Rabelais in Rio

"Let the feast begin!" pretty much describes the spirit of a Brazilian rodizio -- a Rabelaisian orgy of all-you-can-eat carnivorous gourmandizing, leavened by a vast array of side dishes. Never read Rabelais? Here's an abbreviated sample translated from his 15th-century satiric proto-novel about two traveling giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel, describing a feast prepared by a fictional people called the Gastrolaters for their gourmet god: "Coming near the Gastrolaters I saw they were followed by a great number of fat waiters and tenders, laden with baskets, dossers, hampers, dishes, wallets, pots, and kettles. Then...opening their baskets and pots, they offered their god: White hippocras, fricassees, nine cold loins of veal...Monastical brewis. Zinziberine. Brown bread. Gravy soup. Beatille pies. Carbonadoes, six hotch-pots...Marrow-bones, toast, brawn. Household bread and cabbage. Sweetbreads. Capirotadoes. Hashes. Eternal drink intermixed. Brisk delicate white wine led the van; claret and champagne followed, cool, nay, as cold as the very ice, I say, filled and offered in large silver cups."

The closest most of us will ever come to the Gastrolators' food-fest is at a rodizio. In all large Brazilian cities, the most popular restaurants are churrascarias, which serve meats grilled in the style of the gauchos of the southern pampas. The rodizio is a specialized form that arose in Rio de Janeiro. It features waiters wielding swords heavy with meats, from which diners request hunks or slivers of the cuts they want to taste. The circulation of waiters is constant, and groaning buffets hold a variety of side dishes -- the only limit is the diners' appetites.

Rodizios became a fad in New York about a decade ago and have tentatively made their way west. The new Samba Grill in Horton Plaza is the second location of a Brazilian-run restaurant in Salt Lake City that's won numerous awards in its hometown. With Father's Day approaching, it seems a fit destination for a meat-loving, grill-hugging dad.

You can smell Samba Grill before you see it: aromas of smoke and roasting meat greet you as you turn a corner to find the source: An open grill on the patio, filled with glowing charcoal rocks, is topped with a steel rotisserie where a slab of beef browns in the smoke. You can sit on the patio or eat indoors in a vast, airy room with well-spaced gaucho-style granite-topped tables, under walls decorated with Brazilian paintings and Amazonian bows and arrows. At the back, to the right, is an open kitchen with a long series of rotisseries like the one on the patio. To the left are two fully laden buffet tables, which they call a "salad bar," although the tables offer more than salads. If you're not up for a meat-fest, you can buy unlimited trips to the buffet alone and feast on Brazilian entrées as well as side dishes, for about one-third the price.

First, a waiter takes your drink order. Then, you're free to roam over to the buffet. You need not bring your dinner plate -- there are plenty more at the salad bar. The best strategy, I think, is to take a spoonful of everything that looks appealing, to taste and to share, then do a second run (if you've still got the appetite) to bring back more of your favorites.

The buffet offerings (especially the entrée dishes) change daily, and the array is larger at dinner than at lunch. On the table closest to the entrance, I found: chicken breast pieces in a delicious, slightly spicy tomato-coconut cream sauce, a lightened version of Bahia's famous Xim-Xim (minus the customary peanuts and the smoked dried shrimp that most Americans don't like). An equally delicious light, spicy stew of chicken thigh pieces strewn with red and green bell peppers. Feijoada, the national dish, a black bean and meat stew, with plain rice to serve it over. This wasn't the best feijoada I've ever tasted (my partner says to tell you I cook a better one at home), because the only meat in it was beef chunks, and I missed the customary pork and sausage. Next was excellent farofa, toasted manioc flour that Brazilians sprinkle over everything, even pizza, and especially over feijoada. If it's your first time, try just a bit -- it's an acquired taste. Unfortunately, there were no sliced oranges, which are typically served with this dish. Next to that, oddly, a heap of mashed potatoes adjoining a basinful of standard brown gravy -- not very Brazilian but probably required by the Utahans at the home office as ballast for the beef.

