Villa Roma’s Italian offerings may be popular, but the meat of the matter is on the Argentine side of the menu—and at the deli and market next door
While nothing equals the all-you-can-eat meat-a-palooza of a Brazilian churrasco, the Argentine beef bender at Laguna Hills’ Villa Roma called Parrillada Para Dos comes pretty darned close. Though you do have the option to sub a salad or a side of steamed vegetables for their roasted spuds, that would be a sissy move. The only green you need to see is the gravy boat of chimichurri, a blend of olive oil, garlic, parsley, lemon juice and spices. The rest is a dinner so brazenly macho it bleeds testosterone.
Start with the meats that are easiest to digest: the flap and skirt steak, two lean cuts browned with a gorgeous charred crust, leading to a pink center of carnal chewiness as satisfying as sin. It eats like a fajita platter without all the distractions. Then there’s the short rib, which will remind you of Korean kalbi, except it’s three times thicker. You gnash and gnaw around the bones, tearing away mouthfuls of sinew and muscle, trembling at the rush of melted fat that gushes from hidden corners. Same with the chorizo, which is homemade, seasoned to be saltier than bacon and stuffed into natural casing next door at their carnicería. All are presented tableside on a showy, hibachi-like grill that actually serves a practical purpose: to prevent the fat from congealing halfway through the meal.
If you’ve made it this far, blood sausage and sweetbreads await. Gather up your machismo for them, as they aren’t for the squeamish. The blood sausage turns into a sticky black paste that violates your mouth like an iron-y, liver-flavored yogurt. The sweetbreads, though flattened and cooked to a crisp, still have a lumpy, alien texture that squeaks under your teeth and a presence that is unmistakably offal.
I couldn’t finish them, focusing instead on the perfectly golden, crunchy cubes of potatoes, blasted with enough rosemary and salt that each bite made me yearn for another.
The rest of Villa Roma’s menu is standard Italian, which is as much a staple of the Argentine diet as beef. Full of parmigiana this and scallopini that, it’s not anywhere near as bold as the items from the Argentine grill. A plate of linguine alla pescatora was just workaday noodles and seafood in white-wine sauce, which is to say boring—nothing that I haven’t had before or better at every other Italian joint.
Even the Italian desserts don’t seem as good as the Argentine ones. Their panqueques quemados al ron—crepes rolled to the length of a Cuban cigar, filled with dulce de leche, then crusted over with burned sugar and rum—easily bests their spumoni.
The Italian side of the menu features more than 80 percent of the offerings, so it’s usually the choice of nearly all who come here in droves. Friday nights are bustling and chaotic. The waiters, who are outnumbered 20-to-1, will most likely ignore you as they attend to rows of reserved tables lined up end-to-end, with well-dressed parties swilling wine, slurping up pasta and having lively chats. Sometime during our meal, I think I heard “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” playing over the speakers, but it was drowned out by Spanish chatter and laughter.
More relaxed and leisurely is the scene at Villa Roma’s aforementioned deli and market next door. On weekend mornings, men greet one another with kisses on the cheek. Everyone seems to know everyone else.
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Here, you can order just about everything available at the restaurant, but without all the hullaballoo. That short rib from the Parrillada? Topped with two fried eggs, it’s now called breakfast. Or take in a puffy empanada stuffed with chicken, beef, spinach, or ham and cheese. They’re a few cents cheaper on this side of the wall. Plus, there’s something quaint about hanging out at a table near the butcher’s case, sipping coffee, watching soccer and biting into delicate sandwiches de miga, made from crustless white bread. Either lightly toasted or served cold, the best one is the simplest, with chopped olives, sliced hard-boiled eggs and a slice of cheese.
If you’re really hungry, there’s the milanesa. Halfway between a Mexican torta and a Cuban sandwich, it features steak pounded thin, breaded and deep fried, optionally stacked with ham and melted cheese, all under a sturdy hoagie roll. Even if your mouth is full, you should probably clap when the soccer announcer yells, “GOOOOOOAALLL!”
Villa Roma, 25254 La Paz Rd., Ste. A, Laguna Hills, (949) 454-8585; www.villaromarest.com. Call for hours. Dinner for two, $30-$50, food only; lunch sandwiches, $7-$10. Full bar.