By Elizabeth Keyser
3:30 PM EDT, October 15, 2013
You can't miss Pantanal. The vivid green and yellow building is the color of the Brazilian flag. The sidewalk's striped green and yellow. The small parking lot is crowded. So is street parking. It's all a good sign. There's something good going on in this drab, residential Bridgeport neighborhood. It smells like someone's grilling meat.
If it's your first time at Pantanal, you might feel overwhelmed. It draws a lot of people to its buffets (hot and cold) and grill. The choices seem vast. The grilled meat is the immediate lure. It's cooked on long skewers over a charcoal brazier. While you're standing there at the meat counter, reading the list — brisket, beef ribs, pork loin, pork sausage, chicken wings, chicken breast wrapped in bacon and two kinds of steak, picanha and alcatra — and trying to decide what to have, all around you, regulars, holding white plates or take-out containers, know exactly what they want. The guy takes their order and pulls a skewer from the brazier. He cuts into the meat to show the customer the doneness, and if he gets a nod, he slices a hunk off the skewer. With a two super-sharp knives, he makes quick work of cutting the meat into pieces.
Try the picanha. It's considered the Brazilian churrascaria meat. Picanha is a tender cut of beef from the rump. It has a thick fat cap — which makes it great for grilling. I asked for it rare. The guy pulled down a skewer and cut into it. It was more on the pale, pink-grey side, and I was saying, "It's fine," even though it wasn't exactly what I wanted. But he knew. He put the skewer back and pulled down another. This meat was bright pink. "Perfect." I said.
He added the meat to my plate. I'd already hit the buffet, where I'd been so awed by the choices, I basically skipped the cold station. The hot buffet had white rice, Spanish rice, mac 'n cheese, black beans, pinto beans, fried sweet plantain, fried chicken, fried fish and several stews. I noticed people really digging into those stews. I wanted to try them all (chicken and okra looked intriguing), but I didn't want a big mess of flavors on the plate, so I chose an orange-colored stew of smoked pork ribs and white beans. It turned out to be an excellent choice, smoky and deeply flavorful.
The website has a schedule of what is served at the buffet Monday through Friday. Friday is the day for beef tripe stew and fried pork skins with yucca, and for the less adventurous, chicken lasagna and fried chicken wings. Wednesdays, the choices include gizzards, king fish stew, and black beans with pork, sausage and bacon.
My plate was heaped with white rice, black beans, fried sweet plantain, the pork stew, raw collard salad sliced into an impressive chiffonade, hearts of palm, and the picanha steak. (I also couldn't resist a spoonful of the mac 'n cheese, even though it was orange and I usually avoid food that contain artificial dyes, as orange cheddar does.)
The traditional accompaniments to the grilled meats are a vinegary tomato salsa and farofa, a toasted flour made of manioc root. Farofa is an acquired taste that I have yet to acquire, but most Brazilians love it, letting the farofa absorb the meat juices on the plate, and, sometimes, rolling the meat in it. Thursdays, the buffet offers farofa cooked with eggs, carrots and bacon. That's not something I can get excited about, but it probably says "home" to most of Pantanal's customers.
We brought our plates to the front counter. They were weighed and we paid — two plates piled with food and steak, plus a coke and a bottle of water, for $20. Nice! We carried our plates into the wood-walled dining room (decorated with some hideous mass-produced still-life paintings). It was Thursday, lunchtime, and there was a good buzz in the room. There were all sorts of people, a couple on a date, people dressed for business, tradespeople in jeans and work boots.
My husband and I were damn happy, eating our meals. The black beans tasted like they'd been cooked with a ham hock. The steak was tender and had that great charcoal grilled flavor. The fried plantain was sweet, soft and caramelized. The raw collard salad was an antidote to the gluttony of the steak. We loved the off-the-beaten track aspect of Pantanal, the buzzy vibe of the customers. Good food and low prices makes everyone happy.
I've got to admit this lunch did some damage. That afternoon, I felt very sleepy, and, yes, I had to take a nap. We did not eat dinner that night. And that might be a first at our house. We were stuffed and subdued. Yet, we couldn't stop thinking about that smoked ribs and white bean stew.
Pantanal Restaurant and Churrascaria
215 Frank St., Bridgeport, (203) 335-1071, pantanalrestaurant.com
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