Beyond the Brazilian Steakhouse
Should it represent the food of Brazil abroad?
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I can’t get the idea of the churrascaria, the Brazilian steakhouse, out of my head. I’ve seen these chain restaurants in malls in Ohio and whenever one opens somewhere there’s local media raving about the endless amounts of meat served at them (note the nearly 100 stories in Eater about them). They have become the restaurants most synonymous with Brazilian cuisine outside of Brazil.
In the U.S., churrascarias first appeared in the mid-1990s, with Rodizio Grill in Colorado, soon followed by Porto Alegre transplant Fogo de Chão a few years later, which now has more than 60 locations. There are others too: Tucanos, Texas de Brazil, Chama Gaúcha, Chima Steakhouse, Galpão Gaucho and many others. Collectively, there are thousands of them across North America and Europe, primarily in malls and urban centers. Really think about that.
The steakhouse, often all you can eat rodízio-style where waiters rove around from table to table slicing off chunks of picanha and other cuts from a skewer, is the type of food that Brazil is unintentionally showcasing to the rest of the world. Brazil. The most biodiverse country on earth. A place with such a vast variety of fruits that you can stop in a roadside market in any region and you’ll find dozens of varieties that you won’t see anywhere else. A place where quilombo communities created a unique cuisine based on African and indigenous traditions and local produce. A place where Amazonian communities have a spiritual connection to chiles and pass their seeds down through generations like fine porcelain.
It’s true that beef has become a significant part of Brazilian cuisine over the past several centuries, particularly on the pampas of far southern Brazil in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, which borders Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. There is the love of various forms of sun dried and salted beef, as well as the fascinating cattle culture in the Pantanal (refer to my interview with Paulo Machado). There are recipes like barreado, a a clay pot beef stew sealed with a yuca flour dough from the Paraná state, or frito de vaqueiro, cowboy steaks steamed in their own fat and kept in a can beneath a horses saddle, in the wilds of Marajó Island. These aren’t the recipes you’ll find at a chain churrascaria. They are the celebration of excess beef, and little else. It’s as if all the rest of Brazil’s rich flora and fauna didn’t exist, which is exactly what they are making happen.
Churrascarias are indeed a part of Brazilian culture, though. It was in the far south that this style of restaurant began, but by the mid-20th century, when highways were stretching further and further into the interior, these types of restaurants moved north. They popped up along the roads to feed the increasing number of truck drivers carrying goods to the frontier. Grilled beef was the easiest and cheapest food to serve because the expansion of this new land was primarily for raising cattle.
Most of the chains tell this story in a romantic way, but what they are describing is the time when large scale deforestation in Brazil was taking off and these restaurants were both a cause and a fuel for the fire. Under Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation has reached record highs and 80 percent of deforested land in the country is used for cattle grazing, which isn’t even taking into account the additional land used to grow soybeans used to feed cattle. Much of that cheap beef is exported, ending up in McDonald’s hamburgers and supermarkets in Germany and the UK. Even though many of these international chains use American beef outside of Brazil (not for environmental reasons), they remain a symbol of the degradation of the savanna-like Cerrado and tropical rainforests of the Amazon states. When there is so much wonderful food in Brazil, why should the steakhouse be the piece of it that is celebrated?
Recomended Non-Steakhouse Brazilian Food Outside of Brazil
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but if you want to experience some of the flavors of Brazil abroad, I recomend these restaurants:
Da Terra (London, England): Rafael Cagali, who I interviewed on the podcast, uses his Italian-Brazilian heritage for the inspiration of his two Michelin star restaurant. You’ll often find dishes like moqueça or ingredients like tucupi within the restaurant’s elaborate tasting menus.
Caboco (Los Angeles, California): The chef of iconic family restaurant Mocotó in Sāo Paulo, Rodrigo Oliveira (here’s a story I wrote about it in Saveur), and partner Victor Vasconcellos, opened this offshoot in L.A. during the pandemic. You’ll find many of the original locations signature dishes like dadinhos de tapioca (tapioca and cheese cubes) and torresmo (crispy pork belly), among others.
Casa Aya (San Francisco, California): Zaira Asis, who writes the Substack newsletter Merienda, was born in Argentina but raised in Brazil. She has been holding pop-ups in San Francisco, which explore a range of South American flavors, including Brazilian ones.
Miss Favela (Brooklyn, New York): This is a festive spot with straightforward Brazilian snacks beneath the Williamsburg Bridge. I used to pass it often on my bike when I lived closer and it was difficult not to stop in for some croquettes and a caipirnha.
Beco (Brooklyn, New York): Another Brooklyn spot, laid back Beco is a botequim, which is a place for snacks and a drink. It’s been around since 2009 and is a great happy hour spot when the weather is nice and there’s often live music for their lively brunches on the weekends.
Padaria Brasil (Framingham, Massachusettes): Massachusettes is home to the largest Brazilian population in the United States and you’ll find a wider variety of Brazilian food here than anywhere else, especially in cities like Framingham. At this bakery you’ll find brigadeiros, Brazilian-style pizzas, smoothies made from Brazilian fruits, dozens of types of Brazilian breads and more.
Fazendinha da Regina (Ft. Lauderdale, Florida): Regina’s farm is a backyard BBQ that serves the food of the chefs home state of Minas Gerais, much of it cooked on a wood stove. Everyone pays a flat fee and eats family style.
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