Though the U.S. is well-known for its culinary prowess, Brazilian food gives Americans a run for their money. Brazilian steakhouses are popular around the world for their all-you-can-eat meats and rodízio-style (think buffets but delivered directly to you — no room-temperature steak) dining (via CNN Travel).
Brazilian steakhouses offer diners more than just meat, however; Brazilian culture is infused into the entire churrascaria experience. Arri Coser, who, along with his brother, owns the popular Brazilian steakhouse chain Fogo de Chão, told Eater the key to their success was "our culture." "We went to the U.S. not only with our barbecue and the culinary techniques we learned from our parents and grandparents. We took our way to serve it, our Brazilian hospitality, the experience of an authentic Brazilian churrasco." It’s a hit, too. As of 2016, there were 92 Brazilian steakhouse chain locations in the United States, not counting independently-owned restaurants.
From the moment you take your seat in a Brazilian steakhouse, it’s an experience to be remembered — flip your card to green and get ready for a true Brazilian meal!
Churrasco is more than just Brazilian barbecue, it’s culture
The Portuguese word "churrasco" means "barbecue" in English and can be used to refer to all kinds of grilled meats (via The Daily Meal). More often, however, churrasco refers to a specific method of Brazilian grilling in which beef is barbecued on a long skewer and served by cutting off individual slices. Brazilian steakhouses use this technique to cook and serve a variety of different meats, from picanha (sirloin cap) to lombo (pork loin).
But for Brazilians, churrasco is much more than just a cooking method: churrasco, like much regional cuisine, defines a culture and a way of life. Brazilians celebrate their homemade barbecue no matter if they’re throwing a party or just relaxing with friends and family. Though you may not be able to travel to Brazil to experience the churrasco way of life, traditional Brazilian steakhouses can give you a taste, according to Eater.
Rodízio-style dining at Brazilian steakhouses
Most Brazilian steakhouses serve food using a unique method that lies somewhere between buffet and family-style dining. Rodízio, which translates to "rotation," requires diners to pay a fixed price for a variety of all-you-can-eat options. Most steakhouses have a salad bar, but the main course is paraded out of the kitchen on large skewers, which servers slice directly onto diners’ plates (via Our Everyday Life).
According to legend (and Eater), rodízio dining started when a waiter, at a restaurant called Churrascaria Matias in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, mistakenly brought a meat skewer to a table that didn’t order it. Instead of immediately correcting his mistake, the waiter allowed the diner to try the dish anyway, and so a great tradition was born.
Rodízio started becoming popular in the mid-20th century when restaurants began feeding truck drivers as the profession became more common along with the rise of road construction in Brazil. Because of Brazil’s many cattle herds, meat was cheap to buy; because of the simple churrasco tradition, it was also easy to make. Hungry travelers were eager to get their hands on it when they stopped to rest and refuel.
You might not find cuts of meat you’re used to at Brazilian steakhouses
Though the meat on a Brazilian steakhouse menu might not be familiar to outsiders, locals know these dishes well. From picanha to fraldinha, Brazilian meats — especially churrasco-style — are some of the best you’ll ever have.
According to Insider, some of the most common cuts you’ll encounter at a Brazilian steakhouse are picanha, filet mignon, chuleta, and fraldinha. Picanha is the most traditional cut, taken from the top of a cow’s rump (via Steak School) and seasoned with salt. It gets skewered into a C-shape when it cooks over open flames. Though filet mignon is a well-known cut of beef, sometimes you’ll find it dressed up in bacon or a parmesan crust. Chuleta is whole cuts of ribeye steak that get skewered and roasted, and fraldinha is a cut of bottom sirloin that’s marbled with fat and served in long flat pieces.
If you go to a Brazilian steakhouse, get ready to eat a lot of meat
If you consider yourself a big carnivore, a Brazilian steakhouse is the place for you. The Brazilian steakhouse experience centers around, well, steak — and lots of it. The popular chain Fogo de Chão, has been called a "meat-eater’s mecca" because it offers "all the meat you can eat," and in that sense, it’s not unique among Brazilian steakhouses, according to Eater. However, when Dotty Griffith reviewed a Brazilian steakhouse back in 1997, she noted, "Americans and Texans are used to all-you-can-eat salad bars, but all you can eat grilled steak and other meats was new at the time."
Not for the faint of heart (or vegetarians), a typical Brazilian steakhouse will leave you feeling stuffed to the brim, sure you can’t eat another bite — until, of course, a server comes by the table with a new skewer of delicious grilled meat. With so many options to choose from, if you leave the restaurant walking upright, you’re doing it wrong. Though you might assume that America’s huge portion sizes have prepared you for this moment, Brazilian steakhouses take it to a whole new level — brace (and pace!) yourself.
