What to Expect your First time to a Brazilian Churrascaria
If you’ve never been to a Brazilian Churrascaria there are some elements that you may not be entirely familiar with.
The majority of Brazilian Churrascaria’s offer a buffet meat service served in the Brazilian rodizio style. Not to be confused with the restaurant, a rodizio style service is the method of serving the Brazilian cuts of meat from skewers in the round, going from table to table and slicing freshly seared meat right off the skewer onto your plate.
In many Churrascarias, the meat waiters are dressed in the style of Brazilian Gauchos who are heralded as the inventors of traditional churrasco. Most popular in Argentina and Uruguay the Gauchos from Brazil reside in the southern region of the country called Rio Grande do Sul.
These waiter often wear clothing that is distinctive to the southern region of Brazil consisting of articles including a handkerchief around the neck, Pantaloon trousers, tall boots, loose long sleeve shirt, flat brimmed hat with a chin strap, and sometimes a poncho draped over the shoulders.
The waiters approach the table with the meat sizzling on the large traditional skewer and sharp serving knife in one hand, and a Churrasco Plataforma in the other. This Plataforma is usually a flat round disk with a channel circle to catch any juices dripping from the meat during service. There is a dimple in the middle where the server places the tip of the skewer to allow greater control while slicing the meat and serving. A professional Plataforma is somewhat difficult to find online but you can check to see the current Platiforma Price on Amazon.
Each diner should be equipped with a pair of small meat tongs allowing them to grab a bit of the meat being sliced. The Gaucho will start the slice and will then indicate the diner use the tong to secure it. Once secured and claimed by the diner, the gaucho will finish the cut. The diner can now place the meat on the meat plate.
While I was in Santa Catarina Brazil this process was a little different. The tongs were only provided by higher end Churrascarias. Many common restaurants would start the cut of the meat, then indicate for the diner to use their fork to skewer the meat before finishing the cut. Since this was the method I learned you can imagine the utter horror of the server as I tried to use my own fork to assist the server serving my meat upon my return to the United states. I’m sure in that moment I nearly committed a half dozen health code violations. I apologized profusely, but I’m sure he never trusted me again. LOL
Many Churrascarias provide a plate specifically for the meat. This allows the diner the chance to use a different plate to go to the sides buffet and get the sides of their choosing. The servers come at a rapid rate so it is nice to have the meat plate for storing while you manage eating the sides and meat of your choosing.
On each table there is a device, tool, or token that has two sides. One side is often green indicating you’d like to be included in the rotation of the meat servers as they serve in a continuous flow. The other side is usually red, indicating you’d like to take a break from the rotation. This can be a wise thing to do as you will rarely have enough time to finish your cut of meat before the next one is provided. You can choose to switch the indicator back and forth as many times as you are ready to either eat, or take a break.
What does Churrascaria mean?
In short, a Brazilian Churrascaria is a Brazilian steakhouse which often is associated with the rodizio style service. At a Brazilian Churrascaria, the diner will often pay a single fee, have access to the traditional buffet style sides, and access to a restaurant’s claim to fame, Meat! Based on the word in Portuguese churrasco which translates to Barbecue, a Churrascaria serves a wide selection of delicious meats prepared and served by Brazilian Espeto (skewer).
In this article we cover the basics of what is a Brazilian Churrasco. This is a great place to start if you’d like to learn more about the art of cooking in the churrasco style.
Although specific meats offered change based on the preference of the restaurant some common Brazilian meat cuts include:
Serves as a back muscle for the cow and is a long cut taken from the top of the sirloin. Ranging from 2-3 feet in length, it has a small fat cap located at one end of the cut. Being taken from the sirloin Alcatra has a distinct beefy flavor that is one of my personal favorites when I go to Brazilian Churrascarias.
Is the most prized cut of meat in Brazil and is easily identified by the way it is folded onto the skewer creating it’s signature “C” shape. Picanha is an isolated muscle from the the top sirloin cap and was once described to me by a close Brazilian friend to be the sweetest and juiciest cut of the entire cow.
Fraldinha is the diminutive form of a word that originates from the Brazilian word Fralda meaning Flap or in a different context, diaper. In the united states we associate this cut with the flank steak. It’s natural marbling consisting of fat and connective tissue make it necessary to cut it against the grain before cooking to help keep the cut tender. But that same marbling allows for it to develop a profound delicious crust.
Coxa de frango
Coxa de frango literally translates to chicken thigh. Popular in American adapted Churrascarias I rarely experienced this in regular Churrascarias in Brazil. Most commonly prepared with the bone in and skin attached, this meat often stays incredibly juicy and the skin develops into a delightful crispy shell. The seasoning of this meat is usually determined by the locations specific blend
Just like traditional loin medallions wrapped and cooked in bacon Brazilian Filet Mignon is the Sirloin cuts it into 1-2 inch pieces, wrapped with bacon, skewered, and grilled over an open flame. The bacon shares it’s natural salty flavor with the sirloin, seasoning it perfectly. When the bacon is slightly crispy and the center is a light pink color these little meats are churrasco favorite
Turkey wrapped in bacon
Turkey has a tendency to become dry when cooked, so when it is wrapped in bacon the fat from the bacon helps keep the Turkey juicy and flavorful. Where as I usually always reach for thick cut bacon when making any dish, this is one of the rare exceptions. Regular or thin cut bacon works wonders.
