16 Oct 2018
I had the privileged to be introduced to Executive Chef David Cordua two years ago. My old neighbors, a couple from St. Louis and Nicaragua, told me David is someone I should know within the Houston food community.
We seem to have hit it off over our common love for Houston. The diversity that our city evokes tends to fuel our passion for food and adventure within city limits and beyond. At the time, David was the Executive Chef at America’s River Oaks. Him and his father played a big role, if not the most important role, in introducing the Churrasco and Chimichurri to the Houston community via their restaurants. Herds of Houston foodies would flock towards Churrascos, a South American grill restaurant, and America’s, a higher-end South American restaurant to indulge in well-prepared meats and gallons of the newly introduced Chimichurri.
Recently, I spoke to David and asked him if he would sit down with me to answer a couple questions for our audience. I wanted to share with foodies everywhere what a Churrasco is. We now see the term thrown around from Brazilian steakhouses to Mexican joints. I figured a little light on the matter could help us understand what we’re actually ordering at our favorite steak houses, and who better to ask than a Churrasco master himself.
The following was recorded and transcribed for the audience experience. Below the Q/A are references to items mentioned and where you can get some of the mentioned products in the Houston area.
Chef David Cordua is now the Executive Chef and owner of David and Michael Cordua Hospitality in Houston, Texas. David’s family got into the Churrasco game in the late 80s. Both his parents hail from Nicaragua. His father’s uncle opened a Churrasceria in the late 50s in Nicaragua which later flooded into Miami. Michael Cordua spearheaded the openings of many Churrascos and America’s in the greater Houston area. David graduated from culinary school and loved the restaurant industry, which in turn placed him in the spotlight of the Houston food community and US.
David jokes here and says he has smelled like Chimichurri for the latter part of his life.
[AXEL]: What is a Churrasco and where does the term originate? And please explain why it is not called bife-I’m curious myself.
[David]: The best way I describe Churrasco is synonymous with the way Americas use the term BBQ. If you go to a backyard party in the Northern part of the US and they’re grilling burgers and steaks, they call that a BBQ. That would be laughable in the South. As we know, that is not BBQ. As we know BBQ in the South is meat that is cooked low and slow. The terminology comes from cooking over coals or over wood. Churrasco is a similar term. It really means grilled meat. Just like BBQ in the US, depending on where you are in that country, there might be a slightly different cut of beef, or slightly different cooking method. One of the universal factor that is shared is that it’s cooked over an open flame.
[AXEL]: So I guess you’re saying that Churrasco can mean many things like BBQ does, but it doesn’t just mean steak?
[David]: No it doesn’t mean steak necessarily. The way we use the term in Nicaragua is a particular way of butterflying meat and we use Churrasco for pork tenderloin, chicken, or swordfish. But the Nicaraguan Churrasco traditionally is beef tenderloin. Churrasco in Brazil it’s a cut called Picanha, which is rolled and skewered and put over an open flame. In Argentina, Churrasco typically means Vacio or Steak.
[AXEL]: We can both agree that most Central and South American countries have some sort of Chimichurri version they lay claim to. My question to you is, what about the Churrasco? Nicaraguan Churrasco versus Brazilian Churrasco? I’ve heard that a Churrasco is skewered and I’ve heard it is butterflied. Right/wrong?
[David]: It’s typically a different variation around the cut of meat over an open flame. But the other universal factor is that I’ve never encounter a Churrasco that doesn’t include Chimichurri.
[AXEL]: Is the distinction between Churrasco and its origins solely about technique or who claimed it first?
[David]: It gets tricky in North and South America when you talk about origins because there were many people here previous to Europeans, even though Europeans claim many of these techniques. I believe that some of the first BBQs documented were by Columbus in the Caribbean. He saw Native Americans making grills out of bamboo and throwing fish on there. Origin stories are a bit more difficult, what has evolved is that each of these countries have their own version of Churrasco. The one from Nicaragua is actually very interesting. There was an Argentine polo player that moved to Nicaragua to be an instructor. He brought with him Chimichurri and wanted to replicate the Vacio cut. For those who don’t know, the Vacio cut is essentially Skirt Steak. It is the muscle closest to the diaphragm that divides the breast from the abdomen. It is typically used in the US for fajita meat. Instead of using the Skirt Steak in Nicaragua, he would use beef tenderloin and butterfly it. This would mimic the Skirt Steak, but was a lot tenderer.
That’s what my family brought to the US with our first Churrasco restaurant.
[AXEL]: You’ve mentioned this a couple of times, but can you explain for those who don’t know, what is the butterfly technique? And is that a defining technique in the Nicaraguan or South American cuisine?
