Spin control

Rodizio Grill needs to tighten its twirl

Rodizio means "rotation" in Portuguese. This definition, stated in a press release headlined "Totally Unique Grill to locate in the heart of Arlington," proved significant after two visits to Rodizio Grill, a continuous-service Brazilian churrascarias, or grill house, because the quality seemed to spiral downward from markedly flawed to barely acceptable. And this made the phrases coming from Rodizio's restroom sound system on my first visit particularly prescient.

While the rest of the restaurant was bathed in a cheesy hit parade from the '70s and '80s (the press release crows about how authentic Brazilian music adds to Rodizio's vibrant spirit), the restrooms were piped with Portuguese language instruction tapes. "Can I get this laundry washed?" said a gentleman in English. A woman repeated his words in Portuguese. The next phrase was even more momentous. "Can I have some toilet paper?"

It's amusing how critical it is to learn phrases like this when venturing outside U.S. borders. We so quickly take for granted that ours is a nation bursting with floral prints, spring scents, and shrink-wrapped rolls squished by Mr. Whipple. We're so blessed with the stuff, we thread it through people's landscaping or wrap their cars in it when we think they might be running out.

Now it would be tasteless--pointlessly and inexcusably tasteless--for me to say this bathroom blather had import because the food at this Brazil-goes-to-Arlington haunt made my entrails do the rodizio. Cheap and sophomoric too. So I'll refrain.

But I will say Rodizio Grill is an alarming place. It's fashioned around a variety of meats--beef, chicken, pork, ham, even buffalo--seasoned and impaled on long skewers and assembled on a special Brazilian grill known as a churrasqueira. The stuff is then dispensed by guachos--or servers dressed as Brazilian cowboys--who stop by tables on a continuous basis. Yet if the meat served here is seasoned (debatable), the servers certainly are not. Long skewers are collected and stored just outside the open kitchen in a large plastic barrel. Servers hover around that can, chat, and sharpen long knives against a steel, slicing through the air like clumsy Zorro mimics.

There is no attempt to explain to customers what is going on. On each table there is a small wooden doodad like a chess piece with the top painted red and the bottom painted green. An exposed red dot indicates you don't want any skewer service while the green dot says "stick me with meat." Laying the device on its side indicates you're ready for the dinner check. There is also a pair of tongs at each table setting that are used by the diner to hold and pull slices of meat from the skewer as the server holds it with one hand and works the knife with the other.

But on one visit, our servers never explained any of this. (We sat for a good 30 minutes after finishing dessert on our first visit, waiting in exasperation for the check because the servers didn't explain the code language for closing out the meal.) So the gauchos would pry, cut, and flick bits of animal flesh onto our plates with the tips of their curved knives until one realized the folly of such maneuvers and urged us to use the tongs.

Even more dangerous than these under-trained Brazilian cowboy impersonators with sharp objects was the food. The meal starts innocently enough with a collection of mostly bland appetizers: Brazilian breads, polenta topped with marinara, and mushy fried banana. One of the features of the Brazilian grill house is the all-you-can-eat salad bar loaded with a variety of plant life and hot and cold appetizers. Generally the stuff is incomparably fresh, better than just about any salad bar you'll find. (Which is not really saying much. I mean, who's got them anymore except for Smorga Bob's?)

Not here. The first hint of trouble was the bowl of lettuce that greets you at the start of the bar. It was riddled with badly browning leafy matter. The rest of the spread was little better: washed out, tasteless canned black olives; insipid baby corn; dry mashed potatoes curing and separating from their square stainless-steel vessel in perfect form; overcooked, mushy penne pasta capped with petrified cheese substance; and a pair of bowls of cubed canned ham and Swiss cheese, all in a place that's "totally unique."

The stuff was even more troublesome when passed between the lips. Marinated quail eggs, hardboiled musket balls speckled with seasonings, tasted like spackling. There was a time several years ago when grocery store-brand canned food was cheap but barely fit for human consumption. The chains have since discovered a huge niche by appreciably boosting the quality of these goods while keeping the price down, giving national brands a run for their dough.

