Argentine food is easy to love: flavorful chargrilled meats soaked in a sauce of aromatic parsley, olive oil, and garlic and chased with bottles of strong red wine or a light, lager-style beer.
It's meat-and-potatoes simple. It's man food. It's good. And it's exactly what you'll get at the 7-month-old Las Pampas Grill & Bar, a sophisticated South American steak house with a barrio-esque ambiance, serving empanadas, sweetbreads, pastas, and grass-fed Uruguayan beef in Oakland Park.
When owner Tomas Trabucco opened his first establishment — BA Argentinean Bistro, the "BA" short for his home city of Buenos Aires — off Commercial Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale in 2013, it was one of the only South American steak houses in the area. But when its doors closed that December, the sommelier said he didn't know when — or where — he'd open another establishment.
But closing wasn't so easy. One ardent customer, Oscar Amicarrelli, entreated Trabucco to open a steak house in his shopping plaza. Trabucco ceded and moved into the space formerly occupied by longtime South Florida establishment Primavera Restaurant.
His newest venture, Las Pampas Grill & Bar, isn't much of a departure from his original concept. Doors opened in early 2015 in a quiet strip mall on the corner of East Oakland Park Boulevard and NE Eighth Terrace, and the restaurant became a welcome addition to an otherwise desolate area.
Las Pampas, with affordable fare and refined decor, emanates old-school ambiance. It's a date-night spot, where quiet music pairs with even quieter conversation. Each table is set with a white tablecloth and a vase holding a single red rose. Scenic pictures and dusty bottles of wine line the walls.
An evening at Las Pampas begins not with a rowdy bar scene or a long wait at a hostess stand, but with a polite greeting from a well-dressed server. It's a proper introduction, as opposed to the usual, overly friendly ones from T-shirt-clad youngsters at the hip gastropubs downtown. And without the mad dash from one oversized party to the next, the servers at Las Pampas instead stand vigil at the dining room's corners, ready to refill water glasses or replace bread baskets at a moment's notice and without needing more than a glance and a nod their way.
At Las Pampas, time itself seems to slow. Courses arrive in measured intervals, not whenever the kitchen decides to bless tables with their creations. Paced from appetizer to entrée, it's dining out the way dining out used to be, before restaurants gave way to casual communal tables, sharing plates, and liquor-soaked happy hours.
Like most Argentine restaurants, Las Pampas is proudest of its grilled meats and wine — a healthy selection of South American, American, and Old World picks. To start, our server suggests his favorite, a bold Malbec, full-bodied and black as ink, with a peppery finish. He also motions toward a trio of tabletop sauces and whispers that the criolla — a bright mixture of tomato, bell pepper, and onion in a vinegary sauce — is his favorite over the classic chimichurri.
"I put it on everything, including my steak," he says at the beginning of our meal. "It's that amazing."
The menu was created in concert with Jorge Vazquez Nieto, a Mexican chef who made a name for himself at New York City's Novecento, a hip café-style Argentine restaurant off West Broadway specializing in meat and wine. Today many of his signature dishes cover all the bases, from a grilled octopus starter accented with paprika and lemon, to a breaded and fried chicken breast smothered in a blanket of ham, cheese, and tomato sauce, and a provincial-style dessert named for an Argentine city.
Despite its South American steak-house draw, there are other things to eat at Las Pampas besides steak. Take, for instance, the velvety-rich mollejas a la parrilla (sweetbreads) and chorizo y morcilla (blood sausage) appetizers, the latter arriving as a single fat link oozing a brown-black stuffing from its casing, delivering a sharp, iron-tinged tang. For the more timid, the congealed blood, onion, and seasoning work best when smeared across a hunk of bread with a dab of the restaurant's house-made garlic butter.
An easy choice are the empanadas — ground beef, chicken, spinach, or ham and cheese — baked soft rather than fried to a crisp. Savory fillings are sealed into each doughy pocket using a technique called repulse, in which the edges of the empanada are folded and pressed to create a rope-like pattern.
For the main course, there are plenty of options a la parrilla (from the grill), including flank steak, short ribs, and rack of lamb. The entraña a la parrilla, a long flap of skirt steak, is a signature dish plated with hand-cut fries and a small side salad. The tender and juicy steak — grilled al mattone, or chargrilled beneath a heavy tile or brick — arrives with its end rolled into a compact coil to fit on the plate and leaves in a doggy bag.
Also available are several of the usual Argentine pastas, heavy dishes with rich cream sauces, and stuffed pasta with savory ingredients. Our server touts the homemade ñoquis caseros — or gnocchi, the only pasta made in-house — as one of the chef's best dishes. The mountainous stack of potato pillows is mostly what every gnocchi should be — soft and dense, if a bit gummy — piled into a deep ceramic bowl and tossed with a pasty-thick tomato sauce, while crumbles of seasoned ground beef provide another layer of texture and flavor.
At a neighboring table, dulce de leche-stuffed crepes, their edges curled and burnt to a buttery crisp, look intriguing, but order the torta balcarce instead. Once known as imperial, the recipe is the most popular of all the country's provincial desserts, here a concoction with alternating layers of house-made meringue, whipped cream, and dulce de leche, with a sweet almond paste, shredded coconut, and walnuts paired with peach-flecked cake.
"My goal is to create a restaurant that appeals to both Latin Americans and Americans," Trabucco says.Las Pampas Grill & Bar is located at 830 E. Oakland Park Blvd, Oakland Park. Call 954-564-6363, or visit laspampasgrill.com.
Follow Nicole Danna on Twitter, @SoFloNicole.