Texas de Brazil Churrascaria is the latest entry in the area's Brazilian steakhouse frenzy. In case you've missed the phenomenon, these aren't steakhouses in the ordinary sense. You don't order a single cut of meat. Instead, men carrying skewers of grilled meat -- and very sharp knives -- circulate through the dining room, carving off slices of beef, lamb, pork and chicken for diners.
Diners have a plastic chit -- at Texas de Brazil, one side is green, for "Yes, I'd like meat," and the other red, for "No, thanks" -- that signals when they are ready for more. It's not exactly a feeding frenzy, but it's not the place to pick for a light snack. One price fits all, and at Texas de Brazil, the going fare is $42.99.
And that's my main concern about the restaurant. These are fine-dining prices, what I expect to pay for padded tables with linen cloths, wide spaces between tables, a little romance and diners dressed up for a night out.
Texas de Brazil is more like a Pirates of the Brazilian Pampas Meets Texas Cattle Drive theme park. If I am going to pay more than $100 for two people for dinner (the basic price doesn't include drinks, dessert, tax or tip), I'd rather not have a guy in jeans and a baseball cap as my main view for the evening.
That said, the food was much better than your average all-you-can-eat restaurant. The giant salad bar is more aptly called an appetizer bar, with selections as diverse as lobster bisque, sushi, tiny Italian onions braised in balsamic vinegar and large caper berries, Italian proscuitto and salami, fried provolone and a goat cheese torte, plus all of the basic salad ingredients.
The meats -- there are 15 cuts and preparations -- are grilled Brazilian-style, coated in salt and cooked directly over fire to a perfect medium-rare. If you want the meat cooked more, the carver returns quickly with meat prepared to your order. As long as you keep your chit turned to green, the meat will keep coming.
There are lots of waiters and managers and carvers at your beck and call. Managers wear suits, waiters have on vests atop their dark blue shirts and the carvers (called gauchos) wear slouchy gaucho boots and ballooning gaucho pants, topped by loose-fitting blue shirts.
The atmosphere is more controlled chaos than tranquil dining pleasure.
Texas de Brazil (surprise!) is a privately owned Texas-based chain; the Fairfax location is the company's 12th, and it plans to expand to Las Vegas, Chicago and Baton Rouge this year. (This location is at the Fair Oaks Shopping Center next to Macy's -- the former Hecht's -- at the far end of the center from the Route 50 exit. The entrance is just inside the mall.)
Hostesses in black pantsuits and pearls greet guests in a small vestibule with hacienda-style casual furniture decorated with large displays of tropical flowers. From here, the space opens up to a high ceiling with lots of heavy wrought-iron decoration, from the large chandeliers to the studding on the beams. Large mirrors are everywhere. A wall of wine defines two of the dining spaces. The wine list is extensive and rivals the big-name American-style steakhouses in breadth and prices.
Most walls are a deep red, and there are splashes of cobalt in the glassware on the white-clothed tables. Several separate dining spaces surround the mammoth salad bar, which dominates the restaurant. The presentation is lovely: another huge flower arrangement (faux flowers, but still striking), detailed presentations of each dish and colorful juxtapositions of brilliant-colored foods.
But it's still a salad bar, and overall it gives the restaurant a bus station cafeteria feeling that no amount of theatrics can overcome.
Dinner begins with a basket of warm Brazilian cheese bread -- similar in taste and texture to French gougeres -- and an explanation of how the restaurant's service (called rodizio for the roving gauchos and their skewers of meat) works.
Then you have to parade to the salad bar for your first course from its dozens of choices. Back at the table, as soon as you are ready, flip the chit to green, and the meat starts arriving. The gauchos, many of whom are from Brazil, are expert at carving slices of meat from the chunks threaded on their skewers. The diner uses small tongs to catch the meat as it is being carved.
The meats are superb. The house specialty is picanha, the first cut of the top sirloin, and it was the most flavorful of the beef we sampled. It had a strong beefy taste but was tender enough to cut with a fork. In addition to the plain salt-cooked version, Texas de Brazil also offers picanha that is marinated in garlic before it is cooked.
But the regular top sirloin and the flank steak were also especially tender and full of flavor. The fillet was buttery and juicy, but the cooking method didn't impart that special nutty flavor you might get with a larger portion at a regular steakhouse.
Meats are hardly limited to beef. Pork tenderloin, crusted in Parmesan, was a little dry, but the pork loin was juicy and tasted as pork did before all the fat and flavor were bred out of it.
Lamb comes as slices of grilled leg of lamb (nice small legs rather than the big chunky ones usually found in American supermarkets) or as lamb chops. Both were juicy and not at all gamy.
Pork ribs were surprisingly tender and flavorful, Parmesan-crusted chicken legs were bursting with juices, and chunks of white meat chicken wrapped in bacon retained their moisture and succulence. The Brazilian sausages were the spiciest offerings, and they were only slightly piquant.
The meats would have been much better with accompaniments -- and we learned later that we should have gotten garlic mashed potatoes, fried bananas and a couple of different sauces. The omission may have occurred because of the newness of the operation or the inexperience of our waiter, but if you don't get the sides, be certain to ask.
If, after eating all that meat, you are still entertaining thoughts of dessert, there is a wide selection of confections such as carrot cake, Key lime pie, cheesecake, chocolate mousse cake and a papaya/ice cream concoction that has the texture of soft-serve ice cream and the taste of a tropical paradise.
I wish the whole dining experience had been as pleasant.
--Nancy Lewis (March 29, 2007)