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Bye, Bye Brazil

Leaving a depressed Europe in the early 1900s, two groups of immigrants--one German, one Italian--found new homes in the high plains of southern Brazil, and soon they were reaping the benefits of the area's fertile soil and rich grazing land. As a way of showing their appreciation for their new-found prosperity, the two factions gathered once a year to share the bounty in a sort of Thanksgiving--a very dramatic Thanksgiving.

The tables were loaded with fruits and vegetables that everyone could gorge on while they awaited the immigrant ranchers (called gauchos), who grilled meats on huge skewers and then sliced off chunks onto each diner's plate. As the meats kept coming, so did the wine, and everyone would eat and sing and have such a great time that, over the years, communities opened centers that served food the same way. More recently, individuals appropriated the concept and created popular eateries where generations of families gather regularly to keep up the tradition. When a couple of Americans visited this region of Brazil three years ago and enjoyed the hospitality, they thought the charming scene would make a good chain restaurant.

Judging by Littleton's Rodizio Grill, they should think again--or at least make some drastic improvements at their several-month-old restaurant.

The idea seemed sound: to have servers dressed as gauchos carving meat to order, with an all-you-can-eat salad bar and appetizers thrown in, for one set price ($15.95 at dinner, $10.95 for lunch). But in reality, the service stunk, the food was mediocre, and the atmosphere at this location--the first in what the owners hope will become a nationwide operation--was a cross between a Brazilian fern bar and a high school cafeteria. (The space used to house a Sizzler steakhouse, and it shows.) Eating at Rodizio was like getting stuck on the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland: We went in thinking the concept was cute, and by the time we escaped, we were thoroughly annoyed.

The meal even started cute, with a delightful Latin American host who melted every last bit of tantrum tendencies from my two-year-old. But a few minutes later, I was the one ready to pitch a fit: The irritating, maplike menus waiting at our table offered instruction on how to deal with a rodizio (which means steakhouse) and promised that "your server will be by in a minute." Wrong. In fact, throughout the evening the waitstaff seemed unable--or unwilling--to give us much attention. We learned not to expect anything from our group of waitpersons, who shared all of the tables and who had to be literally grabbed as they hurried past (I think there were just too few of them) in order to get even the most basic items such as water, utensils and the check.

When we finally did meet our first server, he came bearing a platter of appetizers, an ample collection of heavy, breadlike items: paozinho, a Brazilian bread very much like French; pao de queijo, little balls of cheesy dough; sticks of polenta (which the menu helpfully translated as "polenta"); batata frita, your basic French fries; and banana frita, fried bananas that were the best of the bunch. A bite or two of each of these was enough--otherwise, we knew we'd be too full for the meat course. And since our server had yet to return with our beverages, there was no hope of washing down the first course.

While we waited, and waited, for our drinks, we managed to take some control over our dining experience by scouting out the salad bar in the center of the dining room. The spread looked like a plastic, fake-food display in a department store--and some of the items on it tasted that way, too. But mixed in with otherwise forgettable salad makings--iceberg, broccoli, pale tomatoes, carrots--were a few welcome surprises: blobs of fresh mozzarella, hard-boiled quail eggs and a huge hearts-of-palm salad.

By now, though, we were ready for the main course. To indicate this, we had to turn the red-and-green spool on our table over to the green side, thus giving the go-ahead to the skewer-wielding gauchos, who supposedly would continue to visit the table until we gave them the red light. But once again, we had a lengthy wait in store before we'd see our first slice. In the meantime, we watched the gauchos from afar and noted that the original ranchers were peasants, not extras in a Zorro flick, as these appeared to be. When a server finally did stop by, he was also wearing a scowl, as though he were supposed to intimidate us out of taking too much meat. And all of the skewer dudes mumbled, which made it difficult to determine what meat they were presenting. Resorting to the menu descriptions, though, we were able to ascertain most of the cuts by process of elimination.

Our favorite by far was the cupim, slow-roasted beef that the menu claimed was "the most tender cut of beef you've ever had." The menu was right (although it also said the flank, which wasn't offered the night we visited, was their "most tender cut of beef"). The jarring of air molecules as we moved a fork within two inches of the cupim was enough to make the tender meat fall apart. It had such a wonderful salty flavor, we could have eaten nothing else all night--but then we would have been covered with the same grease that thickly coated it. Most of the beef--the picanha no alho, sirloin in garlic, and slices of filet mignon--bore that lardy film, and eventually it became so pervasive that we could still feel it on our tongues hours later.

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