After experiencing a mediocre meal at a new South American restaurant followed by a rather middling lunchtime experience at another recommended South American restaurant, I thought it would be useful to put together a list of the ten best South American restaurants in Houston. South American has been a rather neglected category in the city, at least in terms of local publicity.
Popular “South American” restaurants have been around for a while, mostly in the guise of the Cordua family restaurants; first Churrascos, then Americas, Amazon Grill and Artista. Though deservedly well-liked, the food at these restaurants really reflects the Nicaraguan homeland of the proprietors rather the lands further south. Though confusing many diners, these restaurants have helped expand the city’s collective palate, introduce wines from Chile and later Argentina, and helped pave the wave for similar tastes and preparations from northern South America and elsewhere.
The best known of the truly South American restaurants here are the churrascarias, the all-you-can-eat steakhouses from southern Brazil. There are several chains in Houston that serve Brazilian cuts of beef steak and the meat of other smaller mammals from gaucho-clad waiters in expansive settings. Most are actually quite good, and have resonated among diners here as they have throughout much of the US. But, there is much more in Houston in terms of South American cooking, which is home to a large number of expatriates from all over South America. Most of the restaurants largely serve their immigrant communities, the steakhouses in at least a couple of guises are a notable exception. Among the South American establishments here there is even at least one Brazilian restaurant that is not an all-you-can-eat beef emporium (though named Emporio). There is a good amount of culinary diversity found across South American, some of it is represented fairly aptly in Houston.
The ten best South American restaurants in Houston below are listed alphabetically.
This Galleria area outpost of southern Brazil grilling has managed to impress the locals in a city awash in churrascarias. The wide array of meats, cooked exquisitely and presented dramatically, and the expansive and vibrant salad bar are arguably the best in Houston, contending with Fogo de Chau. With the all-you-can-eat-red-meat style, this is an especially good choice when the beltline and cardiologist are distant memories.
5865 Westheimer, 77057, (713) 244-9500
In one of the many unassuming and bland strip centers on the western expanse of Westheimer, Colombian Cuisine somehow stands out for its tasty and well prepared food served. This quaint restaurant has been around since 2000, and the preparations and flavors will be recognizable for most local diners and engaging, with steaks, cream sauces, sautéed and caramelized onions, grilled Gulf seafood, and some mild tropical flavors; at the very least for the several straightforward pasta dishes. There is plenty to try here. The lengthy menu is neatly divided among appetizers, ceviches, soups, sancochos, Latin American dishes (including the multi-item Bandeja Paisa sampler), steaks, vegetarian items, chicken breasts, pork loins, shrimp, chicken breast dishes, pastas, quesadillas, fish fillets and entire fish preparations.
13920 Westheimer (between Eldridge and Highway 6) 77077, (281) 584-0437
Fogo de Chau
The first churrascaria to make a splash in Houston, this upscale Brazilian chain does it right with excellent meats served in Brazilian-style cuts by gaucho-clad diners in a very nice, somehow non-kitschy setting. The meats alone are worth the price of admission – which is rather steep – but the salad bar with plenty of non-healthy options is also very tempting. Too tempting for many novices. This restaurant works well for entertaining clients or for just a night of gluttony.
Fogo de Chao
8250 Westheimer (between Voss and Fondren), 77063, (713) 978-6500
This is a small, friendly, unpretentious spot serving well-prepared and hearty portions of fairly inexpensive Colombian fare that has been around for a while. Don’t let the unappealing location in a strip center on a feeder road deter you from visiting. The use of tropical foodstuffs, especially plantains, and the ubiquity of steamed rice as an accompaniment are a couple of the hallmarks of northern Colombian cooking that is shared with the other Latin countries on the Gulf such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and most of the Central American countries that might make dishes seem familiar for many diners. The food is prepared relatively simply, and while it is far less spicy than Mexican cooking, it can be flavorful. Like Colombian Cuisine, whose menu is a bit more extensive, the more extraneous parts of the animals (tongue, liver and intestines) make it into the dishes frequently. These items are well prepared, if you care to venture into these parts.
11630 Southwest Freeway (north of freeway, at Wilcrest) 77036, (281) 575-8736facebook.com/LaFogataRestaurant
This is not only the best of the local South American restaurants and one of the most interesting restaurants in Houston. It began life serving contemporary Peruvian cuisine largely influenced from the multicultural Lima. It changed focus late last year a bit and is now offering the dishes and flavors from across the breadth of South America, though coastal Peru is still at its heart. Even for the most rabid and adventurous diners, friendly and inviting Latin Bites will assuredly offer flavors and preparations that will entice, as well as likely being novel. The often bold flavors are rendered with experience and a deft touch from the kitchen. The presentation and, occasionally, the complexity of the flavors might come as a surprise, especially since there are only two entrées over $30 and an average in lower $20s. With a friendly and inviting vibe, plus interesting cocktails, a visit is almost always enjoyable.
