Meat buffet at a lean price: Casa Brasil's $10 daily specials cater to locals

Grilled meats are a specialty in Brazil, and at Casa Brasil, as well.
Grilled meats are a specialty in Brazil, and at Casa Brasil, as well.
Posted: May 28, 2010

A BRAZILIAN buffet is a showcase of tastes. It is a cuisine with influences from its own indigenous peoples, Portugal and Africa plus ingredients from the rain forest and the sea.

And, in my estimation, lots of tastes is a fine way to dine.

The tradition of a Brazilian buffet has resulted in several chains, such as Fogo de Chao and Chima, with abundant all-you-can eat offerings. They are pricey, and I often find the meat much too salty and thirst-inducing. And there's a Disneyesque element to the atmosphere, with the costumed servers and over-the-top décor.

Casa Brasil, in the Northeast, is much more affordable and caters to the local Brazilian population. It has been so successful that owner Linalva Coelho is opening a second location, in Delran, N.J.

Unlike the big chains, Coelho's buffet offers different specialties on specific days. On Wednesdays you'll find Chicken with okra and a polenta that is typical of Northern Brazil.

Thursdays the featured dish is Costela, or spare ribs, and it comes with Canjiquinha which, near as I can tell, is Brazilian grits.

On Fridays you'll find Dobradinha (a tripe dish) as well as Moqueca de Peixe, a typical fish stew from the northeast state of Bahia that pairs a mild fish with the richness of coconut milk and dende coconut oil.

Sundays feature Feijao Tropeiro, a dish of pinto beans similar to refried beans and served with kale.

One of the highlights on my visit was that on Saturdays Feijoada is available. As my Brazilian taster explained to me, this is a dish beloved by expats and considered to be a true taste of home.

Feijoada is based on black beans, sausage and dry salted meats, with a number of components that are served with the dish. Most unusual is Farofa, a toasted manioc flour that is sprinkled over the dish as it is served to add depth and texture.

A chiffonade of kale is also an accompaniment, and in this case my tasters and I found this slightly undercooked.

But the true test of a Brazilian buffet is the grilled meats. Casa Brasil breaks down its meat in the kitchen to create the standard Brazilian cuts, which are different from ours. The meat is then grilled over coals to create more of a char than smoked taste.

The finest would be the Picanha, which sits on skewers on the grill and is sliced onto your plate.

While my piece was tender with robust flavor, one of my tasters received a slightly tough serving. A replacement piece, however, is easily found.

We also sampled chicken wrapped in bacon, chicken wings and chicken with garlic, and while none was totally memorable, each morsel was nicely grilled.

The traditional Portuguese sausage, linguica, was tender and juicy. A tender pork loin was also on the roster that evening.

For those who like what I call "parts food," dive into the grilled chicken hearts. These came off the spit tender, but with a little crackly char.

At $9.99 for all you can eat, you begin to see the value.

The abundance was at the grill station while the hot and cold buffets offer the daily specials.

The rice selections included a plain white rice and yellow rice with peas. The latter seemed more like filler than something particularly Brazilian.

There was a vegetable medley with okra, a Brazilian staple. I'm an okra lover, so I didn't mind that it was overcooked.

I would have liked to have seen a hearts of palm salad, something I associate with a Brazilian buffet. But, there are enough cold salads to fulfill your RDA, a good thing in light of the fact that you'll be pigging out in the saturated-fat department.

The cold buffet also included a potato salad that was simple but good.

The dessert offerings are limited, but the essentials are there. The flan ($3.50) was that great blend of syrupy sweetness and creamy mouthfeel. We also enjoyed passion-fruit pudding drizzled with chocolate. The sharp tang of the passion fruit paired surprisingly well with the chocolate.

The beverage offerings are very interesting and include fruit drinks made from imported frozen pulp coming from fruits in the Amazon, including acai, acerola and passion fruit ($3). I particularly enjoyed a Guarana fruit soda, also made from a rain-forest fruit and imported ($1.50).

There's no denying that Casa Brasil is a no-frills atmosphere. There are no waiters in gaucho garb sprinting about with meat-laden spears to fill your plate. Everything is self-serve. The décor here is '60s school cafeteria, complete with linoleum floor, Formica and metal chairs.

There was, however, a TV that was tuned to a Brazilian soap opera and was so cliched you didn't need to know Portuguese to understand what was going on (sex, death and heartbreak). I'm guessing that this would be a fine place to hunker down during the World Cup, although I'd be careful whose colors you wear.

Attached to Casa Brasil is Pollo a la Brasa take-out or delivery ($8 for a whole chicken). This is a bird that is marinated in a vinegar-and-pepper hot sauce and salt. If you are familiar with the Cornell recipe for grilled chicken, this is similar but with a bit of spice.

Yes, Pollo a la Brasa is considered Peruvian, but in northern Brazil a little mash-up of the chicken styles can happen. It's a man-made border after all.

Coelho had the charcoal grill that is manually rotated to cook the meat made in the style of a Portuguese cooker. While I didn't try them, the pork ribs ($9.99 rack) are on my list for a return visit.

Casa Brasil is BYOB, and while there is a beer outlet on the same block it would be worth seeking out a Brazilian beer. Cerpa or Bohemia are well-known, but beer writer Lew Bryson recommends Eisenbahn's, a craft brew.

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