that was too tough to eat, which makes them quite authentic. (I couldn’t eat them on a visit to Buenos Aires, either.) Otherwise, S&P’s mixed grill will delight adventurous meat-lovers who are on the lookout for great sweetbreads and blood sausage. They can shrug off a couple of tough cuts.