Rodizio has somehow rediscovered these days of store-branded yore. Hearts of palm salad had woody fibrous logs with an off sharpness on the palate, like something was arousing them into fermentation. Artichoke bottom salad was little better. A salad composed of tapioca, olives, carrot, and dried beef was bland on one visit and riddled with grit on another. Everything else was yellow-bellied cuisine: watery crab salad; dull tuna salad; off-tasting pasta salad; soppy black beans; tasteless stroganoff; and rice that was fluffy but plugged with sodden frozen carrot cubes and shriveled peas. On an up note, the marinated mushrooms were quite good.

Unfortunately, the salad-bar carnage was maintained once the skewers started piercing this dining tragedy. My father, who accompanied me on my Rodizio excursions, is a shameless and incontrovertible carnivore. To him, plant life is for oxygen, meat is for food. And that meat must be red. Chickens are little more than tumbleweeds on stilts with a peculiar penchant for barking at the rising sun. Fish keep the all-important boat industry afloat. His lust isn't complicated. Spam seared in butter-flavored Pam would stir his heart nearly as much as a perfectly grilled T-bone.

But even he was aghast at what was cut and clumsily peeled from Rodizio's skewers. Coils of sausage were bland on one visit and sharply sour on another, leading us to ponder the possibility of a bungled marinade or the horror of an over-the-hill Brazilian weenie. Cupim, a "Rodizio exclusive" carved from the shoulder of the steer, was like hemp rope dipped in 40-weight on the first try and a graying bland blubber bulb on the second.

The menu boasts that coxa, a chicken drumstick marinated in European and Brazilian seasonings, is so tender it practically falls of the bones. Actually, it was more like the aforementioned hemp rope without the 40-weight dip, making it resemble the bone from which it purportedly loses its grip.

But I'm being unfair. There were some things here that were good. It's just that by the time you get to them, your appetite has long since wished it could converse about bathroom tissue in perfect Portuguese. Ham glazed in brown sugar was tasty, if a little dry. Top sirloin was oozy, rich and well-seasoned. Picanah, a cap of sirloin with garlic and Parmesan cheese, was better than most versions of this preparation I've tasted in Dallas. But these meaty bits offered little consolation to what was otherwise a churrascarias catclysm.

Planted in what used to be East Side Mario's restaurant on Cooper Street at Interstate 20, Rodizio is a casual, almost randomly assembled space. Painted concrete floors and a mustard-washed ceiling with exposed ducts, steel beams, and wood planks give it church-basement feel. A wall of paned windows separates the dining room from the bar, a handsome, cozy space--far more than the dining room, at least, because food isn't the only discomfort here. Tables lining the wall separate the bar from the dining room and have these abnormally large round bases that seem to reach beyond the tabletops, making it impossible to pull your chair completely up to them. You end up eating your meal at an angle, creating a sizable gap for skewer fragments to collect in your lap.

Based in Littleton, Colorado, Rodizio was launched by Ivan Utrera, a former Pizza Hut marketing executive in Latin America and Stephen Oldham, a onetime Pepsico number-cruncher. They operate three Rodizios in Colorado, one in Dallas, and one that recently opened in Salt Lake City. With plans to open restaurants in Houston and North Dallas in the near future, the pair boasts they will operate 100 Rodizio Grills across the United States within a decade.

They dub their restaurant the "steak evolution," which means, according to Utrera, that instead of ordering a steak at a steakhouse and gnawing on the same taste profile for a whole meal, Rodizio gives you a whole rainbow of grilled meat flavors in smaller portions, in one meal.

As I write this, Rodizio is dropping its prices: from $16.95 to $14.95 for the full Rodizio experience, which includes unlimited salad bar and grilled meats, and a sampler which is unlimited salad bar and 10 ounces of any two meats for $11.95. This is significantly less than either Texas de Brazil or Fogo de Chao, churrascarias that charge around $30 for the same experience.

Yet perhaps Consumer Reports' evaluation of the Yugo when it first hit our shores applies to this culinary experience: "unsafe at any price."

Rodizio Grill, 4040 Cooper St. at I-20, Arlington. (817) 417-7600. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m. $

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