Then there were: An excellent golden pilaf strewn with tiny shrimp. A zingy Brazilian "coleslaw" with chopped bell peppers, my favorite of all the salads. Succulent marinated mushrooms, irresistible with the meats. A trio of greenery: spring mix, baby spinach, and chopped Romaine hearts. Pallid tomato slices. Three standard salad dressings and a salsa. Penne salad, chick pea salad with golden pepper chunks, green bean and kidney bean salad, hollowed red peppers filled with canned black olives. Alluring "Russian salad" (which Brazilians call mayonesa) of peas and potatoes in mayonnaise. Mushy cauliflower, roasted potatoes.

At the other buffet table: Spicy marinated cucumber slices, hard-boiled egg slices, baby corn, corkscrew pasta salad, herbed potato salad, tuna salad -- tuna salad? -- and calamari salad.

Bearing two heaped plates, I returned to my partner. Sitting on each table is a hemispherical wooden cradle with a pin through it, holding a bicolored metal dial the size of a CD. You turn it to the green side when you want meat and to red when you want a respite. (Don't turn it to red if you're waiting for a certain meat, just keep fending 'em off until your heart's desire arrives.) Servers in semi-gaucho garb (green kerchiefs, white blazers) come parading from the kitchen, each carrying a round wooden block impaled with a spear of barbecued meat. Over an hour or so, you'll be offered nearly every muscle of the steer, plus frango (chicken and turkey), pork, and lamb. If you can hang in there long enough, you may even be offered a final course of pineapple-ham kebabs. When you're ready for the bill, turn the red and green dial to neutral.

All the meats are marinated and heavily salted, highly flavorful but, in standard tragic South American fashion, cooked well-done. The beef is certified Angus (the equivalent of high-grade Choice), which the restaurant purchases in prime cuts; they have their own butcher behind the scenes to break it down into Brazilian-style grilling cuts. For our first meat, we lucked out with slices of top sirloin cut from the center of the hunk, showing a trace of pink and boasting a tender texture. Later came even tastier cuts of prime rib, savory with its loose-textured rich meat and fatty sizzled edges. Skirt steak, too, proved a winner on the Brazilian rotisserie.

And there were tri-tip slices, top round slices and garlic-marinated kebabs of beef, redolent of "the stinking rose." Pork tenderloin (dry) and ribs (greasy and good, like a tasty soul-food entrée). Turkey wrapped in bacon, which wasn't dry, and chicken kebabs (which were), and chicken kebabs encased in browned skeins of grilled cheese (which we didn't try). House-made Portuguese sausage was delicious (if overcooked, of course). And finally, what we waited for -- Australian lamb kebabs, well charred and flavorful, hinting of some pungent herb in the marinade.

If your name's not Gargantua, one way to handle all this is to pick and choose your favorite cuts and refuse the rest. Or you can take a little bite of each. If there's something you want more of, stick around, it'll be back. (One caution: the prime rib comes around less often than the lesser cuts.) Alas, you can't get a doggie bag at any "all you can eat" place of any nation, including Brazil.

To drink -- ahh! The nectar of the gods, by which gods I mean, of course, the Brazilian gods collectively called orixás in the candomblé religion brought by slaves from West Africa. Like the Gastrolaters' hungry deity, the orixás are gourmets, each of them with a favorite foodstuff, among them: Ogun -- god of iron, patron of warriors, machinists, and taxi drivers -- likes to feast on feijoada; Yemanja, sweet mermaid ocean-mother, loves Bahian seafood (she must be my patron deity). Then there's Exu, god of the crossroads (whose French name every New Orleanian calls out at Mardi Gras -- "Hey, Là-Bas!" -- Louisiana patois for Haiti's Papa Legba, Exu's voudun equivalent). Exu, whose eternal drink is cachaça, Brazilian white rum, must have whispered to me to order the caipirinha (kye-pee-REEH-ya), cut limes in their peels pounded with superfine sugar, shaken with ice and cachaça, of which Samba Grill uses the very best brand, Ypiíca Silver. The pretty brown-eyed "Caipirinha Girl" rolled her cart over to our table and made the best caipirinha I can ever remember tasting. The restaurant offers many other cocktails, but none better than this icy, sweet-acidic nectar to wash down a meal of such size and weight.

