Cupim is an unusual cut of beef that's highly prized in Brazil. It comes from the hump of Brahma crossbred cattle, and it's reportedly as marbled as the best Kobe beef. When I was told that Pradaria was serving it, I immediately went to the new churrascaria and ordered some for lunch. But the meat, which Pradaria is importing from Australia, hadn't arrived as scheduled, the waiter told me.
So I made do with the conventional stuff. I had some Argentine-style chorizo, some rare beef off a whole rib roast, and a pink lamb chop. When the gaúcho with the picanha, the juiciest of the Brazilian churrascaria cuts, came by our table, I wouldn't let him go.
Picanha is the juicy top sirloin that's doubled over into a C-shape on the skewer. I dunked the bloody sirloin in the garlicky chimichurri and asked my dining companion if she wanted to taste some. She said she was content with her sushi roll. Sushi is the furthest thing from my mind when I sit down in a churrascaria. But it's one of the most popular items on the salad bar here. Pradaria is trying hard to be different.
The newest of Houston's churrascarias occupies a glass-walled building that juts out toward Westheimer from a shopping center parking lot, so you can see people eating as you drive by. The lady at the next table told us it used to be a Ninfa's location.
The tables in the two-level dining room are covered with white-linen tablecloths and set with black-linen napkins. The carpet is burgundy, and the high ceilings are accented with massive dark wood moldings. There is a sleek four-sided salad bar of polished hardwood loaded with bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
We started our dinner with the tart Brazilian margaritas on the rocks called caipirinhas and the hot cheese bread puffs called pão de queijo. They tasted just like the caipirinhas and pão de queijo at all the other Houston churrascarias. The salad bar had the same hearts of palm, carpaccio of beef, mozzarella balls, olive salad and roasted peppers as the other places. Even the undercooked black beans seemed to come from the same big Brazilian commissary.
In the beginning, there was Fogo de Chão. And Fogo begat Nelore; Nelore begat Angus Grill; then there were Tradição and Brazaviva; and pretty soon it seemed like there was a Brazilian churrascaria with costumed gaúchos and steaks on a stick on every corner in Houston.
What's the difference between them all? Price, for one thing: Fogo de Chão charges $48.50 for dinner; Brazaviva gets $35.95; and Tradição is the bargain at $29.50. Pradaria is closer to the low end at $32.95.
The recession has hit high-end steak houses and churrascarias particularly hard. We had the restaurant pretty much to ourselves. In an effort to appeal to women who don't want to join in the all-you-can-eat meat bacchanalia, Pradaria's menu offers lots of à la carte deals. There's grilled salmon and flounder and even a seafood platter, all of which come with the extensive salad bar. My dinner mate was content with the salad bar-only option — especially once she spotted the sushi.
The sushi seemed like a ludicrous idea to me. But then I heard that Pradaria was owned by the eccentric Mark Shim — the guy who took over Todai in the Marq*E Center and added churrasco. A churrascaria with a little sushi was odd, but an Asian sushi buffet with churrasco gaúchos parading around sounded totally bizarre. So a couple of nights after sampling Pradaria, we went and had dinner at Todai.
There was a big section of the restaurant roped off and decorated with birthday balloons. The noise level was excruciating — dozens of children raced around the place shrieking like a flock of noisy seagulls. The kids would swoop in front of you at the buffet and grab at the food, leaving a shower of crumbs and noodles all over the counter and the floor.
My dining companion braved the birthday party crowd to fill her plate several times with seafood selections. I raided her plate when she got back. The sushi rolls were decent, but the sashimi had been sitting out too long. The king crab legs were watery. The IQF (individually quick-frozen) Pacific oysters on the half shell were actually pretty good.
The gaúchos at Todai wore the same costumes as the gaúchos at Pradaria. But the meats they carried around on rotisserie skewers weren't quite as attractive. There was a lot of chicken and sausage. The first rare beef I got turned out to be tough flank steak. I never did see any picanha. When a server finally came with some juicy rare rib eye, I asked for seconds and thirds. But I had to admit that the idea wasn't as dumb as it sounded. Sitting at a table in an empty corner of the dining room and waiting for the gaúchos to bring you some meat was a civilized alternative to the buffet mayhem.
Mark Shim was born in Korea and raised in Argentina. He went to college in New York and worked at a sushi bar there. After graduating, he bought the sushi bar, made a lot of money with it and sold it.
He moved to Houston in a complicated financial deal. When a childhood friend took over Todai, Shim became an investor and took a job as vice president. But corporate life didn't suit him, so he quit and took over the Houston Todai restaurant as part of his severance package.
"When I decided to add churrasco to the Todai buffet, my employees and the Todai corporate people told me I was crazy," he said. "I was really surprised. Sushi and churrasco isn't an unusual combination where I grew up. Every churrascaria I've been to in Brazil serves sushi on the salad bar. There's a huge Japanese population in Brazil, and it's just part of the culture." The churrasco attracted a new crowd of Anglos and Hispanics and turned the business around, Shim said.
Shim confessed that business has been very slow at Pradaria, but he's confident it will catch on soon.
I went back to Pradaria the next day at dinner time and asked for the hump meat again. This time I was told the cupim was sold out. How could that be, I asked, looking around at the ever empty dining room. The waiter shrugged.
It must have been an awfully small hump.
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