I have been very, very spoiled in the past when it comes to churrascaria, or Brazilian barbecue. I didn't realize how spoiled until I visited the new Brazeiro Steakhouse in Scottsdale's Fashion Square. But more on that place in a moment.
You see, fortune has heretofore led my belly to some outstanding rodizio joints, rodizio being the all-you-can-inhale chophouse concept imported from the land of those eponymous nuts and bikinis the width of piano wire. The idea is simple enough. Pay a fixed price, and an endless parade of fellows in the billowing pantaloons of the South American cowboy, better known as a gaucho, will bear skewers of beef, lamb and chicken to your table and slice you off a portion.
This carnivore caravan keeps coming as long as you turn a little wooden fetish called a sinal up so that its green side is showing. Red is for when you want to take a break. In addition to the heavily salted and spiced viands, there's usually a buffet of salads and other Brazilian dishes present upon which you're welcome to graze endlessly. Still, meat's the main attraction at a rodizio, and eager flesh fanatics can consume 'til bursting.
The best rodizios I've eaten at were smaller and independently owned. The buffets were filled with savory, sub-equatorial treats, and the walls were draped with everything from the Brazilian flag and portraits of famous soccer stars to silver stirrups, leather saddles and other ranching implements and curios. Sadly, my visits to Brazeiro made me pine for such homey eateries like Rush Limbaugh must certainly lust after swimming pools filled with OxyContin.
It's not that Brazeiro is horrible, but rather that it suffers by comparison. If you'd never had sushi before, you might think Todai is better than a round-trip ticket to Tokyo. But if you've been to Hiro Sushi in Scottsdale, you know that Todai offers bland, corporate sushi, albeit at a cut-rate price.
Brazeiro, then, is the Todai of Brazilian barbecue. For a reasonable prix fixe of $28.50 for dinner, you get unlimited access to a large, well-stocked salad bar, and as much meat as you can eat from Brazeiro's baggy-pants servers. This is actually not a bad deal, if you stick to the buffet and certain items of the rodizio.
The salad bar is of fairly high quality, similar to the sort of buffet you'll get at a three-star hotel on Mother's Day, with fresh shrimp, green mussels, hearts of palm, deviled eggs, asparagus, prosciutto and tuna salad. There are usually two or three hot-plate items, like broiled salmon or tilapia, or fish or chicken in a yellowish-orange Brazilian sauce that tastes similar to curry. There are also different cheeses and the regular makings of American-style salad. And next to the hot plates there's a big bowl of farofa, a traditional Brazilian condiment made of toasted manioc (i.e., yuca root) flour which one sprinkles over black beans and rice like breadcrumbs.
What was a disappointment for me was that, save for the farofa, the hearts of palm, and the occasional hot-plate item such as chicken stroganoff (an Old World standard of almost every churrascaria salad bar), there seemed to be a distinct lack of the traditional items I've come to expect. The absence of large trays of yuca, and of those delicious fried balls of salt cod known as bolinhos de bacalhau, was almost shocking.
To be fair, our server eventually brought my party a tiny sampling of yuca fries, beef empanadas, fried polenta and frittered chunks of bananas, but other than the bananas, these were dry and unappetizing. It seemed a poor lip service to the real deal, where these foods would normally be offered as part of the buffet. We were also provided with one bowl of white rice and a bowl of Brazilian-style black beans. These were adequate if not outstanding, but why so stingy with something as common as rice and beans?
Then there was the colossal dissatisfaction engendered by Brazeiro's pitiful excuse for pao de queijo, those chewy, filling Brazilian cheese-bread balls that are a de rigueur part of the churrascaria experience. At Brazeiro, these were so hard on my first visit, I amused my dinner companions by knocking one of the bread balls against the china to the tune of Clair de Lune. Brazeiro should be embarrassed by the poor quality of these pao, and perhaps it is, because instead of being part of the buffet, you're only brought a small handful of them in a breadbasket.
Even the skewered meat, the star attraction of any rodizio house, left a lot to be desired. On the whole, the beef -- whether top sirloin or prime rib -- was first-rate, and was as good as what you'd get at any American surf-and-turf spot. One exception to this rule was the filet mignon wrapped in bacon. The smidgen of filet mignon was totally overpowered by the remnants of Porky Pig, so much so it might as well have been all hog. Another exception: the beef ribs, which were so gristly with fat I had to spit them out into my cloth napkin.
When the pork loin came around, it tasted like canvas, the sausage was so dry and overcooked it was inedible, the chicken thighs were as tough as jerky and the lamb tasted so gamy that only a prodigious amount of mint jelly was able to obscure that foul flavor. The one time I asked for chicken hearts (on a lunch run), they didn't have them, and I didn't see any of the Parmesan-encrusted chunks of swine I've delighted in at other Brazilian places.
Happily, dessert provided sweet reprieve from the inferior rodizio. There were a dozen cakes, puddings and so on at $5 a pop, and several of them were of Brazilian origin. My favorite Amazonian treat wasn't represented: bolo de mandioca, a cassava cake that can taste almost as thick and rich as a cheesecake if prepared properly. However, I adored the sinfully syrupy coconut flan, as well as the manjar branco, a fruity, coconut custard that sent my blood sugar soaring into the stratosphere. Why, I wonder, can't Brazeiro be as authentic with its regular buffet?
I can't complain about the service, which was fawningly attentive, but there was a distinct lack of atmosphere. Other than a few oil paintings of agrarian scenes and gauchos grilling their grub, the vast, spacious interior was upscale yet dull, like a Vegas buffet hall or the banquet room where the local Lions Club holds its awards dinners. Even the wooden sinal I described above was replaced with a paper coaster that was red on one side, green on the other.
I'm told the restaurant will be offering live Brazilian music on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as other incentives to get people in the door, like a half-price happy hour and Brazilian vacation giveaways, but until the management fixes certain fundamental flaws, Brazeiro's guests will be getting only a watered-down Rio, at best.
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