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