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My vegetarian lunch companion is astonished. There are 41 gorgeously decorated plates on the salad bar at Avenida Paulista Churrascaria, the new Brazilian steak house on Westheimer. And the bread basket contains the addictive Brazilian cheese bread called pão de queijo, along with some steaming fried bananas.
The main attraction at churrascarias is usually the parade of grilled meats on skewers brought to your table by servers who carve them tableside. At Avenida Paulista, an oversize coin sits on the table in front of you; the red side means go away, and the green side calls the carvers to descend upon you. As many as a dozen cuts of beef, lamb, pork and poultry might be offered at the same time. A fixed price of $43 buys all the meat you can eat and unlimited access to the salad bar.
The salad bar is also available at a reduced price all by itself. That's why I brought my friend here. Avenida Paulista's salad bar is so impressive, I wondered if the restaurant might become a vegetarian destination.
Houston, TX 77057
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Avenida Paulista, which is named after the avenue that serves as the "Wall Street" of São Paulo, seeks to distinguish itself from other South American steak houses by offering a wider variety of foods in a more elegant setting. The restaurant's decor recalls the splendor of São Paulo in the coffee-baron era of the 1920s. The art deco posters, lustrous two-tone woodwork and sleek lines of the dining rooms re-create the sort of retro-modern chic associated with steamships and speakeasies.
And there's no denying that Avenida Paulista offers a wide variety of foods. The roving servers who carve grilled items at your table have sizzling portobello mushrooms, hot pineapples and charred peppers in addition to the meat and seafood. I'm not really sure that offering a lot of red meat substitutes such as scallops wrapped in bacon or grilled chicken thighs is going to get you anywhere in beef-loving Houston. But, aside from the meats, Avenida Paulista Churrascaria has a truly awesome selection of salads.
We stroll around the handsome wooden structure that houses the salad bar, admiring the presentations. That glass shelf that serves as a sneeze guard also holds bottles of fine olive oils, walnut oil, hazelnut oil and infused vinegars. Hidden beneath the shelf supports, small light fixtures illuminate the plates of fruits and vegetables so they seem to glow. We stop to marvel at an intensely purple sliced beet salad garnished with a pink orchid sitting beside a giant bowl of bright red watermelon slices.
Shaved asparagus spears, marinated artichokes and hearts of palm vie for our attention, while condiments and toppings like imported olives, pine nuts, capers and garlic croutons demand to be spooned over everything. From a well-stocked cheese platter, my vegetarian companion cuts a generous slice of Huntsman English cheese, with alternating layers of double Gloucester and Stilton blue. Beside that she spoons a salad composed of little balls of buffalo mozzarella and cherry tomatoes, tossed in a basil-flecked vinaigrette.
A fanned array of romaine leaves is flanked by a bowl of prepared Caesar salad, and when we stop to consider it, a waiter rushes over and offers to make some more fresh. I happily consent. Meanwhile, I load up on the snow peas, which are mixed with chunks of salmon. My friend skips that one, as well as the orzo salad, which is made with the melon-seed-shaped pasta tossed with roasted peppers and salmon chunks. There's also a whole platter of roasted salmon on the salad bar for fish lovers.
While the usual drill is to eat a plate of greenery and then get a fresh plate for meat and potatoes, I flip my coin over as soon as we sit down. To my tablemate's chagrin, I'm quickly rewarded when a sizzling hangar steak on a stick appears at our table, followed by a sirloin. I heap the fresh sliced meat on top of the lettuce. Hot steak with cold salad is one of my favorites.
"That's the best salad bar I've ever seen," says the vegetarian.
Churrascaria is Portuguese for a place that serves churrasco. Literally, churrasco means barbecue and refers to beef cooked on skewers over an open fire, a style that originated among the gauchos of Brazil. But churrasco means other things in other parts of Latin America.
In Houston, we associate the term with the Cordúa family's Churrascos restaurants, the first of which opened in 1988. Though billed as South American steak houses, they're actually modeled on the "El Churrasco" chain of restaurants in the Cordúas' hometown of Managua, Nicaragua, where beef filet steaks are carved in a distinctive "butterfly" fashion and served with the South American steak sauce called chimichurri.
A few years ago, two new restaurants, Rodizio Grill and Fogo de Chão, which were both founded by Brazilians, brought a different, more authentically gaucho version of churrasco to Houston. Fogo de Chão means "fire on the ground," a description of the primitive barbecue pit once used. Rodizio means "rotating," which refers to the rotisserie on which the meat is cooked and to the "rotation" of meats constantly coming to your table.