All the meats are marinated and heavily salted, highly flavorful but, in standard tragic South American fashion, cooked well-done. The beef is certified Angus (the equivalent of high-grade Choice), which the restaurant purchases in prime cuts; they have their own butcher behind the scenes to break it down into Brazilian-style grilling cuts. For our first meat, we lucked out with slices of top sirloin cut from the center of the hunk, showing a trace of pink and boasting a tender texture. Later came even tastier cuts of prime rib, savory with its loose-textured rich meat and fatty sizzled edges. Skirt steak, too, proved a winner on the Brazilian rotisserie.
And there were tri-tip slices, top round slices and garlic-marinated kebabs of beef, redolent of "the stinking rose." Pork tenderloin (dry) and ribs (greasy and good, like a tasty soul-food entrée). Turkey wrapped in bacon, which wasn't dry, and chicken kebabs (which were), and chicken kebabs encased in browned skeins of grilled cheese (which we didn't try). House-made Portuguese sausage was delicious (if overcooked, of course). And finally, what we waited for -- Australian lamb kebabs, well charred and flavorful, hinting of some pungent herb in the marinade.
If your name's not Gargantua, one way to handle all this is to pick and choose your favorite cuts and refuse the rest. Or you can take a little bite of each. If there's something you want more of, stick around, it'll be back. (One caution: the prime rib comes around less often than the lesser cuts.) Alas, you can't get a doggie bag at any "all you can eat" place of any nation, including Brazil.
To drink -- ahh! The nectar of the gods, by which gods I mean, of course, the Brazilian gods collectively called orixás in the candomblé religion brought by slaves from West Africa. Like the Gastrolaters' hungry deity, the orixás are gourmets, each of them with a favorite foodstuff, among them: Ogun -- god of iron, patron of warriors, machinists, and taxi drivers -- likes to feast on feijoada; Yemanja, sweet mermaid ocean-mother, loves Bahian seafood (she must be my patron deity). Then there's Exu, god of the crossroads (whose French name every New Orleanian calls out at Mardi Gras -- "Hey, Là-Bas!" -- Louisiana patois for Haiti's Papa Legba, Exu's voudun equivalent). Exu, whose eternal drink is cachaça, Brazilian white rum, must have whispered to me to order the caipirinha (kye-pee-REEH-ya), cut limes in their peels pounded with superfine sugar, shaken with ice and cachaça, of which Samba Grill uses the very best brand, Ypiíca Silver. The pretty brown-eyed "Caipirinha Girl" rolled her cart over to our table and made the best caipirinha I can ever remember tasting. The restaurant offers many other cocktails, but none better than this icy, sweet-acidic nectar to wash down a meal of such size and weight.
Yes, the orixás were smiling on us that evening. Cursed all week with an appetite-killing flu, my partner and I put off visiting Samba until a Saturday night, when we rarely want to brave the crowds. Not only was the crowd at the restaurant about 20 percent Brazilian that evening, adding greatly to the festive spirit, but partway through our meal, the local Mandingo Capoeira troupe group assembled on the restaurant patio for a performance. It was evidently their first on the site, since a mob of professional photographers was gathered to shoot them. (From now on, the headwaiter told me, they'll be performing every Friday and Saturday night around 6:00; the owner later told me it would be Saturdays and Sundays.) Capoeira is a dancelike martial art developed for self-defense by manacled slaves on the sugar plantations of Bahia. It was perfected in the 17th Century, when groups of them escaped to the backlands to form their own self-sufficient villages, called quilombos -- the first democracies in the New World. There, the escapees used capoeira to fight off Portuguese slave-hunters trying to recapture them. The Mandingo troupe at Samba accompanied their dance-duels (to which breakdancing owes a visible debt) with traditional rhythm instruments and stirring call-and-response chants -- a performance so rousing, the hairs on my nape stood on end. Afterward, a Brazilian samba-jazz band played inside the restaurant near the buffet tables.
The food and atmosphere at Samba Grill are uniquely authentic in San Diego, a true distillation of Brazilian joie de vivre. The staff are charming and warmly hospitable, if not quite up to speed yet. Upon our arrival, our waiter instructed us on how to use the "meat dial" but forgot to offer us the appetizer list, which includes such Brazilian delights as coxinha (cilantro-chicken croquettes) and both mild and spicy house-made sausages. At the end, nobody offered dessert either, although the kitchen makes seven of them, so we didn't get to try a passionfruit mousse, or the owner's late mother's invention, "Romeo and Juliet," an airy cream-cheese mousse streaked with guava. We were full to the gills, but no matter -- I think I could've found room for a Brazilian Romeo.
ABOUT THE OWNER
I caught owner Ren Souza in a phone call to his office in Salt Lake City. He told me that he and the highly experienced head-chefs of both the original and the San Diego branch are from the cosmopolitan São Paolo area (just south of Rio). Souza had been a small businessman and a city councilman when, out of a Brazilian's hunger for his homeland's cooking, he caught the restaurant bug five years ago. "I always like to eat," he explained, "so I thought, if I need to do something to satisfy my appetite, I need to start my own restaurant. So I changed my lifestyle, and I have been happy ever since."
I asked why he decided to open a second location in San Diego. "San Diego is the closest thing in America to the Brazilian climate, the spirit of the people, the beautiful surroundings next to the ocean, and just a very vibrant atmosphere. And there wasn't an authentic Brazilian steakhouse in San Diego. There's another one, but it's owned by Koreans and it does not have Brazilian chefs either. Ours has Brazilian ownership, management, and chefs. Yes, you can learn how to do something, but that still does not make the authenticity, spirit, and creativity of the Brazilian culture. I feel that Brazil's culture, customs, and its people have something to add to American culture, an enhancement of what life should be. So everything that I brought -- the Brazilian paintings, the bow and arrows made by real Indians from the Amazon, the piranhas (they're not alive, you don't have to be afraid of them) -- was to bring a sense that when you come inside Samba, you're actually entering the world of Brazil.
[2009 Editor's Note: Samba Grill has since closed.]