When I took this job, I thought it would be easy to find volunteers willing to join me for free eats. I mean, surely anybody anywhere would welcome a free meal. Wouldn't they?
The reality is that I end up flipping frantically through my address book, calling friends, neighbors, former co-workers. I plead; I wheedle. "Please, please go with me to this new restaurant," I'll beg. "No, no one else has ever heard of it No, I don't know if it's any good No, I don't know if they serve vegetarian" And so forth.
Last week was even more challenging than usual. I wanted to try the Rodizio Grill, which opened two months ago on Westheimer near Fountainview. My telephone pitch went something like this: "Let's go out to this new Brazilian all-you-can-eat place, okay? Um, yeah, it's a chain all you can eat, right, mostly meat but it's got a 40-foot salad bar and guys in puffy-sleeved shirts, too" Click. Dial tone.
Okay, so it doesn't sound promising.
I'll admit even I was worried when I spied the glass case of souvenir T-shirts right inside the front door. Never a good sign, that. What, I should advertise my trip to the land of flat-fee dining? (Although I do like that sporty bull logo, plagiarized from a Lascaux cave painting.)
Nor did the menu encourage me with its painstaking pronunciation guides. I mean, maybe my Portuguese could use a little polish and I need to be told that coxa is properly pronounced "Co-Shah," but I think I could have puzzled out mahimahi ("Ma-He Ma-He") or polenta ("Poe-Lent-A") all by myself.
The room itself is quite handsome, in a Norwegian wood, less-is-more sort of way. I admired the sleek lamps of cobalt blown glass dangling over the bar. I spotted a cluster of puffy-shirted men right away, quite handsome they are, too, but at first I misunderstood their function. I thought they were mariachis grouped around a table, poised to strum weird-looking instruments -- which turned out to be torso-length skewers of meat that the waiters tote from table to table, slicing off whatever tempts the customer.
Thank goodness my friends brave enough to test-drive such a preposterous concept are good sports. As our waitress explained the "green-means-go and red-means-stop" cueing system, I hid behind my huge laminated menu in embarrassment.
The Rodizio cue is a goofy, low-tech gizmo of turned and painted wood, about the size of a large saltshaker. Turn the green end up, and all the wandering meat men stop by the table. Flip it to red, and they leave you in peace. "Ooh, can I take this with me?" asked one of my tablemates. "Do you think it'll work at other restaurants?" It certainly works at Rodizio. We had big fun flipping it on-off-on-off: Those guys are agile!
The real deal here is called the "Full Rodizio" -- you pay $11.95 at lunchtime or $18.95 at dinner, the difference being that more meat, fish and fowl selections are offered in the evenings. For your money, you get four kinds of appetizers and all the meat, cold salads and hot vegetables you can consume. This dining style is somehow based on a tradition of gaucho feasts on the Pampas (I'm not sure I fully grasp the historical linkage). Or you can order lesser stuff, such as sandwiches, $agrave; la carte, but drinks and desserts are always extra. We tried the soft drink made from rain forest guarana nuts ($2.95) and found it tastes just like cream soda; the Brazilian lemonade ($2.75) is served in its own carafe but is basically just lime juice -- and who knew how pallid that would taste without tequila? The caipirinha ($6) though, is worth the trip: a wicked little cocktail of that same fresh lime juice spiked with sugarcane liquor and a pinch of sugar.
We were still twiddling with the cue gizmo when the appetizers arrived. I liked the fried polenta sticks, like seriously textured french fries, golden crisp and served with a mild marinara sauce for dipping. The gobbets of pão de queijo (if you must know, that's "Pow-Gee-Cage-O") were composed of fish-belly white bread dough wrapped around a soft, pale cheese, surprisingly good despite their disconcerting resemblance to little blind eyeballs. There're also pãozinho bread and sweet fried bananas sprinkled with cinnamon. "Oh, I get it!" cried one of my friends, squinting accusingly at his plate. "They're trying to fill us up with the cheap stuff!"
We're no fools, so we ditched the appetizers and headed for the salad bar. There are 70 different items, a passing puffy shirt told us. The left side is Brazilian stuff, the right side is American, and at the end are hot lidded tins of mashed potatoes and sautéed mushrooms and black beans and rice. The salad bar items are quite good: I was happy to find lots of fresh produce and fun things to try, each dish helpfully labeled, in case you don't recognize five-inch-long hearts of palm. We sampled marinated quail eggs (a little rubbery, but interesting); marinated fresh cheese sprinkled with oregano (we went back for seconds); a leafy green salad tropically dressed with coconut and pineapple (split decision on that, a little too sweet for some, just right for others). I especially liked the "Brazilian salad" of spinach and lettuce and tomatoes and bacon, if I remember correctly, pasted thickly together with sour cream and mayonnaise and mild shredded white cheese; and I was also pleased by a concoction of lump crabmeat and tiny pasta shells perked up with sweet red peppers and onions.
Sternly we reminded each other that our mission was to eat meat, lots of meat. So finally, we flipped over the cue to green-means-go. "You watch, it'll take hours before they notice that silly cue," I told my friends. "Lingui¸a, madame?" asked the waiter at my elbow. Sure enough, there was an enormous flat spiral of sausage coiled and impaled vertically on his skewer. "We call this 'Princess Leia's hair,' " he said, managing to keep a straight face. The firm, rosy sausage was grilled and garlicky and good.
From that moment on, a steady stream of puffy-sleeved shirts stopped by our table bearing a succession of grilled meats, such as the "Peru," moist chunks of turkey breast wrapped in bacon, or the "Assado," a sort of Brazilian brisket identified as pot roast but compressed, like pâté, into a brick. This last was spared the skewer, instead arriving presliced on a platter with comfortingly familiar roasted potatoes, carrots and onions heaped all round.
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From the marinated chicken drumsticks, the "Coxa," we learned an important lesson: Not all skewers are evenly cooked. With the thicker cuts of beef, this offers the welcome opportunity to choose rare, medium or well-done portions according to your taste, but when these little chicken haunches come around, watch out for a less-appetizing choice between burned black and raw.
My favorite beef selection was the "Fraldinha," a massive slow-roasted tenderloin. The meat was incredibly tender with a salty, spicy crust, beautifully rare at the core. If I had to choose just one of the meat selections, this would be it; but at Rodizio you never have to choose just one, do you? The "Picanha," a top-sirloin cut, was also good, but not as meltingly tender.
An hour later we were ready to give up, so we turned the cue back to red-means-stop. Apparently the only thing the cue doesn't govern is the dessert tray. Oh, lord. There was cheesecake made with Bailey's Irish Cream ($4.50) and a triple-layered Chocolate Suicide cake ($3.75) and two kinds of flan, one Brazilian, one coconut (either $3.75). If you must have dessert, the Chocolate Suicide is the way to go, rich and velvety and totally excessive. The Brazilian flan was fluffy, while the coconut flan was dense, but alas, both were ultimately forgettable.
So, you know what? I had great fun at "Pampas World." I don't mind admitting it. At lunchtime, it's got to be one of the best deals in town, especially if you exercise restraint when it comes to drinks and desserts. I couldn't, but theoretically, at least, it's possible.