No sooner had I landed in Sao Paolo on a business trip a few years ago than I was whisked off to lunch at a famous rodizio. After ordering the obligatory caipirinhas, I was told to visit the buffet. The rodizio drill is simple. You have a card by your side, one side green, one side red. If you give the green light, the gaucho-attired waiters (yes, Brazilian gauchos dress like their better-known Argentine counterparts) will keep offering their meats. Also by your side is a small pair of tongs, which you use to pull the sliced meat onto your plate. Flip the card over to the red side and they stop coming. At the beginning, one is tempted to try everything. After a while, one grows fuller and more selective. Or, if you're an old rodizio hand, you know which cuts are worth green-lighting. With a growing Brazilian population, South Florida has a booming rodizio scene -- pricey, upscale restaurants where one goes to indulge in as much premium beef as possible. Though rodizios come from the same gaucho tradition as the by-now-countless Argentine parrillas and offer some of the same cuts, the concepts are different. In South Florida we're fortunate enough to have both.
"Salad bar" at Fogo de Chao is an understatement. Yes, there is every conceivable kind of salad and salad fixing, all high-quality and fresh (no canned garbanzos). There are also main courses of fish, meat and pasta, as well as a vat of feijoada completa -- black beans with the works -- rice, collard greens and farofa (ground manioc toasted with pork crackling). Soups as well. Back at the table, the waiters arrive with their traditional, sword-impaled grilled meats. There is a wide range of steaks, the king of which is the delicious top sirloin cut called picanha, plus chorizos and morcillas (for the Argentines, my Brazilian hosts said dismissively), as well as lamb and pork cuts, quail, chicken hearts and a weird beef cut favored by South American cattle lovers, Brahman bull hump. (I had tasted before, much to my regret, so I passed.) We ate until we plotzed. Then came dessert. Mercifully, the rodizio favorite is papaya cream spiked with cassis, papaya being enzyme-rich and good for digesting all that protein. Fogo de Chao: 836 First Street, Miami Beach; 305-672-0011; Lunch weekdays $26.50, dinner nightly $46.50
A few blocks away, in the new Mary Brickell Village compound, Grimpa -- like Porcao a branch of a Brazilian rodizio chain -- offers the same menu though tastier and in a more sophisticated setting. The month-old restaurant is Miami cool, from the inviting bar, where a friendly bartender will suggest a cachaça good enough to drink chilled and straight, to the elegantly appointed dining room. The buffet is fine, though small, and the meats are superbly textured and seasoned. Salt is used generously in rodizio grilling, and the Grimpa meats have a tangy, salty edge to set off their sweet interior. Again, picanha takes the prize. As for the cream dessert, it's papaya plus other fruits, topped with the obligatory cassis, and it's a cut above the commonplace -- a gourmet version of the classic. Grimpa Steakhouse: Mary Brickell Village, 901 S Miami Ave., Miami: Lunch weekdays, $29.50; dinner nightly, $44.50; 305-371-5444. Lunch weekdays $29.50, dinner nighlty $44.50
Fogovivo is in West Miami, far from coastal trendiness, yet it is our most authentic rodizio. Bustling and friendly, it feels like any of the city's best Latin restaurants (the clientele is almost all Spanish-speaking). A courtly Brazilian maitre d' (there are several) explained the green/red drill, but that was not all. He suggested a Protos Crianza to go with the meal, and managed to sell us a bottle of sparkling water "because it's good for digesting the meats." Steak cuts were extraordinarily tender and flavorful. As for other choices, spareribs were cooked dry-style -- no sauce -- and delightfully crunchy. Leg of lamb was medium rare and wonderful. (Keeping the focus carnivorous, I passed on salmon and chicken.) The salad bar had the wonderful wretched excess I'd been looking for: not just black beans and rice, but a feijoada, with chunks of meat and sausage. Add to all this a lively Latin crowd from the west end of town and you are, if not in Brazil, at least in Latin America. Fogovivo Churrascaria: 7711 Bird Rd, Miami: 305-261-7249; Lunch weekdays, $22.99; dinner nightly, $39.99; brunch Saturday-Sunday, $39.99
Rodizo chain Texas de Brazil has set up two shops in Miami - one west in Dolphin Mall and one east on Miami Beach. Rodizios are no bargain, and this indulgence seems out of place in an outlet shopping center, but Texas de Brazil is filled at night. Service is wonderful, not just with the meats that keep on coming but with the solicitous care the waiters provide. Mine even managed to sell me an after-dinner cigar (to be consumed outside the restaurant). The buffet was very good, including the full feijoada. The meats, however, were somewhat disappointing -- not bad, just not as good as at Grimpa and Fogovivo, in part because they came to the table medium-well rather than the perfect medium-rare we enjoyed at the competition. Texas de Brazil @ The Dolphin Mall: 11401 NW 12th St, Miami; 305-599-7729; Texas de Brazil South Beach: 300 Alton Rd, Miami Beach; 305-695-7702; Lunch weekdays $27.99, dinner nightly $4.99, brunch Sat & Sun $44.99
Chima, on Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Boulevard, has the decor of a modernist Brazilian fazienda, with an inviting front courtyard where a chanteuse spun off bossa novas the night we dined. Inside, a fireplace of studied, rough-hewn design hinted at the fire-roasted meats that awaited. In fact, as one enters, the kitchen is in full view, so you can see the meats grilling on their swords. The buffet is the most elegant of the local rodizios, with two kinds of what Argentines call ensalada rusa (a glorified potato salad), plus treats like carpaccio and blue cheese mousse. There was the obligatory feijoada, and an interesting rice with vegetables. Then came the meats. Chima's were good and, if I declined a cut because it was overcooked, the server would make sure the next medium-rare order was at my table promptly. The papaya cream, which can be bland, was perfect here. This being Broward, there was more English than Spanish spoken at the tables, plus some Portuguese from the county's large Brazilian community. Chima is a luxury restaurant in every way, with attention paid to the quality of each product, as well as service and décor -- the full Monty. Chima: 2400 E Las Olas Blvd, Fort Lauderdale; 954-712-0580; Dinner nightly $47.50, brunch Sunday $37.50
Pleased to meat you: serving up the good stuff at Fogovivo in West Miami. Photo: Patrick Farrell/Miami.com staff