The meat at Churrascaria Santo Antônio seemed to be the stuff of urban legend. “I had a friend visiting from Canada who had been a vegetarian for years,” said my mother-in-law, a native of southern Brazil who had been coming to the restaurant for decades. “I took her to Santo Antônio and, when the owner heard she didn’t eat meat, he whisked her back to the kitchens. He told her how the cattle was raised, explained the care they took in sourcing their meat and showed her how it was cooked. She was so impressed she ate a steak!”
It seems almost everyone who has passed through the doors of Santo Antônio throughout its 80-plus years on Porto Alegre’s bustling Rua Doutor Timóteo has a story to tell. My own story took place during my first lunch there, wherein my waiter – upon hearing that he had a first-time visitor at his table – served me a piece of meat so tender he cut it in half with a spoon.
Cooking churrasco – the Portuguese term for grilled meat – is practically a religion in Brazil. Walk down the streets of Porto Alegre on a Sunday and the air will be thick with the smoke of charcoal grills, the scent of beef and pork on the barbecue wafting out windows. Even the simplest apartments often have kitchens equipped with a churrasqueira – a hearth with space for charcoal at the bottom and slots for skewers of meat to roast above it.
The origins of churrasco date back to the 1800s as the cuisine of gauchos: South American cowboys and ranch hands who worked the land of the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, near the borders of Uruguay and Argentina. Beef was the one ingredient that was always plentiful in this nomadic line of work, and as the gauchos roamed from place to place, the tradition of roasting meat on a spit began. Brazilian barbecue was born.
The gaucho culture is still revered in southern Brazil; the term has even become an identifier for modern day natives of Rio Grande do Sul. Each year, the traditions and cuisine of the gauchos are celebrated at Farroupilha Week – and it was at one such celebration that the idea for Santo Antônio was hatched.
“My grandparents were invited to make churrasco, and after seeing how successful it was at the festival, my grandfather decided to try serving it at a restaurant,” said Santo Antônio’s third-generation owner Jorge Aita. “Prior to that, only Uruguayans had restaurants serving parilla, their version of churrasco, which is cooked over wood.” Santo Antônio added churrascoto its menu in 1935, becoming the country’s first churrasqueira, and soon more local restaurants followed suit.
“In Rio Grande do Sul, eating meat is part of our DNA,” said Ilmar Tasca, a managing partner of Barranco, one of Porto Alegre’s most popular churrasqueiras. “For churrasco, the cooking method couldn’t be simpler: coarse salt and a charcoal fire. Nothing else.”
What sets the churrasco of the Rio Grande del region apart is the quality of the beef. “It’s from black Angus, which is a British breed,” Tasca explained. “We’re very careful to only select the youngest cattle. We also have constant contact with the ranchers to understand how the animals are being raised.” From a diner’s perspective, what’s truly different about eating Brazilian barbeque versus, say, a filet at a traditional US steakhouse is how light you feel, even after a large serving. The meat is lean yet filling, flavourful but not overbearing.
Standing in Barranco’s kitchen on a Sunday afternoon – the restaurant’s busiest time of the week – was a bit like watching a carefully choreographed dance. Waiters ran in and out calling orders as long skewers loaded with meat were hurried to the grill. It was amazing that no one was accidentally skewered given the breakneck pace of the cooking. I flattened myself to the wall as an order of picanha (considered one of the best cuts of beef in Brazil) was hurled onto the fire.
Eating churrasco is a multi-generational event, or as Tasca put it “the main activity people do on Sundays”. As such, the tables at Barranco are built for extended families and the atmosphere on the dining floor is relaxed. When we ate there, wall-mounted televisions broadcast a football game, while the cheerful din of family and friends chattering about their week filled the air.
Our meal began traditionally, with an order of fried polenta and an ice-cold Brahma, a popular Brazilian brand of chopp (draft beer). A salad soon followed, and then it was time for the main event: the churrasco, with cuts served whole on a wooden board. I grabbed a spoonful of farofa, a toasted cassava flour mixture said to aid digestion, and served myself a healthy portion of costela (ribs). Both Aita and Tasca recommended costela as “a true dish of the gauchos”.
I took a bite and savoured the salty goodness of the meat. While I may never be a true gaucho, at least I can eat like one.
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