[David]: It’s specific to the tenderloin. In Nicaragua, it’s not really cut down the middle like a butterfly opening its wings, rather cut to unroll like a jellyroll. If you can imagine taking a cinnamon roll and unrolling it-it’s essentially like that so you’re left with a rectangle.
[AXEL]: Why do you think that became the technique?
[David]: It was to mimic the Skirt Steak. And if you think about it, you’re increasing the surface area that gets in contact with the grill, the flame, and Chimichurri—giving it more flavor. Lastly, you’re making it tenderer by cutting through the muscle fibers making it a steak that you can essentially cut with a fork.
[AXEL]: Being in Texas, steak houses are big for us. Would you urge someone to go to a Brazilian, Argentine, Nicaraguan, or Texas steak house? I think they’re all completely different, but what would you suggest if you had to pick one?
[David]: I would say all of the above. I think what you would find in Houston specifically is the Nicaraguan Churrasco at Churrascos and America’s and the Argentine restaurants Sal y Pimienta Kitchen and Tango and Malbec. Nothing against the Brazilian steakhouse, but those can be found all over the US—there are many of those. I think an authentic Argentine or Nicaraguan steakhouse is a little more unique. But I think being in Texas we have some of the most classic steak houses in the country, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Vic and Anthony’s, Mastro’s Steakhouse and Steak 48. Those are some of the highest grossing restaurants in the city.
The American steakhouses and the cuts they use really stem from two places, and it has to do with the cattle railroads. Going from Texas, stop in Chicago and end up in New York. So what we know about the American steakhouses really have origins in those places. Like Gibsons in Chicago, Peter Lugers in Brooklyn, NY. Those are the places that created the cuts that we know in the US. The Rib eye, the Porterhouse, the Strip Steak. Those are really the granddaddies.
So to answer your question which one do I recommend, the answer is all of them. As much meat sweats as you can handle.
[AXEL]: What’s the best way for a foodie to prepare and cook a Churrasco? From what type of meat to use, the condiments and cooking style.
[David]: The cut of meat is a matter of preference, as is the condiment. There is a variety of Chimichurri recipes ranging from using fresh herbs and garlic to using dried herbs, dried chilis, dried powered garlic. It’s really a matter of delving into one of the cultures individually before trying to mix and match. So if you want to be authentic to Argentina, you’ll be looking into Asado de Tira, Ojo de Bife, or the Vacio.
[AXEL]: Sure, but for a home-cook or pit master reading this, what cut should they begin with? Most of my friends would pick up a Sirloin or Rib eye, but if they think Churrasco or Latin America, which one should they buy and pair with?
[David]: For me it would be beef tenderloin. Butterflying it open, basing it with Chimichurri lightly. Grilling it three quarters on one side to get a nice char, and barley kissing it on the other side and then letting it rest for at least half the cooking time. But honestly one of my personal favorites is using a really, really good quality Skirt Steak. Something like a Wagyu Skirt Steak is incredible. Other butcher-type cuts butchers use to just save for themselves. The Flat Iron as well. Really, any cut can be treated like a Churrasco if it’s grilled over an open flame and uses Chimichurri as its main marinade and condiment.
[AXEL]: And a classic side dish and wine you can recommend as well?
[David]: Malbec, Malbec and Malbec. 100%. And that’s universal across all countries. It’s what is associated with Churrasco.
Sides. A combination of grilled and pickled vegetables. Black beans, rice and obviously French fries. When you have that much rich meat, pickled vegetables cut through that and balance out the dish like vinaigrette would. One part acid, three parts fat. In some of our restaurants, and because I have a back ground in French cuisine, we incorporate French sauces as a compliment to the Chimichurri. The Chimichurri is really kind of like the base element in all of it.
[AXEL]: It’s really like the salt and pepper for South Americans
[AXEL]: Word. Well is there anything else you would like to add?
[David]: I would say start off by buying an AXEL Provisions Chimichurri or make your own. And start there. One warning though, never, ever ever, sauté with Chimichurri. It is to be done with a grill. Any grill works. If it fries in its own oil, the herbs tend to get bitter. But yeah, start with a cut of meat or a nice Italian or Argentine sausage. I think that’s where the Churrasco story really starts—with Chimichurri. It’s the unifying factor other than grilling over an open flame.
END OF Q/A
I hope you enjoyed the quick Q/A and some light was shed on your favorite South American meat. For any comments and questions, please feel free to reach out to any of us. You can use discount code CHEFDAVIDCORDUA at checkout for 40% off your next AXEL Provisions order on www.axelprovisions.com.
If you’re in the Houston area, do us a favor and try some of the restaurants listed above for an authentic time with great food. If you’re in metropolitan cities of Texas and you’d like to cook you own Churrasco or Picanha, you can visit our local favorites Texas Start Grill Shop or Central Market for all your meat and saucey needs.
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