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Steak in the Heart

Grill of your dreams: Chef Marco Moretti, left, and manager Mario Tamariz serve some juicy picanha.
Jackie Mercandetti

Now I'm really stumped about how those girls from Ipanema get away with wearing the scandalous scraps of spandex that pass for bikinis in Brazil.

I have a sneaking suspicion that bootylicious ladies get much more appreciation in that culture than in ours, but still — while American gals are trolling the aisles of Target in search of the perfect beach cover-up, shops in Rio are doing a brisk business in butt-floss. What gives? Did they beat Dr. Atkins to the punch on figuring out the protein diet?

Yeah, I think so — probably by a few centuries. Or at least their gaucho ancestors did. The South American equivalent of cowboys, gauchos still roam the pampas on horseback, herding cattle and living on the open range. Not surprisingly, they eat a heck of a lot of beef and have perfected a style of barbecue called churrasco.

Head to a modern-day churrascaria — a traditional Brazilian steakhouse — and you'll be dazzled by the sheer quantity of meat they pile on your plate. I recently visited one in north Scottsdale called Rio Sabor Brazil, and I filled up on enough animal flesh to tide me over at least a week of salads. (Which didn't happen, of course, although I had the best of intentions.)

The place was an all-you-can-eat bonanza. On the way there, my dining companion joked that she loves restaurants where the menu is "yes" or "no." I liked the idea of it, too, but somehow, I thought I'd be able to exercise restraint in the midst of unlimited food. Little did I know that it's more like "stop" and "go," and it's hard to put the brakes on good steak.

My self-discipline started to evaporate right around the time that we walked into the dining room, where we could see into the kitchen through a window. The smoky aroma of everything sizzling on the huge grill struck me right in the nostrils, and I was stunned at how close I came to drooling. As soon as we were seated, my quote-worthy friend piped up as a waiter passed by carrying a skewer of beef as big as a sword.

"I feel like we're in the Atkins VIP room," she said, giggling. All around us, I saw people grabbing at the meat with little tongs as waiters sliced pieces onto their plates. And I didn't witness any evidence of vegetable consumption.

Then, our waiter brought us our first round of caipirinhas, those now-trendy Brazilian cocktails made with cacha#231a (distilled liquor made from sugar cane juice), sugar, and fresh lime juice. They have a similar appeal to a mojito, minus the mint. Rio Sabor's caipirinhas were perfectly balanced — just tart enough to be refreshing, just sweet enough to be smooth.

We nibbled on a plate of traditional accompaniments — sweet fried bananas, doughy fried cheese puffs, and crisp chunks of polenta — before hitting up the buffet. They were really good, and gone before we knew it.

Rio Sabor doesn't offer the biggest buffet in town, nor the flashiest. Consistent with the relaxed atmosphere and friendly service there, the offerings were quite homey, with plates of chicken salad and potato-egg salad lined up alongside typical salad bar veggies and dressings. It wasn't a particularly memorable spread, although the roasted beets and marinated portobello and eggplant dishes were tasty.

Across the room, the hot buffet had several gut-filling options, including standard black beans and rice, dry-ish chicken in a tangy cream sauce, decent cheese ravioli, and moist salmon topped with red onions. If it weren't for the main attraction — steak — there's no reason to go out of your way to get there. Honestly, I wondered if it was all a distraction intended to make us fill up before the grand meat procession. That definitely didn't turn out to be the case.

We encountered a handful of waiters at Rio Sabor, and they were all friendly, chatty, and downright eager in serving us as much mesquite-grilled sirloin and chicken and sausage as we wanted. Sometimes, we'd tell them we wanted to share a slice of something, and they'd laugh as they'd give us each a piece anyway. It's called rodizio style when they bring those big skewers around from table to table; every few minutes, a different waiter would bring one out from the kitchen, and he'd visit us as long as we left a two-toned signal block turned green-side-up on our table. We didn't flip it over to the red side until we were ready to explode.

My hungry friend and I tried everything they had to offer, and even managed seconds in a few instances. The two best things I ate all night were the tri-tip and the picanha (a Brazilian top sirloin cut). Both were juicy and perfectly seasoned — garlicky, a little salty — with a nice crust on the outside. Coming in a close second was the marinated lamb, which was so tender and delicious that I had to slow myself down for a minute, just to savor every bite.

Comparatively, the pork tenderloin and turkey were just okay. Nothing wrong with them, but I'd just eaten a buttery, bacon-wrapped filet mignon. A plump, herby pork sausage made up for them, though, and so did the grilled chicken. It's a foodie cliché to scorn chicken dishes at restaurants — it's boring, it's too safe, whatever — so I'm telling you to make an exception at Rio Sabor. The crispy skin is worth it.

Grilled pineapple sprinkled with sugar was an excellent foil to the rich meats, and it made dessert a moot point. Still, I ordered the caramel flan. It was fine and, thankfully, it didn't take up any more room in my overstuffed belly. But my friend's chocolate mousse was so heavy it tasted like icing, and after a couple bites, I knew the meal was truly over.

No, I don't feel any more swimsuit-ready after that gluttonous evening, but so what — I had a great time. Now please excuse me while I head off to Target . . .


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