MEAT parade

Carnivores delight in this Brazilian addition to the culinary scene.

click to enlarge MEATSTICK: A server cuts all-you-can-eat meat at Brasa Grill. - Lisa Mauriello
Lisa Mauriello
MEATSTICK: A server cuts all-you-can-eat meat at Brasa Grill.

I cannot state this emphatically enough: Brasa Grill is all about the meat. There is no other reason to eat here. Although the Brasa business card coyly promises "a meat experience even vegetarians will love," I suspect that vegetarians will only love it because the sheer volume of saturated fat will undoubtedly hasten the demise of Tampa's most voracious carnivores.

Let's peruse some of the vegetarian offerings: a tired salad bar filled with the simplest of the season's least ripe vegetables; a steam tray full of okra that reminds me why I still avoid this slimy Southern staple; a pan of surprisingly well-cooked chopped veggies doused in a loose and milky cream sauce. Scrumptious!?

It really doesn't matter, though. The meat is enough to make Brasa worth a visit.

Husband and wife Luis Duran and Ana Siqueira started serving a buffet of homey Brazilian staples at their specialty South American grocery — Casa Brasil — just a few blocks away. It took off, so they moved it to its own space, added a large menu, and extended the popular churrasco option that they used to reserve for family-style meals on Sunday.

If you've never tried it, churrasco rodizio ($22.95) is that uniquely South American contribution to the all-you-can-eat culinary genre. It's a never-ending parade of carnal delight where cooks carry metal spits of still-sizzling beef, chicken and pork to your table, slicing sections of meat right onto your plate with a knife the size of your arm.

Oddly, the Bay area is bereft of the several national chains that serve this style of meat feast, so a family-owned place like Brasa can carve out its own little niche before the big guys muscle in. This must be the only time Tampa has ever been last in line for a chain restaurant.

The first time I dined at Brasa, though, I missed the beef boat. My rotund friends and I sat down and told the waiter that we would be indulging in the buffet — as if he couldn't tell by looking at us — and immediately headed for the stack of warm plates. We didn't find out about the churrasco option until we walked out and saw the huge sign in the window. Oops.

At $7.50 for dinner, Brasa's buffet — by itself — is a great deal, depending on the night. Wednesdays are the best, highlighted by deeply flavored beef and potato stew and surprisingly tender grouper medallions covered in tomatoes and onions. On Saturday, avoid the dry meatloaf and rubbery fried fish, and go straight for the churrasco.

Actually, it's hard to pass up the churrasco on any night of the week. Within minutes of ordering, my own personal meat man is slicing sections of sirloin right off a spit and flipping chicken hearts and thighs onto my plate with his chef's machete. Don't let those chicken hearts scare you — just picture that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom, only these are smaller, not human and don't pulse on your plate. The dark and crusty thigh meat is better. Although dry, these birds have significantly more flavor than the ones you'll find down at your local megamart.

Likewise, pork sausage at Brasa is a decidedly un-American product. Generously dotted with white fat deposits, the tube is delightfully gamey. It tastes like real meat in a way that is no longer found in our over-processed, shrink-wrapped supermarket products.

Pork ribs are also a bit rustic — almost overwhelmed by the glistening fat dripping off the rich meat — but they're difficult to eat. Meat Man uses his razor-sharp knife to slice through the bones with little effort. Impressive, but I'm left picking around the bone shrapnel with knife and fork, seeking segments of shard-free meat larger than a fingernail.

Sometimes, especially on busy nights, it can take a little while for the churrasco to flow your way. According to my server, the kitchen is jerry-rigged for this type of cooking, and the kitchen staff is eagerly awaiting the arrival of a massive grill direct from Brazil. They make it work, though.

In the end, good churrasco is defined by beef, and Brasa's hits more than misses. One piece of sirloin is livery, tough and overdone, but another a half-hour later is crusty, rosy and juicy. Maybe sirloin doesn't have enough fat to survive a wait on the grill?

Cheaper cuts of meat do better. Tri-tip is consistently excellent — the half-inch layer of salty fat at the edge is dark and half-rendered, surrounding pink meat moist with absorbed drippings. It's almost as good as the beef rib brought out 20 minutes later. By this point I'm bursting with enough animal flesh that my colon is asking my heart to shut down just to cease its future suffering, but I still ask for a heaping chunk of this gigantic meat-strosity. It's like perfect pot roast, fork-tender and luscious, the best thing I've ever eaten off a spit.

Like the food, service at Brasa is a casual thing, the floor attended by mocha-skinned girls wearing tight T-shirts in the green and gold of Brazil's national soccer team. I signal for another Guarana Antarctica — that sweet and fruity national soda of Brazil — to wash down the last shreds of my carnivorous feast and ask for the check, listening to the lilting Portuguese of my server as she stops to talk to a nearby table of Brazilian ex-pats.

Waddling out of Brasa Grill — having eaten several pounds of meat and little else — I decide to head over to Brasa's grocery sibling and buy a case of that Brazilian soda. Isn't guarana supposed to help digestion?

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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