I phoned Las Pampas Argentinian Steak and Pasta House, a two-month-old restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami. "Are you open?" I inquired. A reasonable question: It was a Monday night, and some restaurants in that neighborhood of strip malls and business offices find it more practical not to open their doors during the early part of the week.
"Of course," replied the voice at the other end of the line.
Something in his inflection prompted me to ask, "Do I need to make a reservation?"
"Of course," the voice repeated, apparently somewhat surprised that anyone would ask such an obvious question.
"Eight o'clock?" I ventured.
"Oh, no," the voice replied. "I can only take you at seven-thirty."
Bemused, I hung up. How could this space, right next door to a triple-X bookstore and until earlier this year occupied by the ultracasual Giordy's Country Kitchen, have been so suddenly transmogrified into a South American version of Mark's Place? But then, you never know. I phoned my dining companions and passed the word. Dress nicely, I suggested. This restaurant sounds more upscale than I thought.
Arriving a few minutes late for our reservation, we feared we'd be made to wait. But the anticipated crowd was nowhere to be seen. The tables, cheerfully covered in cloths of white and red and accented by woven leather-backed chairs in a sunset blush, are a vast improvement on the decor-challenged Giordy's. But the setting and the Argentine-Italian menu are nowhere near formal. And while a new company was formed for the ownership of Las Pampas, the managing partners, native Argentines George and Sylvia Parliso, also owned Giordy's. So I was feeling slightly conned until our waiter, sporting a soccer pin he said had been given to him by the head of an important Argentine club, informed us that a large party was expected later in the evening.
The curiosity of the soccer fans in the party thus piqued (would the national team stop by on their way to the Olympics?), we tucked into our appetizers. The list is somewhat short, featuring seven cold starters and only two hot ones, the tastiest of which was traditional empanadas. These flaky turnovers, stuffed with sauteed ground beef in a savory gravy and chopped hard-boiled egg, were a real treat, crusty and authentic. Matambre de ternera was also well received, even after having been built up by our server as "the best." Succulent mild veal was rolled up with softened parboiled carrots, spinach, and a whole hard-boiled egg, then sliced. Two of these colorful slices were presented with a delicious potato salad, mixed with a healthy portion of mayonnaise and sweetened with chunks of mellow carrots. A hefty portion.
Marinated eggplant, berenjenas en escabeche, didn't strike the same chord. Green as unripe papaya but soft with oil and garlic, the rounds of the vegetable the size of silver dollars were a little too saturated and a lot too potent. Also suggestive of garlic, the soup of the day, an interpretation of the Italian classic stracciatella, was a much better first course. This soup was fabulous, a rich salty chicken stock heaped with fresh leaf spinach, with the requisite egg drops clustering on the greens. It tasted like creamed spinach, minus the cream and plus the broth.
Food comes out fry-cook quick, and it wasn't long after the appetizers that our entrees appeared. The menu offers meat -- sixteen-ounce sirloin steak, short ribs, skirt steak -- and a few more interesting choices such as sweetbreads, chorizo, and blood sausage. I was all set to order sweetbreads and sausages for the table until I took a good look at my dining companions, meat-and-potatoes eaters who raised eyebrows and grimaced at the very thought. Though I'd invited them with their carnivorous preferences in mind, there's a downside to down-home folk who fancy nothing more than a good steak (i.e., they fancy nothing more than a good steak). Grilled thymus glands and pork sausage flavored with pig's blood would have to wait till next time.
The palomilla, a fillet of beef that was pounded, breaded, deep-fried, and topped with two fried eggs, was ideal. Taking up the entire dinner plate, this long, flat cut was reminiscent of Wiener schnitzel, tender inside its crisp coating, with sunny egg yolks to add a welcome richness. A separate plate of golden-brown shoestring French fries was served alongside.
The blackboard is worth checking out, as it always lists a special or two. The evening we dined, the sixteen-ounce sirloin was offered with a ruby-color Marsala wine sauce. The thick boneless steak, larded by a tasty rim of fat to seal in the juices, was excellent, topped with layers of sauteed spinach and melted cheese. The sauce was dark and sweet, chunky with large slices of mushrooms. A side of supremely smooth mashed potatoes provided a fabulous counterpart.
These spuds, reminiscent of the good ol' Giordy's days, also showcased a grouper fillet that, despite its fairly large dimensions, was nearly obscured by a blue cheese sauce. Not that we minded. The fish, a market-price catch of the day, is also offered grilled or sauced with tomatoes and onions. Don't be tempted; the blue cheese was smooth and pungent, just about perfect. The grouper (once we found it) certainly stood up to the fonduelike mixture.
Though Argentina's culinary reputation is based largely on beef, the nation has a tremendous Italian population and is also known for its pastas. After mulling over the virtues of each of Las Pampas's homemade pastas, which include gnocchi and cannelloni, we ended up ordering a special entree that combined the two heritages: a plate of tiny beef ravioli. Spinach pasta that had been cooked for perhaps just a second too long was stuffed with a savory combination of ground beef and bread crumbs and sauced with a juicy marinara, zesty with fragrant tomatoes, onions, and garlic.
Dessert was the evening's only letdown. A rum apple crepe sounded light. But the single round pancake was a little too dense, barely apple-flavored and soaked in rum that didn't burn off enough despite a vigorous and lengthy flambeing that left its edges blackened.
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As for that vaunted party, it arrived with the crepe: two tour buses filled with hormonally dazed Argentine teens and their video-camera-toting chaperones. They quickly flooded the place with soccer chants and laughter, reorganizing tables to accommodate their numbers, shouting "ASalud!" over their Cokes, and bursting into applause when the empanadas were served.
"Seems funny," observed one of my companions, a pretty conservative eater himself. "If I were traveling in South America, I doubt I'd want to eat in a North American restaurant. You'd think the tour leaders would be looking for something that spells United States."
I agree, up to a point. Local cuisine is certainly one of the best ways to experience the flavor of a foreign place. But when I travel, I sometimes find myself seeking the comfort of a good burger and fries to ease the strangeness of it all. And if I encountered the American equivalent of Las Pampas while in Argentina, you can bet I'd pay a visit.
Rum apple crepe