At a Brazilian Churrascaria, chicken hearts are the lesser-known underdog when it comes to the amazing Brazilian BBQ culinary experience. Cooked on thin skewers these hearts are seasoned with salt. Near the beginning of my exposure to Brazilian BBQ, I would always deny this option as it always seemed a little weird, however, one of the gauchos gave me a pro tip. Squeeze some lime juice over them before eating. I tried it once and never turned back. My wife and I always split an entire skewer between the two of us!
Just as it sounds, Garlic Sirloin is sliced into 1-2 inch cubes and salted with either a fresh garlic puree or a simple garlic powder rub. As simple as it sounds, the amount of garlic to apply is the art. Too much and it throws off the flavor, too little and it barely resembles its namesake. Whenever I’m cooking, this is one of the most requested meats next to Picanha.
Sausage is always a welcome addition to any Churrasco meal, and Brazilian sausage is no exception. This mildly spicy and juice treat is sometimes skewered in a coil similar to the oversized lollipops, or pre-cut into edible sections.
Brazilian Grilled Pineapple
One of my favorite foods to eat at a Brazilian Churrascaria isn’t meat at all. Brazilian Grilled Pineapple is extremely enjoyable as the churrasco process softens the pineapple, the sugar marinade cuts the acidity and the pineapple itself aids in the digestion of proteins. Check out our other article explaining how to make Brazilian Grilled Pineapple yourself!
Higher-end restaurants offer leg of lamb, lamb chops, and even beef ribs. This is one of the determining factors of the difference between the $25 Brazilian dinner and the $55 experience.
What are Traditional Brazilian food sides?
Many Churrascarias have their own signature take on the traditional Brazilian sides but in their most basic forms these restaurants offer sides like:
Pão de Queijo
Pao de Queijo is a ping pong sized ball of delicious cheesy goodness. Not like a cheese infused roll or biscuit, the inside of the Cheese ball is gooey, can be stringy due to the formation of air bubbles in the cooking process, and has been described by my British friend of having a similar texture to a Yorkshire pudding.
Arroz e Feijão
Brazilian Beans and Rice may sound uninteresting and plain. I was expecting this when I originally lived in Brazil back in 2001. However, when the entire country are experts at making it, the flavors you get based on the established techniques are rich, savory, and truly complete the meal. Beans and rice are commonly served with dinner an are a popular staple in the churrascaria world.
Brazilian potato salad is a staple in Brazilian cuisine. Having many similarities to american potato salad, Maionaise sets itself from the crowd by often having a deeper tangier flavor and the addition of some other vegetables like Corn or Peas.
Just like it sounds, Palm hearts come from the soft centers of young palm trees. Generally served as-is, from the can or incorporated into a palm heart salad, these little gems are found all over the country at homes and restaurants everywhere. When I first discovered what these were I hesitated eating them, but after a while they became a personal favorite.
This quick little fare is basic in application but adds a necessary zing to the meal. BBQ on its own is amazing, but adding this salad to every bite takes the meat experience to the next level. The acidic profile of this salad further excites the taste buds. If you’ve never tried the two together I highly recommend doing so.
Farofa is a dish completely native to Brazil. It is made from drying and grounding cassava root into a small powder called Manioc Flour. This is the same flour that tapioca is made from. Then mix the flour with dried pork, and meat products and fry it in butter. This becomes a popular topping for Beans and Rice and many Brazilians will roll their bit sized cut meat in it before putting it in their mouths, kind of like a post cooking breading.
How much should you tip at a Brazilian Steakhouse?
Some people feel a little conflicted when it comes to the process of deciding tip at a Churrascaria and rightly so. Some people subscribe to the way of thinking that at traditional buffets because the foods are self serve the server doesn’t do much in the way of service.
I can see why someone would want to apply this thinking to a churrascaria because it’s true that the sides are all self serve, however this is only one part of the experience. Behind the scenes there is a small garrison of chefs making sure each variety of meat is cooked to perfection as well as another small garrison of Gauchos going from table to table in a never ending flow of meaty goodness.
All of whom rely on the generosity of the diners to cover the shared tips. There is a lot of behind the scenes that go on to ensure the experience of every diner is top quality.
For all of these reasons I make sure I’m prepared to tip 20% or higher. Even if I’m unsatisfied with my service I know I’m tipping my chef. So provided my meat was cooked to perfection I start at 20%. If my service was exemplary then I am willing to tip higher in order to reward the coordinated effort.
I hope this post was somewhat helpful in helping you to prepare to make the most out of your first experience at a Brazilian Churrascaria. At first this experience may seem a little daunting but I will personally vouch that if the location is right, a professional Churrascaria sets the stage for one of the most pleasurable and satisfying dining experiences available in the culinary world.