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Gauchos Mark the Spot 

Brazilian steakhouse offers an orgy of fare

For you Atkinites who are still eschewing breads and sugars for meat, the area's newest churrascaria may be your kind of place. Rodeo Rodizio Brazilian Steakhouse, which opened last May, is a grand stand for those with atavistic tendencies or for anyone wanting to fill up on freshly-made food.

The premise of a churrascaria is all you can eat -- without the heat lamps. Dishes at Rodeo come in two forms. The first are the ones from the salad bar, which we'll get to in a minute. The second is what gives this category of restaurants its name: in Portuguese, churrascaria means barbecue -- even though in the rest of South America barbecue, the verb, is known as asado. But in Brazil, actually Southern Brazil's cowboy (pampas) region, the method of cooking meat rotisserie style comes from the time the gauchos spit-roasted their meals on the open plains. Other South American countries, notably Argentina and Uruguay, use this rotisserie style as well.

Rodeo is designed with the pampas region in mind. Exposed rafters in an old barn with yellow and red walls bring that kind of "Old West" -- or, I guess in Brazil "Old South" -- feeling of the free range, cowboys and cows.

For owners JR and Maria Schultz, both Brazilian natives, this is their second churrascaria. The first was located in Boca Raton, but was demolished by Hurricane Wilma last fall. Prior to the total destruction of their restaurant, that same facility had been closed for two and one-half months to repair damage from a previous hurricane -- hence the move to Charlotte. I mentioned to Maria Schultz that Charlotte had had a hurricane (Hugo in 1989), but she laughed and noted that was an uncommon occurrence. She noted, "Florida is in the middle of a 20 year hurricane cycle. It's not going to be any better there. Besides, we love it here." (Schultz confessed the family had checked the hurricane charts before making the final decision, though.)

The Schultz family originally moved to Florida decades ago, when JR worked for Varig and Maria was a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines. Her training in hospitality shows through in this charming family-run operation. She attends to her customers with a watchful eye while her daughter, a student in the IB program at Myers Park High School, is equally at ease with the customers. In fact, the staff I met seemed vested in my liking the meal and understanding Brazilian cuisine. Gotta like a place like that.

Churrascarias are typically fixed price. Here the cost is $29.95 for adults and $14.95 for children six to 12. Children under 6 are free. For this price you get a lot of freshly made food.

The salad bar offers 27 items, both hot and cold dishes. Among the typically Brazilian is the feijoada, a black bean stew served over white rice with collard greens, and then sprinkled with farofa, a toasted mixture of yucca flour, tasting similar to spicy breadcrumbs, and orange segments. Cold salads include spears of hearts of palm; a lusty cole slaw; romaine; cauliflower, artichoke and shrimp; corn; eggplant; mango; and portobello.

But the real show starts with the rodizio service. Black attired gauchos parade through the room with large knifes and long skewers -- almost swords -- piled high with meat. If your card is flipped to the green side, the server stops by the table and cuts off portions. (The red side means "No Mas.") Beef sausage, pork sausage, smoked ham with pineapple, chicken drumsticks, chicken breasts wrapped in bacon. More come. In all, 20 skewers are brought out, many with unfamiliar beef cuts. Because these cuts are unique, JR Schultz obtains much of his top quality meat from Argentina, Australia and New Zealand since "Brazilian beef is banned in the US." Up next is sirloin with garlic, then sirloin with bacon. Don't like those items? Suddenly veal and filet mignon comes your way. Then flank steak, lamb, pork loin. "Picanha!" our Uruguayan server proclaims. Picanha (rump) is the favored meat cut in the Pampas, not for the tenderness, but for the flavor.

Oddly, though, many of these beef cuts tasted similar. The beef is seasoned only with sea salt while the lamb has garlic and the chicken is marinated.

On the wine list are bottles from California, Europe and South America and a few of these are offered by the glass. Soft drinks include fizzy, tasty Amazon berry guaraná, and for cocktail drinkers there is the caipiriha, a potent drink with alcohol made from sugar cane.

Having dessert is probably an afterthought, but try the signature Passion Fruit Mousse, made by daughter Schultz, or the delightfully top heavy Carmen Miranda, a meringue crowned with fresh fruits.

If all this food seems like a Brazilian Thanksgiving dinner, it is meant to be. The origin of the churrascaria was to gather friends and family and give thanks for nature's bounty.

The greeting at Rodeo is warm while the food's first rate and bountiful (my carnivorous companion called it "death by meat" and loved it). Rodeo is a definite perk for the neighborhood now that Pineville -- yep Pineville -- is fast becoming the most global spot around Charlotte.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136, or e-mail tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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