Meet the Meat at Churrascaria Tribeca

ArticleEduardo González-CuevaComment

A puzzling thing happens when a Brazilian and a Spanish-speaking Latin American meet in New York: they use English to communicate. A strange roundabout, if you consider how close Portuguese and Spanish are. It feels bizarre, colonial, like those South-South trips where a traveler from Latin America going to Africa needs to go first to Europe. As a Spanish speaker listening to Brazilian Bossa Nova, I always had the sensation that I “understood.” Even if my mind was making up what half the words meant, I was somehow in tune with the feelings expressed in the music.

Cuisine is a type of language and a form of music. And sharing a meal is a fleeting pleasure, a mysterious sensation of personal well-being and social communion that often requires no words, just the acknowledgment of each other’s presence around a table. The conviviality of a raised glass, the glances exchanged when our taste buds are surprised at the same time, these very often short-circuit the need for words.

Enter churrascarias. A long-standing tradition, churrascarias are the culinary heritage of those tough European immigrants, who arrived on the enormous plains of the Brazilian south to raise cattle and simultaneously created the culture of the gauchos. Not unlike the gauchos from Argentina and Uruguay, Gaucho identity in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul is marked by independence, willingness to go where nobody else does, and a profound love for the simple satisfactions of nature, hard work and large families.

Tradition has it that after their long, hard labors, gaucho cowboys would gather around the fire and share the best cuts of meat in prolonged banquets. Their stories were told, rivalries were solved, and traditions were created. Even now, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, is a city where no house is considered good without a grill, and where the weekends are marked by the aroma of churrasco.

Churrascaria Tribeca, therefore, is not just the heir to a powerful tradition, but the bearer of a heavy responsibility. It must represent a very demanding identity, and it must also be open to very diverse persons, each with their own trajectory and quest. Churrascaria Tribeca attracts a varied crowd: young couples in a first date sit next to a large family with many kids, and the well-dressed meet the informal. The night I visited, I heard a musical combination of English, Spanish, Portuguese and German coming from the different tables, and I managed to hold my ground with my rudimentary Portuguese.

In fact, the only group that is not represented around the table of a churrascaria, I suppose, are vegetarians. For here, meat is the center of a celebration involving all the senses, in the complementarity of textures, color, aroma, flavor and even the sizzling sound of a cut just off the grill. The diversity of cuts provides one surprise after another, as the expert hand of the meat cutters who come to your table slice through the skewered meat as if it were butter.

Picanha, which sounds exactly like the Spanish picaña, is a sirloin cut with just the right proportion of meat to flavor-filled fat, and it is my favorite, especially when paired with feijao (black beans) and farinha (toasted ground manioc). The juicy cut contrasts nicely with the dry farinha and the rich feijao. Add to the equation, as I did, a glass of dry Malbec, bring friends and loved ones to the table, and the experience cannot be better.

A good thing about a churrascaria, and that is the case of Churrascaria Tribeca, is that Brazilians are not fastidious or pretentious. They won’t serve you just beef, or expect you to be an expert in the different cuts they master; there will be cuts of veal, pork and chicken around too, to pamper those of us who have a tooth for small cuts. Not to mention the fact that every self-respecting churrascaria has a salad bar that brings the word ‘decadent’ to mind. My nine year-old daughter was quite happy to indulge in the salad bar sushi, and then the sausage, while I combined my beloved picanha with fraldinha (flank steak) and costelha (pork ribs).

A note is needed on the actual method of ordering meat in a churrascaria; the so-called rodizio system. Each guest has a small round chip on the table with two sides: red and green. If you want the meat cutters to serve you, you leave the chip in the green color. If you are satisfied, or are busy with a cut, you just turn the chip red. Whenever the servers see a green chip, they will approach you and describe what they have for you; if you want the cut, they will slice exceedingly thin pieces for you to pick at.

What sealed the deal for me was an invitation to see the actual grill, and the different cuts of meat rotating slowly in the heat while the master cook gave orders in the same way a conductor would lead a musical ensemble. Because cuisine is music: that mysterious form of time spent in the senses and in feeling. Holding my daughter’s hand, I started to feel saudade, an anticipated nostalgia for that experience that we were starting to close, a melancholy sensation of having been for a fleeting moment in a wordless bridge between the worlds of Spanish and Portuguese, Pacific and Atlantic, in this softly lit corner of Tribeca.