Al Punto celebrates the Pampas5/1/2019
The most popular order is the Gaucho Experience.
Al Punto is the first Argentine restaurant in central Iowa in a couple decades. It’s close to being the most thoroughly Argentine steakhouse experience one can find in North America. Housed in a venue that was most recently Saison but most famously Mustard’s, it features table cloths covered with paper, Argentine flags and tango music. What truly gives one the feeling of being near the land of Gardel, Maradona and Messi, though, are the piles of wood by the front door. All meats here are cooked with red oak and olive woods on a parrillada, a grill that has beveled grill tops, so that fats stay on the grill rather than burning on the fire.
Though the grill is out of sight in the kitchen, it dominates the ambiance of the restaurant. Red oak and olive woods burn with distinctive aromas. Several chefs have told me in the last couple years that red oak is the best wood for cooking fish. At Al Punto, flames reach several inches above the grill, and meats cook quickly.
Thankfully, one Argentine tradition is not passed here. Almost all beef of the Pampas, in Uruguay and south Brazil as well as Argentina, is free ranged and grass fed. That makes it much leaner than corn-finished beef of Iowa. In the era of Paleo thinking, the fat is where the flavor lurks. Beef here is sourced from Brewer Foods, the best source of beef to most of the butchers and chefs I talk to. Veal is sourced from the remarkable Strauss Farms, a collective of free range, red veal farmers and ranchers, mostly in Wisconsin. I have visited two Strauss farms and was impressed with the lifestyle their calves have. (Strauss is a preferred source for Whole Foods veal, too.)
Al Punto’s Basque owner/chef Marc Navailles told us that the veal kidneys and sweetbreads he gets from Strauss are as good as any he’s ever had in France or Spain. He offers half orders of both to encourage more first timers to bite. Ours, particularly the sweetbreads, were the best things we tried.
The most popular order here is the Gaucho Experience, a bargain at $29.95. It includes asado de tira (short ribs), Argentine sausage, lomo (a skewer of beef tenderloin), vacio (hangar steak), churrasco (skirt steak), and a cutlet of chicken breast. Also included in this dinner are empanadas (beef), garlic potatoes, grilled sweet red peppers (whole), a dish of chimichurri sauce (like de Burgo with parsley instead of basil) and choice of appetizers. The most popular appetizer is deviled eggs in salmon salad. My favorite was Russian potato salad with shrimp. Other choices are Caesar salad, iceberg wedge salad with blue cheese, and the curiously named grill vegetables carpaccio.
Seafood options included Atlantic salmon in lemon butter, fire grilled octopus from Spain, Argentine giant prawns, and grilled sea bass, also known as Patagonian tooth fish. Milanesa (chicken fried steak) is topped with egg and tomato passata, which is a puree of uncooked tomatoes strained of seeds. In addition to the meats on the Gaucho Experience, the restaurant also offers “hanging tenders” (best part of the hangar steak), 16-ounce New York cuts, 40-ounce tomahawk steaks, and 16-ounce ribeyes.
A surprisingly large number of families and early birds have been attending when I visited. I guess there are Paleo kids as well as adults. The wine list is mostly Argentine, then European and Californian. We found a delightful Monestrell from Mendoza. This is the red grape in Spanish cava, but it stands well on its own.
Caveats: 1. If you like your beef rare, make sure your waiter knows because some cuts of beef can become well done in two beats of tango; 2. Don’t come here if you are not prepared to eat like Maradona. There are no sandwich options. ♦
Jim Duncan has been covering the central Iowa food scene for more than two decades.
6611 University Ave., Windsor Heights
Tuesday – Saturday, 4:30-10 p.m., Sunday 4:30-8 p.m.