Visiting a Brazilian churrascaria takes preparation and diet-planning, I've been told by veteran gorgers. A few days before the visit, food intake is restricted, and for days afterwards, it's salads only. A churrascaria is an all-you-can-eat spot -- without the heat lamps. If the quantity of food offered seems like an American Thanksgiving, it is meant to be. The origin of the churrascaria in Brazil was to gather friends and family and give thanks for nature's bounty.
In Portuguese, churrascaria means barbecue, and in southern Brazil's cowboy (pampas) region, the method of cooking meat rotisserie style comes from the time the gauchos spit-roasted meals on the open plains. Other South American countries, notably Argentina and Uruguay, use this rotisserie style as well.
Charlotte's latest entry into this genre is Chima Brazilian Steakhouse, a 436-seat, two-level atavistic forum. Vegetarians be warned: Skewered meat is paraded by costumed gauchos throughout the vast dining room. At any given time, at any angle, men brandishing meat can be seen. Chima is about hefty quantities of food, and the testosterone level in the room is palpable. Groups of men cluster at tables throughout a room gorgeously vast, dark and noisy. The two-story entrance has both a curved staircase and an elevator to the second level, which has a bar area in the front and a private dining area in the rear.
In the center of Chima's main dining room is the sneeze-guarded salad bar. The best of dishes are the Italian-styled salamis and the feijoada, a Brazilian black bean stew served over white rice and sprinkled with farofa, a toasted mixture of yucca flour that tastes similar to spicy breadcrumbs (but here not served with the traditional orange segments). Cold items on the salad bar include spears of hearts of palm; Caesar, caprese, shrimp and Waldorf salads; gelatinous blue cheese mousse and corn mousse; and a Brazilian take on tabbouleh (an item never meant to sit around on a salad bar). A couple of soups complete the first round. But this plain-tasting, often bland salad bar is, perhaps, designed to counterbalance the saltiness of the meat.
Salt is part of the taste profile of the rodizio -- the real show. White-shirted gauchos parade through the room with large knives and long skewers -- almost swords -- piled high with meat. If any of the Chima discs at your table are flipped to the orange side, the idea is "Yes, please," and a server stops by the table and cuts off portions. The black reverse side says, "No, thank you."
Beef sausage, pork loin with parmesan cheese, pork ribs, chicken with bacon, flank steak and beef ribs arrive. More come. In all, 15 skewers are brought out. One server has overcooked swordfish and salmon. We waited for a second round of fish, but this swordfish was also overcooked as well. There is lamb, too, both leg and chop. We requested the native beef cuts -- the picanha and the picanha nobre -- which eventually found our table, but these were exceptionally salty. Oddly, many of these meats tasted the same: overcooked and salty.
Meanwhile on the table were plates of miniature cheese puffs served with a smoked turkey spread and sautéed plantains -- my favorite bites while here. At one point, salad plates were stacked up on our table, and we seemed destined to wipe off cutlery to reuse since service was haphazard. While not many stay for dessert, Chima's offers a mango sorbet and a passion fruit mousse. True gamers skip both the salad bar and the final course to concentrate on the meat.
Chima's international wine list features South American wines -- even Brazilian wines. For cocktail drinkers, there is the caipirinha, a potent drink made with cachaça, a sugar cane spirit. Chima is named for chimarrao, another Brazilian drink.
This is the fifth U.S. location of Chima, which first opened in 2003. Bruno Silva is the owner and managing partner of all Chima locations, including the original restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the stores in Tysons Corner, Va., Atlanta and Philadelphia.
Churrascarias are typically fixed price. At Chima the cost is $49.50 per person. Add a bottle of wine, tax and gratuity and an evening can easily reach $175 per couple. Currently, Chima is offering a price reduction, which was slated to end in December but is now continuing through the winter, of $39.50 per person. There are $25 coupons online (if you sign up for their e-mail list). Some $25 coupons were sent in the mail, but these cannot be used with the $39.50 price -- and two must order full-priced meals for a reduction -- so it's really $5 off the going rate.
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Chima Brazilian Steakhouse, 139 S. Tryon St. Hours: Monday through Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. until 10:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 4 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. Valet after 6 p.m. 704-601-4141. www.chimasteakhouse.com.