5709 Woodway (at Chimney Rock), 77057, (713) 229-8369
Occupying a small space in a small and unattractive strip center facing a side street in west Houston, Lemon Tree will come as a very pleasant surprise to most diners. Visiting this unassuming, sparsely decorated and obviously family-run restaurant on a random Saturday afternoon you could very well have to wait for a table since the restaurant is packed with members of the local Peruvian community, many drinking from large plastic bottles of distinctly flavored and oddly urine-colored Inca Cola. This is some testament to both the authenticity and quality of the cooking here. Well-prepared, piquant and moderately priced seafood, beef, rice dishes and excellent, vibrant ceviche and cured fish and shellfish are their hallmarks. And, all at wallet-friendly prices, which includes BYOB policy. In somewhat humble surroundings, you can get a hint at why Lima and Peru have made such a gastronomic impression worldwide in the past decade.
12591 Whittington (south of Briar Forest, at Dairy Ashford) 77077, (281) 556-0690
Marini's Empanada House
Marini’s Empanada House, or more properly, The Original Marini’s Empanada House has been around the Houston area off-and-on since 1971. Though it is mostly just empanadas here, the quality of these, and their terrific value merits this duo for inclusion. The first restaurant was on lower Westheimer in Montrose, and then later further down Westheimer, west of the Galleria. Today it’s operated by the offspring of the founding couple. Though its comfortable, well-scrubbed locations in suburban Katy and in the Carillion on Westheimer might not have the funkiness of its previous settings, the empanadas haven’t changed, and are still very good, plus the small counter-service restaurant still exudes a friendly feel.
The empanadas here are made in the Argentine-style with wheat flour dough attractively rolled around any number of ingredients and baked until the sturdy, flavorful crust is golden. The fillings are more American, or more properly, Houstonian in nature, than Argentine. Of the nearly twenty savory empanadas and about the same number of dessert ones, there are ones filled with beef brisket and barbecue sauce, brisket and pickled jalapeños, avocado, broccoli and cheeses, refried beans, apples and cinnamon, and raspberry with cream cheese. Befitting the name Marini, there are a number with identifiably Italian ingredients such as mozzarella, provolone, Italian sausage, pepperoni, basil, tomato and oregano. These are typically all quite tasty. The savory empanadas are divided among those primarily filled with meat, vegetable or cheese, and are served with a side of chimi-churri sauce, which seems to complement each of these.
Marini’s Empanada House
3522 S. Mason (north of Westheimer Parkway) Katy, 77450, (281) 391-4273
10001 Westheimer (between Gessner and the Beltway), 77042, (713) 266-2729
This inexpensive, humble eatery in a Spring Branch strip center serves a wide array of Argentine specialties with empanadas, salads, sandwiches, pastas, pizzas, milanesas and an emphasis on beef dishes from the grill. The steaks can be a very good deal here, a 12-ounce Ribeye and New York Strip are both $18. If you need something to help prime the appetite prior to the steak course, Pampa serves other parrilla favorites like sweatbreads, kidneys, intestines and blood sausage as appetizers. Nicely, this is BYOB.
10111 Hammerly (just east of Gessner), 77080, (713) 722-0666
A comfortable, family-run restaurant in Westchase serving a typical Uruguayan menu, which is lot like a typical Argentine menu, with an emphasis on grilled items. In fact, Saldivia’s serves the best steak for the money in Houston. Most of the steaks are excellent, and many of these preparations featuring somewhat humbler, if still very tasty cuts of steak, give those pricey, national chain steakhouses a run for their money for half the price. Addictive, piquant chimi-churri sauce is a welcome complement to the empanadas, steaks and their tender grilled sweetbreads. This is also a place to try Tannat, the signature grape of Uruguay, which also complements the grilled meats of the regions. Like Malbec and Carmenere, Tannat is a red grape of southwestern French origin that never quite starred as a solo act in its home country, but does well in this tiny country of 3.3 million.
10234 Westheimer (at Seagler), 77042, (713) 782-9494
Tango and Malbec
An upscale Argentine steakhouse in the Galleria area, this has a wide-ranging menu that offers both pricey steaks and chops along with seafood and other items. The steaks include American cuts like a ribeye and filet along with Brazilian and Argentine cuts, some featuring grass-fed Uruguayan beef and also bison, wild boar and elk. A 24-ounce filet mignon is $98 and a favorite Argentine cut, bife de lomo, will set you back $68 for a 16-ounce slice. Befitting the name, there are plenty of wines choices here – maybe more from the southern continent than elsewhere in the city – including Malbecs, of course, and other meat-friend South American bottles, but also Riojas, Nebbiolos and Tuscan wines that also go quite well with grilled meats.
Tango and Malbec
2800 Sage (at W. Alabama), 77056, (713) 629-8646