A Tale of Two Steakhouses

 

Columbus Monthly

By: Shelley Mann

Churrascaria is a Brazilian barbecue tradition. At its essence, it’s meat roasted on skewers over an open fire, a technique honed by the gaucho cowboy ranchers of southern Brazil. Translated into a modern-day dining experience, Brazilian-style churrascarias mean an endless supply of meat carved tableside off swords – essentially, it’s the high-end answer to buffet dining. In Columbus, we’ve had a mini explosion of churrascarias with Rodizio Grill opening in June in the Arena District and Texas de Brazil making its debut in January in the old Martini Park space at Easton.

These aren’t the only Brazilian steakhouses the city has seen, but they’re definitely generating a lot more buzz than the now-closed Amazon Grill at Crosswoods ever did. These newcomers are part of corporate chains, which gives them the benefit of big marketing pushes as well as the kind of consistent dining experience that comes with lots of practice.

Both steakhouses have drawn huge crowds since opening, so we decided to channel our inner carnivores and spend an evening at each spot to find out what’s gotten everyone talking. We’re breaking the traditional restaurant review mold a bit, too, making just one visit to each place.

While concepts are similar, Rodizio and Texas de Brazil have distinct vibes. Easton’s is swankier, with an impressive wall of windows looking out onto that glittering city-mall and a cavernous dining room sure to impress business clients. At the center is a salad bar adorned with a massive floral arrangement that fits right in with the restaurant’s outsized personality.

In the Arena District, Rodizio feels more family-friendly and down-to-earth. A carved-up dining room with separate bar and salad bar rooms is less showy and more comfortable. Décor here plays up the restaurant’s Brazilian roots, with stylized depiction of cowboy hat-wearing gauchos taking siestas and such. The actual dining experiences, though, are similar – and similarly chaotic. Here’s the gist: Pricing is standard, so adults pay a set price for food, with drinks and dessert tacked on top. Rodizio’s dinnertime price is $33 per person; at Texas de Brazil it’s $43, and I’d say it’s worth the extra 10 bucks.

The restaurants share a signature drink, the caipirinha, a lime-and-cachaca drink that Brazil claims as its national cocktail. Its closest cousin is the mojito, but cachaca, sugarcane liquor, packs more fire than rum and gives this citrus-spiked drink its distinctive bracing flavor. Texas de Brazil’s version is far superior, mixed with fresh lime juice and a proper pour of cachaca; at Rodizio, the drink tasted like artificial lime syrup and Sprite.

First on the agenda is a trip to a salad bar. In truth, it’s less a conventional salad bar and more a side-dish bar, with things like sautéed collards, mashed potatoes and black bean stew to go alongside all that meat. At Texas de Brazil, there’s also a nice array of olives and sliced cheeses.  A tip: Don’t eat all those “salads” at once – you’ll need them to break up the carnivorous onslaught that’s to come. Next it’s time to indicate you’re ready for some meat. Each restaurant has its own system, either color-coded cards or little wooden blocks, to indicate when you’d like to start receiving a never-ending procession of sword-yielding gauchos – and when you’d like to be left alone for a bit with your steak.

Where true gauchos ate meat fireside straight from skewers, at churrascarias, the costumed homages bring the experience to the table. Texas de Brazil’s wear dark blue button-ups, thick studded belts and baggy trousers tucked into leather boots. Rodizio’s, in contrast, feel Applebee’sesque, with logo-emblazoned black shirts and embroidered pants.

I mentioned these places are chaotic, right? A Brazilian steakhouse dinner is an elaborate production, not unlike dinner theater. With all those gauchos running around with knives and servers buzzing from table to table, it can feel dangerous to leave the table.

Signaling a meat break doesn’t necessarily ensure a break in the constant interruptions, either. AT both restaurants, we were barraged by well-meaning servers filling water glasses and asking if everything was to our liking. The overall effect of all those interjections is a very disjointed table conversation.

Before our meal at Rodizio, the server explained that all meats are cooked to medium-rare; if you prefer things more well-done, you’ll have to ask. On the night I visited, though, the meats were wildly inconsistent. Some were tough and served at room temperature. Others were bloody rare but unseasoned and flavorless. The top sirloin, called Picanha, did hit that sweet spot of perfectly charred exterior and flavorful, juicy interior.

While I was still swooning over that piece of meaty heaven, I was served three mediocre beef cuts in quick succession. Such is the paradox of the Brazilian steakhouse experience – even when you find that winning dish, you’re probably going to get only a few bites of it.

After a while, it became tricky to differentiate between all the beef cuts, but cubes encrusted in powdery parmesan were a nice variation.

At Texas de Brazil, the food was better across the board. There, the gauchos asked for temperature preference (rare, medium, well) right there at the table, and carved off a hunk of meat that properly fulfilled the request. I enjoyed a much higher percentage of the meats here, especially the lean, smoky flank steak and the Picanha, each half-moon blanketed in a prized layer of fat.

In the non-steak realm, I savored decadent mini lamb chops, spicy Brazilian sausages and the ultimate meat-lover’s combo: filet wrapped in bacon. From the selection of sides, I appreciated the array of simple vegetables to counter the heavy meats (steamed asparagus, roasted portobellos and tender hearts of palm were just right).

Families should be scared away by high prices, as both restaurants offer discounted rates for kids. In fact, the dining room was filled with families at Rodizio Grill, which charges $10 for children 11 and younger.

At Texas de Brazil, a tiered pricing system favors younger kids (2 and under are free, and it’s $5 for ages 3-5 and half the regular dinner price for 6-12), but the higher dinner price drew more business dinners and coupons on dates. 

Date: 
Monday, April 1, 2013
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