A Taste of Brazil
The country that brought us the samba and caipirinha brings a taste of its traditional cuisine to Miami.
By Valerie Westen Furr
Miami is known for its exotic Latin culture, which reaches out to stimulate our five senses. The music, dancing and art that can be found locally makes visitors and residents feel as if they stepped into a club or gallery in Central or South America, but the experience is topped by the flavors brought to us by the multitude of restaurants in the area. Cuban and Colombian delicacies are often the obvious choices, but the local Brazilian steakhouses also bring us traditional cuisine reminiscent of the popular churrascarias of the homeland. Although there are many vegetarian choices offered in these restaurants, meat is always the focus on the menu. The churrasco-style cooking resembles the American barbecue, but nothing compares to the personalized service and the rodízio presentation—food served on long skewers from which you can choose your preferred meat. This one-of-a kind dining experience was inspired by the cooking style that gauchos (cowboys from southern Brazil) used centuries ago when they cooked their meals over campfires in the pampas (the plains where they herded the cattle). Today, in the churrascarias, the term “gaucho” refers to the chef and server who will come to your table and offer you meat or succulent dishes on demand. Whether you’re in the mood for an elegant and sophisticated dining experience, or casual yet delicious lunch break, the area offers several options that will send your taste buds on a gastronomic journey to Brazil.
Two of the most popular churrascarias in the area are located in South Beach. Fogo de Chão, which means “campfire” in Portuguese, offers an elegant atmosphere and impeccable service for lunch and dinner. Part of an original Brazilian chain of steakhouses founded in 1979 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the restaurant made its way to the U.S. in 1997. The perfect setting for a romantic date or family dinner, the restaurant also offers five private and semi-private dining rooms for group events, meetings and wedding celebrations. Each of the formally trained gauchos roaming the room holds a skewer of one of the 15 delectable meat choices on the menu that they have roasted over an open fire. Each guest is given a card with a green and red side. When the green side is flipped up, it signals that you are ready for one of the gaucho chefs to begin tableside service. The meat cuts have exotic Brazilian names such as picanha, the most popular cut of sirloin; cordeiro, a fresh young leg of lamb sliced off the bone; and linguiça, slow-roasted pork sausages seasoned to perfection. As with other churrascarias, the all-you-can-eat buffet offers a wide variety of cold vegetables, salads, cheeses and other gourmet sides to complement the meats. The gauchos can also provide you with limitless service of traditional Brazilian hot side dishes that include pão de queijo (warm cheese bread), garlic mashed potatoes and caramelized bananas. Fogo de Chão’s full bar serves traditional cocktails, such as the caipirinhas and caipiroskas, as well as a variety of wines—there are more than 300—from all over the world. But be sure to save some room for dessert, as Alceu Pressi, assistant general manager and native Brazilian who oversees the gauchos’ service, swears by the delicious traditional papaya cream, vanilla ice cream blended with fresh papaya, topped with a splash of cassis liqueur. (Fogo de Chão, 836 1st St., 305-672-0011; fogodechao.com)
Another popular Brazilian restaurant in South Beach, Texas de Brazil, redefines opulence for a churrascaria, offering much more than the traditional Brazilian rodízio with 60 vegetarian and gluten-free options, and even a sushi bar, satisfying not just the meat lovers. Patrons come for the personalized service as well as the endless food options and views of the marina, but return because it is a company that has a heart, says Event Manager Michael Burstein. “They’re blown away not only by the food, but the beauty of the restaurant,” he says. The restaurant can accommodate parties of all sizes, from a small date to a family dinner to a large wedding party (there is a ballroom). The spacious bar and lounge offers an array of cocktails and 700 varieties of wine. Culinary Director Evandro Caregnato, a Brazil native, designed the menu and oversees the day-to-day operations between the kitchen and the gauchos, most of whom are Brazilian themselves. Texas de Brazil takes pride in the overall dining experience: the cuisine, the service and the atmosphere, which is vibrant yet relaxed. The name Texas de Brazil clearly describes its concept: a Brazilian menu with grand Texas-style hospitality and service. Reservations are recommended for this popular South Beach destination, which is only open for dinner service. (Texas de Brazil, 300 Alton Rd., Ste. 200, 305-695- 7702; texasdebrazil.com)
Located in Mary Brickell Village is the popular Brazilian churrascaria, Grimpa Steakhouse. Named after the tree branch used to light the gauchos’ campfire for cooking, Grimpa is a modern twist on the traditional rodízio. The original restaurant was opened in Curitiba, Brazil, before its owner decided to open another location in Miami. The full salad bar with Brazilian (and some not-so-Brazilian) side dishes, à la carte items and the gauchos carving meat tableside are reminiscent of the Brazilian churrascaria and cater to all tastes, but the experience doesn’t stop there: The contemporary feel of the restaurant makes it the spot for corporate lunches and lively happy hours. The servers make caipirinhas from a cart at your table and daily drink specials give the bar and patio area a fun and relaxed atmosphere. Try Stilletos Wednesday when ladies get a dollar off their drink for each inch of their heels, or Noche Latina on Thursdays, where patrons can take lessons from a professional Latin dance instructor and get a complimentary Brazilian cocktail.
The decor at Grimpa carries through the modern flair of the restaurant, which includes the custom glass chandelier and stairs as well as art pieces from popular local artist, Brazil- born Romero Britto. Another aspect that makes Grimpa stand out is the ability for patrons to see straight into the kitchen through glass windows and watch the chefs as they prepare their meals. It is an upscale modern churrascaria that is suitable for all, from business lunches and dinners to family events and small receptions in the second story rotunda. (Grimpa Steakhouse, 901 Brickell Plaza; 305-455-4757; grimpa.com)
The southern Brazil-inspired fancy churrascarias are the go-to restaurants for elegant dates, family events and corporate functions in the area, but locals often swear by the smaller authentic Brazilian restaurants that serve traditional dishes recognized by true natives. No dressed-up gauchos there, only delicious menu options. Little Brazil restaurant and Varanda’s Brasil Café are both located on Collins Avenue only a short drive from The St. Regis Bal Harbour, and are the perfect options for a quick lunch break, delivery or takeout, or even a hungry stop after a long afternoon at the beach. Little Brazil is a charming small restaurant where the dishes on the menu all sound exotic, like the Moqueca de Peixe com Pirao, a Brazilian-style tilapia stew with cilantro, peppers, onion, garlic, tomatoes, dende oil and a dash of coconut milk over a bed of yucca puree. The menu offers more than 30 entrees and beer imported from Brazil. (Little Brazil, 6984 Collins Ave.; 305-397- 8215; littlebrazilrestaurant.com)
A few blocks away, Varanda’s has been open for more than 15 years and prides itself in serving high-quality Brazilian food at affordable prices. The restaurant claims to have served some of their specialties to a number of celebrities, including Lady Gaga and Ricky Martin, just as they do the local residents who keep going back. (Varanda’s Brasil Café, 6616 Collins Ave.; 305- 867-2929; varandascafe.com)
Although thousands of miles from Brazil, Miami residents and visitors are able to experience its cuisine through local restaurants, from the extravagant churrascaria to the small authentic café. The flavors of Brazil will transport your taste buds to the home of the carnival and the bossa nova, which may inspire you to discover even more of the country’s vibrant culture. Samba lessons anyone?