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Around the year 1800, European immigrants who'd settled in the southern Brazilian grasslands of Rio Grande do Sul, bordering Argentina and Uruguay, developed a cooking style to match their lifestyle of herding cattle. First they would build a campfire and allow the fire to burn down to coals. Then they'd spear various prime beef cuts (on swords, according to romantic legend, but maybe just on skewers fashioned from green branches) and stick the spiked meat around the burning coals. Vertical cooking allowed the meat to baste itself as melted fat from top pieces drained down to pieces below. It also allowed the gauchos (the same word is used in Brazil and Argentina) to continue working while cooking. Occasionally, though, an appointed chef would rotate the skewers to cook all sides, as in a rotisserie. Hence the term rodizio.
When the meat was done, it was served directly from the swords, sliced off in thin pieces with the conventional knives gauchos carried on their belts. Swords and knives? These historic Latin cowboys apparently toted around as much weaponry on their horses as today's Miamians do in their glove compartments. The Brazilian tradition continues in Miami's contemporary rodizio restaurants, such as the new Miami de Brazil, opened six months ago in a building next to Loehmann's Fashion Island that formerly housed Perry's American Steakhouse.
The scary serving style, in fact, is what most distinguishes Brazilian rodizio restaurants from Argentine parillas. In both the main meat is beef; it is cooked by grilling over coals; and it is all-you-can-eat, served up until the diner reaches the bursting point. Parrillada, however, is brought to your table as food normally is -- on plates. In rodizio restaurants, a continuous parade of servers marches from table to table, armed with wooden-handled scimitars of steak (plus sausages, poultry, pork, lamb, usually a side of salmon as a sop to noncarnivores, and sometimes grilled vegetables or fruits), carving off unlimited quantities of everything. In self-defense, patrons are armed with color-coded coasters. Turning up the green surface means yes (sim, in Brazilian Portuguese) to more meat; red is the "just say nao" side.
While rodizio is quite the current craze elsewhere in the U.S.A. -- an outgrowth of the general steak-house revival catalyzed by Atkins and other low-carb dieting trends -- it's been a familiar dining style here in northern Latin America for well over a decade. Compared with the venerable Porcao in the Brickell area, Miami de Brazil is less formidable, as all newcomer rodizio eateries tend to be. But this is not necessarily negative. Porcao's multiple rooms, for instance, feature rather elegant décor with a masculine, clubby feel. Miami de Brazil's cheerful blond knotty pine paneling, in contrast, evokes a giant New Jersey rec room -- which makes the open, expansive space a fabulous place to go with a big, boisterous crowd of your most party-hearty friends. An additional inducement to bringing along a crowd is Miami de Brazil's tab. The dinner prix fixe for the meat extravaganza plus unlimited servings from a buffet of salads and sides (standard at all rodizio restaurants) is a mere $19.99, compared with Porcao's $36.90.
That said, Miami de Brazil's buffet is comparatively limited. At Porcao, as at most rodizio restaurants in Brazil, there is a sushi selection. (You may have thought Brazilian/Japanese restaurant Sushi Samba Dromo was a New York/Miami oddity, but Brazil in recent years has become a nation of sushi addicts.) Miami de Brazil has none, making the meal deal considerably less attractive to noncarnivores. There's also no customary hot buffet of pastas and casseroles -- particularly disappointing for feijoada fans. Miami de Brazil does offer feijoada, Brazil's succulent signature black-bean-and-mixed-meat stew, but only for brunch on Saturday and Sunday.
Most reviews advise rodizio novices that the buffet is mainly meant to fill them up (as is the later sequencing of meats, which almost always begins with cheaper cuts), thereby saving restaurants money. But some of Miami de Brazil's cold buffet items were definitely worth sampling. Peel-and-eat shrimp, for example, were fresh and perfectly cooked, with no nasty tinge of iodine. The accompanying cocktail sauce was bland, but a bowl of horseradish was available to spice things up. The mozzarella in a caprese salad was wonderful milky stuff that tasted homemade, and on one of my two visits, the tomatoes were even ripe. One of a pair of green salads featured organic mesclun. Raisin-studded salpicao (Brazilian chicken salad), named for its topping of shoestring potatoes, was fun even though it included celery, which is not a vegetable much used in Brazil, and did not include this dish's customary green apples. Neither did Brazilian potato salad contain apples, as it should have.
Come to think of it, the most intriguingly named salad mentioned on the menu, Green Apple Explosion, was not on the table during either visit. To compensate for the letdown, I ordered a caipirinha, which does not include green apples but did contain enough cachaca -- industrial-strength unrefined sugar cane brandy -- to be very explosive.
The rest of the buffet was essentially overdone with vinegar or underwhelming generally. So-called crab salad was made from surimi, undressed corn kernels and garbanzos, canned beets and hearts of palm. And though the crusty rolls weren't bad, they weren't the pliant pao de queijo (cheese bread) that rodizio regulars crave. But do grab a couple of bowls of typical Brazilian barbecue accompaniments for the meat to come: farofa (fried manioc flour, which tasted like spiced sawdust alone but when meat chunks were rolled in it, proved an interesting cross between condiment and breading), and chunk-style "Brazilian vinaigrette" with tomatoes, onion, and peppers. There's chimichurri too, but it was vinegary enough to make my throat close up. Another caipirinha, please.
In the grand protein procession that followed, several meats mentioned on the menu did not march. Chicken hearts, not available at either meal, I frankly didn't miss. Chicken wings and pork loin, I did. Leg of lamb, which appeared the first time but not the second, was good if gamy. Pork ribs, a no-show during my first visit, were falling-off-the-bone tender when they finally arrived tableside -- after much prodding of servers and a 45-minute wait. No wood-smoke flavor, though, was discernible. Salmon, too, was pleasantly soft but didn't taste grilled.
Of the skewered nonbeef items that made regular rounds, chicken breast kebabs were dry, like most white-meat poultry parts grilled skinless. And linguiça was a lesson in national differences. I was expecting the linguiça one finds in Portugal, similar to Spanish chorizo. So I was shocked at the Brazilian sausages' smooth texture. Rather than being lumpy and studded with fat, they resembled highly seasoned mini hot dogs.
Steak naturally starred, but rare-meat lovers should be warned that Brazilian gauchos, like their Argentine counterparts, prefer their meat more thoroughly cooked. Garlic beef, an intensely marinated flank cut, came medium. So did filet mignon tournedos, which were tender but quite depleted of moistness despite a bacon wrapping. Fraldinha (skirt steak) was juicier because of its own internal fat marbling, but cooked well-done. My advice is to hold out for the picanha, a Brazilian cut most closely corresponding to U.S. top-sirloin cap, and the only steak that could be cooked to order. When a first round came around well-done, a desperate blurt of "Bleu!" brought a succeeding skewer of custom-sliced sirloin that was full of juice and grilled savor, and at least medium rare. And then another skewer. And another. And another. And it was very good, especially followed by a fudgy, soufflé-like, dark-chocolate cake for dessert -- and a few more caipirinhas.