What could be better than an all-you-can-eat buffet? How about an all-you-can-eat buffet that comes to you?
Considering Americans' penchants for both big eating and red meat, it's amazing that the Brazilians beat us to inventing the churrascaria, a restaurant in which servers roam from table to table proffering individual spits of a variety of grilled meats. (Churrasco means, roughly, barbecue.) Diners signal their readiness for another slice, chop or wing by means of a wooden peg: Green means "more," and red means "stop." There's also a walk-up buffet of salads, pastas and veggies, but to optimize your dollars-to-appetite ratio, you want to fill up on the most protein-packed items.
We also find it surprising that the Pittsburgh region has for decades hosted just one of these temples of carnivorism. But recently, two new Brazilian steakhouses have opened within months of each other.
One of these is a chain, but the other, Palms Brazilian Steakhouse, is a homegrown offering located in a cavernous strip-mall space in Aliquippa, just west of the airport. A long bar in front offers a view of a large parking lot, while in back are an almost-as-large main dining room as well as a smaller one for private parties. This is important, as the churrascaria is ideally suited for dining in groups. Socializing is the perfect accompaniment to the indulgence invited by the all-you-can-eat tableside "gaucho service." Even vegetarians, who will want to skip the gaucho service, will find plenty to sustain them at the buffet.
And Palms does have a limited regular menu. From this, we ordered a combo platter of empanadas, a Latin American appetizer that can be likened to savory deep-fried turnovers. Our three were filled with buffalo chicken, steak in chimichurri sauce and smoked mozzarella and roasted tomato, respectively, and served with Brazilian seasoned rice and black beans. The deep-fried wrapper overwhelmed the simple cheese and tomato filling, though the chicken and steak held up.
Which brings us to the meat of the matter. Since Palms calls itself a "steakhouse," we found it odd that marinated steak tips were the only beef we were served. When we inquired, we were told that after 7:30 p.m., items stop being replaced. We had plenty else to choose from, but beef-lovers, take note. In any case, the steak tips were a cut well suited to the churrasco: beefy, mildly flavored by the marinade, like a giant shish kebab, and thus rosy within. However, a later round revealed too much time over the flame, such that medium rare had faded to medium.
Sausages were Western Pennsylvania-style, not Brazilian. Hot and sweet Italian were unremarkable, but cherry-glazed kielbasa was a smart update, the jammy sweetness of the glaze playing off the intense savor of the smoked pork.
Plump shrimp, on the other hand, were overwhelmed by their bourbon sauce. Unsauced shrimp were available from the cold seafood bar at the buffet, along with oysters and crab legs, but we found them not cold enough for our optimal enjoyment.
Chicken wings boasted tasty, crisp skins, but the meat within was just a touch dried out. Chicken wrapped in bacon was made from white meat that stayed surprisingly moist. Although quality varied, again, from skewer to skewer, overall this item was a big success with everyone in our party.
Two lamb preparations came around. The first was lamb chops that were agreeably seasoned, if not tender enough. The second was leg of lamb, whose gamey flavor unfortunately betrayed the promise of its lovely, rosemary-flecked crust. Pork loin was even more gorgeously encrusted — it looked as if ours had started with a nice cap of fat — as well as tender and moist within, a triumph over the tendency of this cut to dry out at the mere suggestion of heat.
Brazilians tend to favor a late dinner hour. But here, it is best to get to Palms when the sun is still high in the sky, the meat is still fresh off the churrasco, and — if beef is your protein of choice — when the varieties are still plenteous.