It was in Belém, Brazil, that I had my first restaurant meal abroad ― and it was unforgettable. At the Churrascaria Tucuruvi, waiters brandished swords loaded with still-sizzling chunks of meat, which they sliced generously onto my plate. Steps away, a churrasco buffet was laden with potato dishes, salads, rice, beans, and even stews for my choosing. Instantly, I fit into this carnivore heaven.
But farofa, the condiment the Brazilians sprinkled indulgently over the whole meal, was a new sensation. It looked like sawdust, yet tasted toasty and crunchy ― and it was strangely addictive.
The beverage that washed down this feast, guaraná (gwar-a- nah), made from an unusual South American berry, tasted like a cross between cream soda and champagne. I loved the refreshing flavor. Little wonder that tables were strewn with empty guaraná bottles.
Churrasco is a barbecuing technique from cattle ranches in the south of Brazil. For fiestas not unlike those held on early California ranchos, local cowboys ― gauchos ― speared big slabs of meat, then drove the tip of the spear or pole into the ground to tilt the meat over an open fire.
In our churrascarias ― restaurants that serve churrasco (more and more of which are appearing in the West) ― meat cooks on rotisseries or grills and is often served rodizio-style ― hunks carved at the table. Portions are generous, often all-you-can-eat.
Meats, including beef, pork, poultry, and sausages, are the main attraction. But potatoes ― fried, roasted, mashed, and in salads ― are always on the menu. So is the ubiquitous farofa (toasted manioc flour), plain or seasoned.
For a simple but festive churrasco menu, serve churrasco misto (mixed grill), farofa, collards, salsas, bread, and dessert. For a grander party, add as many of the buffet dishes as you wish.
Look for guaraná soda and passion fruit ( maracujá in Portuguese, maracuyá in Spanish) beverages in cans or bottles in Latino markets. Passion fruit beverages are also sold at supermarkets ― refrigerated, in concentrates, canned, and bottled.
Churrascarias in the West
These Brazilian churrascarias may be small cafes where foods are grilled and served with the accompanying dishes in the kitchen. Or they may be lavish eateries ― with waiters, sometimes clad as gauchos, parading long skewers of meat to your table to carve off portions. Usually there is the Brazilian buffet of side dishes. European culinary influences are evident, since Brazil's heritage is as immigrant-rich as ours. Other Brazilian restaurants often serve churrasco.
Denver. Rodizio Grill, 1801 Wynkoop St.; (303) 294-9277.
Littleton. Rodizio Grill, 7900 W. Quincy Ave.; (303) 972-0806. Also at 2222 E. Arapahoe Rd.; (303) 347-0650.
Yolie's Brazilian Steakhouse & Lounge, 3900 Paradise Rd.; (702) 794-0700.
LOS ANGELES AREA:
Anaheim. Ginga Brazil, 821 N. Euclid Ave.; (714) 778-0266.
La Mirada. Rio Churrascaria, 15122 E. Rosecrans Ave.; (714) 739-2000.
Long Beach. Yolie's Brazilian Steakhouse, 300 Oceangate, Suite 150; (562) 491-0221.
Santa Monica. By Brazil, 1104 Wilshire Blvd.; (310) 393-0447.
Westlake Village. Galletto Caffe & Grill, 982-2 Westlake Blvd.; (805) 449-4300.
SAN FRANCISCO AREA:
Kensington. Porto Brasil, 385 Colusa Ave.; (510) 526-1500.