Brazilian steakhouse meat is cooked using simple methods
Churrasco-style grilling was created to show off the pure essence of the meat, according to Insider. Most of the time churrasco meats are seasoned only with salt before being put on the grill; the skewers are stacked on top of one another with the fattier cuts on top so the juices drip down and infuse the other meats with flavor (via The Spruce Eats).
Brazilian barbecue lacks the smoky flavor popular in Texas and the US more broadly because Brazilian gauchos wanted to preserve the basic flavor of their farm-raised beef. Instead of smoking the meat, which alters the taste, they roasted it slowly on skewers until the outer layer was nicely seared and the inside was tender and juicy.
Though beef is the most common kind of churrasco meat, Brazilian steakhouses often serve poultry and lamb as well. Unlike beef, these meats usually get a long marinade in a rich sauce before grilled, giving them an extra boost of flavor (via The Spruce Eats).
To balance out the fatty meats, Brazilian steakhouses often serve acidic side dishes
Because Brazilian steakhouse cuisine relies so heavily on fats in the main course, most side dishes are highly acidic to act as a counterbalancing force. One of the most popular dishes is a sauce that’s often served over the meats (via Insider). Called molho campanha, it’s similar to a salsa, and is meant to enhance the flavor of the beef. Molho campanha is easy to make — all it takes is red and green peppers, onion, and tomatoes, vinegar, and some simple knife skills.
A similar theory comes into play when pairing your meal with a drink — you’ll want to choose something acidic to balance out the rich flavors of all that meat. According to Insider, the caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail, and it’s easy enough to make at home if you can’t wait for the steakhouse. The drink is made by combining lime, sugar, and cachaça, a Brazilian spirit made with fermented sugarcane.
Picanha is the most traditional Brazilian cut
According to Food52, picanha is the best and most traditional meat available at a Brazilian steakhouse; no true Brazilian barbecue is complete without it. According to CNN Travel, picanha is a necessary ingredient if you’re looking for a real Brazilian experience. Similar to a sirloin in flavor and texture, this cut is taken from the backside of the cow in the fatty area above the butt. According to Over the Fire Cooking, most US butchers break down this piece of meat into smaller cuts, thus losing the fat cap that gives picanha much of its flavor in the process.
It’s the fat cap that infuses picanha with a juicy tenderness unrivaled by other cuts of beef. Surprisingly, despite its extraordinary taste, picanha is actually pretty inexpensive. According to Steak School, sometimes it can be hard to find at the grocery store, but your local butcher should have it.
You should avoid eating at a Brazilian steakhouse for dinner
Brazilian steakhouses are so good you might be tempted to go for every meal, but let us be the ones to advise against that. In fact, most people suggest that lunch is the only meal for the steakhouse — if you go all out later in the day, well, there’s no telling what could happen. Amigo Foods recommends spending an afternoon with all the Brazilian barbecue your little heart desires, leaving yourself plenty of time to walk it off before lying down.
Eating anything too close to bedtime can induce heartburn, nausea, or bloating — eating a whole pile of meat is likely to make those symptoms much worse. To fully enjoy the whole Brazilian steakhouse experience, it’s best to have this meal earlier in the day so your body can properly digest with the help of gravity — that means no afternoon naps, either!
Brazilian cowboys originally came up with these steakhouse recipes
Brazilian cowboys, or gauchos, were the first to cook meats Brazilian steakhouse-style in the 1800s (via Insider). The men would spend their days herding cattle and their nights grilling the meat over a fire for their friends and family. They prepared the food the same way it’s done now: just a sprinkle of salt and a slow roast over hot coals. Back in the beginning of churrasco, gauchos dug pits in the ground to build their fires and waited until it was extremely hot before skewering the meat and starting the roasting process.
According to Boi na Braza, usually in those days, the men oversaw the meat — from pasture to butcher to spit — while the women gathered the food they had grown in gardens and prepared side dishes. The meal was a family effort and a celebration — the gauchos and their families gathered around the fire together similar to the way you might gather with family and friends around the table to enjoy the same Brazilian meats.
Skip the salad bar at Brazilian steakhouses
If there’s anything to skip at a Brazilian steakhouse, it’s without a doubt the salad bar. According to Zagat, you’re much better off getting your veggies elsewhere (like, maybe at breakfast) and saving your stomach capacity for the main event: meat. Though the salad bar might be especially tempting due to its extensive options (some restaurants have everything from sushi to Caprese), it’s important to keep in mind that nothing will taste as good as the freshly grilled meats — that’s why you’re at a steakhouse, after all.
"A common mistake people make here is going crazy at the salad bar," Sandro Lorenzi, a meat carver at Churrascaria Plataforma, a steakhouse in New York City, says. "They don’t save room for the meat." We can all agree it’s important to eat well-balanced meals — most of the time. If you’re looking for a salad, a Brazilian steakhouse is perhaps not the place for you.