Gaucho Meats Cowboy
Texas and Brazil are both sizable, sun-drenched territories inhabited by cattle, cowboys, and proud, beef-eating people with hearty appetites. Makes sense, then, that the Texas de Brazil Churrascaria chain would post its first restaurant in the Lone Star state. That was in 1998; there are now seven such Brazilian steak houses nationwide, the most recent opening early this year in the Dolphin Mall. I don't like to toot my own horn, but I've lived in South Florida for close to twelve years now and had never been to this megalithic shopping center. My first impression, from the parking lot, was that it looked like it was designed specifically for Shaq, to make the big guy feel at home. "If you build it, he will come ... eventually."
Actually the 450-seat Texas de Brazil is so grand in scope it might even make Shaq feel small. The lofty, cylindrical restaurant has two levels separated by enough space that an elevator brings patrons up and down and features curved, blood-red walls with bright, red-hued modern artworks upon them. In the middle of the room is a large rectangular salad bar with a tree-size floral spray sprouting from the center. White linen-topped tables encircle the salad bar, and the outer perimeter houses a bar, small lounge area, wooden wine racks, and a glassed-in kitchen where skewered meats spin, sizzle, and smoke above a roaring flame pit.
Texas de Brazil is all about mesquite-smoked meats, and diners will react accordingly. Those who enjoy indulging in prodigious portions of such will be in hog heaven (also cow heaven, lamb heaven, and chicken heaven). Vegetarians, dieters, and diners who don't wish to consume the equivalent of a large farm animal in one sitting probably won't sing this churrascaria's praises (though they may not be able to resist humming the Texas de Brazil theme song, a catchy tune piped into the restrooms). Some restaurants offer a dining experience that is more than the sum of its parts, others less. But this is one of those rare places where the individual components really do add up, like a jigsaw puzzle, to the whole picture.
ONE type of bread: After a little number crunching, my dining companion and I determined that each ball of deliciously rich Brazilian cheese bread ingested equaled one portion of meat that later would not be, which is likely the whole point of serving cheese bread to begin with. Even knowing this, it was difficult to stop eating them.
THREE HUNDRED FIFTY-plus bottles of wine, with an emphasis on American and Latin American labels; 22 selections offered by the glass.
FORTY salad bar items: Most fresh, not canned, and wisely composed of one or two ingredients, which makes them conducive to mixing and matching to individual tastes. There is, indeed, something for everyone: thick, meaty asparagus spears; kalamata olives; fresh balls of bufala mozzarella; grilled portobello mushrooms; marinated artichoke bottoms; prosciutto and Italian salamis; havarti and manchego cheeses, as well as chunks of parmigiano; zesty tabouleh; delectably eggy potato salad (admirably the only mayonnaise-based selection); baked salmon; shrimp ceviche; and spicy surimi sushi. Chafing dishes on the bar are stocked with jasmine rice, soupy black beans with pork, and soupier soup of the day, which often seems to be tomato-basil.
FOURTEEN meats: Each cut pierced by a giant skewer and lugged from table to table by roaming gauchos with sharp knives. Temperatures range from medium-rare to medium-well (extremes available upon request), but we weren't asked how we preferred the meats cooked, nor told the doneness before having it sliced upon our plates. Gauchos weren't very communicative, but service was otherwise efficient.
From best to wurst: Fantastically full-flavored lamb chops; smoky, meaty, pork ribs slathered in barbecue sauce; succulent, signature picanha (the top of the top sirloin); tender, fat-streaked short ribs of beef; juicy, herb-marinated loin of pork; chicken breast moistly wrapped in bacon; thick wedge of ruby-red flank steak; salt-crusted sirloin of beef; likewise salty parmesan-crusted pork loin and chicken legs, which tasted too much like Shake N Bake; bacon-wrapped filet mignon that was well done, as in overcooked; and garlic-laden linguiça (Brazilian sausage). There were no blood sausages or sweetbreads, which I suppose is the downside of play-it-safe family restaurant chains (speaking of which, children seven to twelve years of age dine here for half price, under six for free).
Leg of lamb, my favorite of the menu's meats, never made it our way -- until, that is, we were in the midst of dessert, at which point I glared at the poor soul carrying it past me. Perhaps he had been by earlier, while my circular signal card had been turned to red -- the universal churrascaria symbol of surrender (at least temporarily). Flip to the green side and hordes of gauchos will surge toward your table; quickly flick the card back to red and they'll freeze in their tracks and go the other way, just like those grizzly Vikings in that credit-card commercial on television.
TWO side dishes: Accompanying every dinner are dense garlic-mashed potatoes and cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted sweet plantains, which our waiter suggested we utilize as a "palate cleanser between meats." A fried plantain intermezzo? Boy, these gauchos are rugged!
EIGHT desserts: Presented tableside on a tray for the diners' perusal, and including chocolate mousse cake, bananas Foster pie, and caramel cheesecake, which was fresh, creamy, and lavishly portioned -- though I assume when the meat parade has ceased, most diners share these huge wedges. Brazilian papaya cream, a blend of the fruit with vanilla ice cream, came served in a wine glass into which our waiter began pouring crme de cassis, advising me to "say when." Well, having never tasted this particular dessert, I wasn't really certain when to say "when." I waited about three seconds, or in hindsight, about two seconds too long. Otherwise it was a pleasant-tasting pudding, though they really ought to consider presenting a plate of fresh fruit or sorbet after such a weighty meal.
$38.50: Price for dinner and salad bar.
$19.99: Salad bar only.
$60.00: Dinner with coffee, dessert, tax, and automatic fifteen-percent gratuity.
$70.00-plus: With wine or a predinner caipirinha.
Total: Texas de Brazil Churrascaria is what it is, and does what it does rather well.
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