Uruguay knows its cattle. Intimately, in fact. From birth, every animal born in the 3.44-million-strong country (or 12 million head of cattle) is tagged with a microchip in its ear, following its every move. This is to assure quality of life and quality of meat. After all, beef is big business for the small country.
In 1968, Uruguay banned the use of antibiotics and hormones in beef production. By default, the animals are grass-fed, meaning leaner meat rich in essential fatty acids. But why is this news in Houston? Because Miami-based distribution company Nature's Cut is bringing the enviable flesh to Sal y Pimienta, the Uruguayan restaurant hiding in plain sight in CityCentre.
Nature's Cut general manager Diego Pomi says that Sal y Pimienta is currently the only restaurant in Houston serving Uruguayan beef. The tiny country is the only one in South America permitted to export to the United States. USDA inspectors based in Uruguay make sure that the meat is not only up-to-snuff but certified organic.
Of course, none of this would matter if the meat were the tough, vaguely gamy stuff many American grass-fed farmers produce. Good news: This, it turns out, is a case in which happy cows are tasty cows. They're raised on one of 150 family-owned small farms before going to slaughter at a central facility.
Part of the secret to the flavor is the age at slaughter. Animals meet their maker relatively young—at 28 months or less. Another key component of the formula is the breed. Well-marbled Angus and Hereford cattle are especially well-suited to living off grass. The result is juicy and beefy, even compared to grain-fed meat.
At Sal y Pimienta, the beef is served in several of the restaurant's dizzying array of dishes. There's the chivito, a tenderloin with ham, pancetta, provolone, mushrooms, and onions. The tenderloin, which drips with flavor in a way tenderloins rarely do, is also available on its own, with a side of grilled vegetables. Strip steak, called bife de chorizo at Sal y Pimienta, is firmer than the filet, but toothsome and still plenty tender.
Despite importing costs, dishes are comparable in price to other upscale steak houses, if a bit less expensive, topping out at $42 for an eight-ounce filet. And when factoring in medical costs for eating less healthy beef, the truth is, it's a steal. "The market wants to eat beef, but it wants to be healthy," says Pomi. "We've been doing this in Uruguay for centuries."
Now, Houston has a direct line to its own supply of (relatively) virtuous beef.