Yes, the orixás were smiling on us that evening. Cursed all week with an appetite-killing flu, my partner and I put off visiting Samba until a Saturday night, when we rarely want to brave the crowds. Not only was the crowd at the restaurant about 20 percent Brazilian that evening, adding greatly to the festive spirit, but partway through our meal, the local Mandingo Capoeira troupe group assembled on the restaurant patio for a performance. It was evidently their first on the site, since a mob of professional photographers was gathered to shoot them. (From now on, the headwaiter told me, they'll be performing every Friday and Saturday night around 6:00; the owner later told me it would be Saturdays and Sundays.) Capoeira is a dancelike martial art developed for self-defense by manacled slaves on the sugar plantations of Bahia. It was perfected in the 17th Century, when groups of them escaped to the backlands to form their own self-sufficient villages, called quilombos -- the first democracies in the New World. There, the escapees used capoeira to fight off Portuguese slave-hunters trying to recapture them. The Mandingo troupe at Samba accompanied their dance-duels (to which breakdancing owes a visible debt) with traditional rhythm instruments and stirring call-and-response chants -- a performance so rousing, the hairs on my nape stood on end. Afterward, a Brazilian samba-jazz band played inside the restaurant near the buffet tables.

The food and atmosphere at Samba Grill are uniquely authentic in San Diego, a true distillation of Brazilian joie de vivre. The staff are charming and warmly hospitable, if not quite up to speed yet. Upon our arrival, our waiter instructed us on how to use the "meat dial" but forgot to offer us the appetizer list, which includes such Brazilian delights as coxinha (cilantro-chicken croquettes) and both mild and spicy house-made sausages. At the end, nobody offered dessert either, although the kitchen makes seven of them, so we didn't get to try a passionfruit mousse, or the owner's late mother's invention, "Romeo and Juliet," an airy cream-cheese mousse streaked with guava. We were full to the gills, but no matter -- I think I could've found room for a Brazilian Romeo.


I caught owner Ren Souza in a phone call to his office in Salt Lake City. He told me that he and the highly experienced head-chefs of both the original and the San Diego branch are from the cosmopolitan São Paolo area (just south of Rio). Souza had been a small businessman and a city councilman when, out of a Brazilian's hunger for his homeland's cooking, he caught the restaurant bug five years ago. "I always like to eat," he explained, "so I thought, if I need to do something to satisfy my appetite, I need to start my own restaurant. So I changed my lifestyle, and I have been happy ever since."

I asked why he decided to open a second location in San Diego. "San Diego is the closest thing in America to the Brazilian climate, the spirit of the people, the beautiful surroundings next to the ocean, and just a very vibrant atmosphere. And there wasn't an authentic Brazilian steakhouse in San Diego. There's another one, but it's owned by Koreans and it does not have Brazilian chefs either. Ours has Brazilian ownership, management, and chefs. Yes, you can learn how to do something, but that still does not make the authenticity, spirit, and creativity of the Brazilian culture. I feel that Brazil's culture, customs, and its people have something to add to American culture, an enhancement of what life should be. So everything that I brought -- the Brazilian paintings, the bow and arrows made by real Indians from the Amazon, the piranhas (they're not alive, you don't have to be afraid of them) -- was to bring a sense that when you come inside Samba, you're actually entering the world of Brazil.

"The Brazilian style of eating is a more healthy style. We don't use processed items, we don't open cans, we don't buy precooked items frozen in a plastic bag...Your tastebuds recognize something totally different. In our restaurants, you don't need a steak sauce to hide whatever flavor is in the piece of meat. We serve only certified Angus beef, and we have a butcher to cut it up every day of the week. We have a little T-shirt that says, 'Our owners are mad, our cows are not.' Brazilians in general are a much healthier population, not overweight, and having really good energy levels in life and love. One of the things that brought us to this level is the Brazilian gauchos, the heroes of the south, in the early stages of the Brazilian cowboy pampas -- in those days, there were not a lot of places to eat. You'd bring a piece of meat and put it on a stick, rotate it a little bit over a bonfire, and you'd get a knife and fork and slice a little piece, and you'd spend all day talking and eating and having a good time. And that's what life's all about. Life defines its own meaning when you do something that satisfies both your physical needs and your spirit."

His plans for Samba Grill's future? To have capoeira performances every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. To offer free Portuguese lessons on Sunday, samba lessons on Monday, and capoeira lessons on Tuesday. Clearly, he aims to turn Samba Grill into San Diego's own Brazilian cultural center, starting with the food and gradually expanding into all aspects of life.

[2009 Editor's Note: Samba Grill has since closed.]

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