While a person doesn’t really need an excuse to tackle a good steak, the South American-style steakhouses peppering the New Orleans area offer many delicious rationalizations. These range from unusual cuts of meat to the pomp and spectacle of an upscale Brazilian churrascaria. And among just the three places covered here, you’ll find a wide variation in prices, influences and styles. So now, a person doesn’t really have a good reason not to go.
Who can resist Fire of Brazil’s siren lure of “16 Kinds of Meat?” Not me. At this over-the-top Brazilian steakhouse in the French Quarter, one fixed price buys you a card that’s green on one side and red on the other. Red means stop and green means go. Leave the card on the table with the green side facing up and a platoon of gauchos will descend with giant, meat-laden skewers and slice various delicacies at you until you flip the card back over to red. Select what you like, accepting freshly cut slices with a pair of tongs, and wave away the ones you don’t.
Beef tenderloin comes prepared three different ways: individual morsels wrapped in bacon, a whole loin spitted and roasted with garlic and just plain filet. The degree of doneness varies along the shank of the spit, and I asked my skewer-bearer to shave me a longitudinal sample ranging from medium to extra-rare. The simple, rare filet was the tastiest, though I can’t argue against the bacon.
Also good are the pork ribs. The serving of these entails a neat trick, as the rack itself is spitted. The server makes cuts along the top and bottom of the rib on the skewer, the patron seizes the rib with the tongs, the server twists the spindle and voila – rib is served. Unadorned, with nary a dry rub or sauce, these are pork ribs at their simplest and finest. The exterior is crispy and the meat pulls right off the bone. Lamb chops of Flintstone-esque proportions are managed in a similar way. For those whose meat tolerance is especially high, supplementing the primary menu is an “exotic meats” option featuring such fire-roasted, non-Brazilian denizens as kangaroo and ostrich.
Included in the price is an elaborate salad bar. More like an antipasti section, it includes prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe and marinated seafood. It also offers hot choices like baked salmon and, perhaps a nod to local tastes, a mirliton and red-onion salad. Other nice choices include fresh mozzarella medallions served with tomatoes and basil, useful for warding off meat-comas. While the salad bar is available as a stand-alone option, the one-price carnivore plan is really the reason to come here. True, a vegetarian tagging along with the group would be able to assemble a meat-free meal from the salad bar, but waiters wandering about with 16 types of meat impaled upon swords would likely give them nightmares.
As a disclaimer, generally I don’t review out-of-state chains but this one distinguishes itself enough to merit a personal exception. Plus, did I mention the 16 kinds of meat?
A churrascaria at the other end of the spectrum is the Carnaval Bar & Grill on Canal Street. While Fire of Brazil is a special-occasion type of place – a shiny and over-the-top extravagance fun for a big group with an expense account – Carnaval is an unpretentious spot popular with Latino workers on their lunch break. A parking lot full of pickups is always a sign of good food and the lot is full of them here. There are no novel red and green feed cards at Carnaval. Instead, you grab a plate near the front door and work your way down a buffet line loaded with simple treats such as ripe mango, fried yucca, plantains and rice. At the terminus of the line is a kitchen window where you can select whichever meats are most appealing. Then your plate is weighed and accounted for and you grab a seat, often communal, to tuck in.
Links of chicken sausage are uncommonly flavorful here, tasting suspiciously as if they were larded with a bit of bacon fat. Which brings up the bacon-wrapped chicken morsels – addictive and akin to something that would be passed around a party on the end of a toothpick. Chunks of pork roast are heavily marbled and flavorful. The beef rump steak is a bit tough but tasty, seasoned with extra-coarse salt. Your dollar will go pretty far here and it makes for a neat place to try something new. For a different kind of drink, try an invigorating Guarana soda.
Despite the novelty of the churrascaria, sometimes a person just wants a great steak in an understated setting that hits all the right notes. For this I go to La Boca, the fantastic Argentine steakhouse in the Warehouse District that’s been quietly putting out some of the best and most distinctive steaks in the city for almost two years. For appetizers, the truly hungry can hit the ground running with the Provoleta, a cast-iron skillet bubbling with molten cheese, fresh oregano and olive oil, akin to an Argentine fondue. The mollejas, aka sweetbreads, are excellent; unadorned and simply grilled, there are no sauces or breading to come between you and the delicate flavor of the glands.
Diners can find standard steakhouse cuts on the menu, like Bife de Chorizo and Bife de Lomo, large New York strips and filet mignons, respectively. But a meal here is better appreciated by trying some of the more unusual cuts. The Vacio is my personal favorite. A flank steak which is first marinated in pineapple juice, this results in a lightly caramelized crust when it comes off the grill. A quick dusting with Spanish paprika at the end imparts some smokiness, giving it just the right finish. The Entraña Fina, or outside skirt steak, is good as well. Grilled with the skin on, it offers a delectable textural contrast between the exterior and interior.
Three chimichurri sauces stand at the ready for whichever steak you choose. A traditional sauce of parsley, garlic, oregano and olive oil resembles a pesto. A white chimichurri, made with horseradish, Creole mustard, olive oil, and lemon, pairs well with beef. Rounding them out is a red pepper chimichurri made with four kinds of peppers pureed with olive oil and a touch of cumin and garlic.
A meal here can quickly get out of hand with the meat choices. You can cushion your fall or hedge your bets with a choice of two nice salads. Though vegetables are available among the sides, I would put a premium on the frites, which are maybe the best in the city. These come served in a paper cone and are topped with garlic, coarse salt and fresh parsley. Keep in mind that La Boca is a dinner-only destination, and also that it stays open until midnight on Thursdays through Saturdays.