Designated Diner: Vicki Mayer
Day job: Professor of Communication and the Louise and Leonard Riggio Professor of the Taylor School of Social Innovation and Design Thinking, Tulane University. She also co-directs the MediaNOLA project, which archives research and class projects about local and regional culture and history.
Secret past: For several years starting in the late ‘90s, she was an undercover restaurant writer in San Antonio. “I made $50 a story and got an eating budget of $100 per month. So each month I’d go one week to a food stand, then a quirky cheap place, then a dive and then save my pennies for a high-class finale.”
Not-so-secret past: Dr. Mayer has lived off and on in Brazil over the years, with stints in Rio, Sao Paulo and Manaus. So she knows her churrascarias.
The restaurant: Churra’s Brazilian Grill, 3712 Williams Blvd., Kenner
Why she chose it: People are just now getting to know what a Brazilian steak house is. If they aren’t willing to blow a Franklin on dinner, they might enjoy going to Churra’s for half the price, and with people who know how to do it.
What she looks for in a restaurant: It’s all contextual. I like places that aren’t fussy, where I can sit as long as I want to and not be hovered over, where I don’t run into people I know and where people put up with a kid (she has a 5-year-old daughter). Beyond that it’s a matter of how much money I have. I find dives and splurges equally appealing. I’m drawn to food meccas and old culture cities.
The restaurant MO: An authentic, all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse, indicated by the fact that Portuguese is the dominant language behind the counter. The central buffet offers a bounty of salads and sides, from okra and fried yucca root to sautéed bananas and kibbeh. Staples include traditional Brazilian cheese bread and farofa, a toasted manioc flour used to dust pretty much everything and anything. But center stage are the meats, in this instance served grill-side rather than table-side. Head for the amiable gaucho behind the counter and ask for whatever’s on the spit – chicken, pork, top sirloin, filet mignon, ribs. The self-service is a benefit, says Dr. Mayer, because many steakhouses bring around the cheaper meats first – sausage or chicken – and save the better ones for last, when diners tend to be more full.
What’s good: The picanha, or grilled top sirloin, stands out, with its smoky piquant flavor from the rotisserie. Roast chicken runs a tender second. The steak is more associated with the south of Brazil, as is the pao de queijo, or cheese bread, while northern dishes tend more toward stews, fish and coconut. Steakhouse offerings are generally shaped by the region they are in; this one offers a nice balance.
What else: Buffet favorites include the savory stewed okra, sweet fried bananas and above-mentioned farofa.
The ambiance: Churra’s sits at the end of a Kenner strip mall, but its clean lines and expansive windows give it a warm diner vibe.
Thirst quenchers: The alcoholic choice is the obligatory caipirinha, the Brazilian national drink made with lots of lime, sugar and cachaca; for non-alcoholics, there’s Guarana, a Brazilian soda made from the eponymous tropical berry.
How to order: As with most Brazilian steakhouses, Churra’s offers a tiered selection of all-you-can-eat choices: buffet only (which here includes a few heartier items like ribs and fish), or buffet plus one or more meats. The opening option is $9.90, with each selected meat adding $4-$5.
The bottom line: A cost-conscious and authentic Brazilian dining experience that’s well worth the drive to Kenner for those who don’t live there. It’s a satisfying and robust way to eat, as documented by the two lineman-sized diners at the next table who worked their way through at least half a (delicious) cow.