There are a lot of Brazilians in Fort Lauderdale -- 40,000 to 100,000, depending upon whom you ask -- and they seem to have congregated around Pompano Beach and Lighthouse Point. They've opened churrascarias, serving meltingly tender marinated and spit-roasted meats in the style of the traditional feasts of the South American plains. Brazilians here are buying real estate, operating groceries, and catering to a growing population of their compatriots. And they're introducing new terms to our culinary vocabulary: rodizio, churrasco, muqueca. They're romancing us with song and dance, performing capoeira, playing berimbaus, atabaques, and pandeiros. They're inviting everybody to samba on their tiny dance floors. And they're infusing whatever they touch with the rhythmic spirit of a metaphysical way of being -- a certain sway of the hips, a certain flash of the eye -- they call ginga.
You could say Brazilian Tropicana started it all. At any rate, the local Brazilian community swirls and eddies around this 18-year-old restaurant, sucked into a vortex created by so many gorgeous, spinning bodies. The Tropicana's after-dinner floor show, brainstorm of original owners the Pestana family, draws a full house for its Wednesday-to-Sunday performances; it casts a sunny, sensual net with Carmen Miranda impersonations, sexy lambada duos, the breathtaking fight-game gymnastics of capoeira, and full-dress Carnival numbers. When current proprietor Michael Liberatore took over, he wisely continued a tradition that still draws excellent dancers and singers from New York to Rio hoping for an audition.
I'm going to say flat out that this show is one huge thrill. It's going to knock every worldly wise, ennui-infused, sarcasm-riddled preconception right out of your ballpark. If you can't remember the last time you found your mouth literally gaping in wonder, it's time to reconnect with your inner fool. So plan to snag a table between 7 and 8 p.m., preferably with a birthday party, a huge family, or a cute date who isn't embarrassed to be pulled on stage and compelled to do embarrassing things in front of several hundred strangers. That'll leave you plenty of time to eat before the show starts at 8:30 p.m.
Churrascarias -- all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecue joints -- are the rage these days; they started springing up in the late '90s from Queens to Burbank, fueled in equal parts by American cravings for new culinary highs and by a post-Atkins rage for protein. We've got a handful of them in Fort Lauderdale -- Chima, which opened last year; Gaucho Rodizio, started the previous year; and Brazilian Tropicana, the granddaddy of them all. The premise of these places is pretty straightforward: all the meat you can eat. The word churrasco means "barbecue" (in both Spanish and Portuguese), and the meat is served rodizio style. Sirloin, lamb, chicken, sausages, pork, sirloin tip, or exotics (some big-city restaurants serve ostrich, buffalo, or a special delicacy, the hump of the Brahma bull) are rubbed with some combination of rock salt, garlic, and spices and cooked on revolving spits over a wood or charcoal fire. Then servers circulate the dining room with a tray full of these "swords," hot from the kitchen, pulling or slicing off pieces at a signal from diners.
Brazilian Tropicana is slightly down-at-heel compared to the tonier and newer upstarts. Décor and lighting are of the highly functional rather than highly styled variety, as if these simple wooden tables had seen a lot of spills, a lot of tykes playing with steak knives, and many years of mild bleach solution at the end of double shifts. The main dining room is arranged around the tiny stage and dance floor with tables on two tiers, so you'll have a good view of the show from wherever you're sitting. The salad bar is set up in a smaller room next to the bar.
Rodizio, of course, is the house specialty. For $31.95 (all prices include the show) you get a fairly frill-free version that includes as many staggering trips to the salad bar as you care to make, a plate of fried bananas and sides of rice and black beans, and an endlessly rotating series of waiters bent on plying you into a carnivorific stupor. The food tastes just fine with Brazil's national drink, the caipirinha ($6.75), made with lime wedges, sugar, and Brazilian rum, shaken and served over cracked ice (all the cocktails, including a flaming Bota-Fogo with apricot brandy and pineapple juice, are under $8 and made with name-brand liquors). You settle in with a couple of drinks and a salad plate that might include any combination of fresh lettuce and marinated vegetables: tart hearts of palm or artichokes, garbanzo beans tossed with tuna (my favorite), pickled beets, crunchy greens, and corn and red pepper salad. It's all perfectly appetizing, ice cold, replenished often, and just the right light touch for the meaty banquet to follow.
My date ordered the rodizio. I ordered from the entrée menu, which is mostly fish, along with a couple of chicken dishes and a vegetarian offering (nice touch, although it's hard to imagine many serious vegetarians sitting through Tropicana's parade of animal flesh). Our waitress raised an eyebrow when I ordered the bacalhau à gomes de sa (codfish cooked in Portuguese olive oil with onions, potatoes, sliced hardboiled eggs and green olives, $31.95). Had I had salt cod before? It's very strong.
She might as well have added: For a lily-livered Americana like you, lady. Bring it on, I told her. Once a food writer has a couple of bouts of food poisoning under her belt, a little bit of salt cod is no problema.
Maybe she went back to the kitchen and told them to go easy anyway, because when this dish arrived, it was as bland and white as a fish-flavored pudding, what with all that mostly flavorless cod, white potatoes, white onions, and white egg whites. I was grateful for the salty bite of the few green olives scattered around the plate. If I had this to do again (which I will, soon), I'd order the muqueca de peixe à baiana ($31.95), which I understand is a regional dish of Bahia and a house specialty. It's a stew made with dolphin, shrimp, palm oil, coconut milk, and a hot pepper called dedo de moca.
I pushed my plate aside and eyed my date's mountain of meat with a mixture of moral superiority and unmitigated envy. By this time, she had made it through a serving of spicy little homemade sausages; a couple of tender chunks of chicken; several rather dry, flavorless slabs of pork; many long, thin slices of tenderloin, dripping red juices; and lots of fat-curled balls of sirloin tip. Despite an injunction against sharing (and the one prohibiting all scraping of leftovers into that handy plastic handbag liner), I managed to steal a bite or two of both tenderloins, and they were yummy -- moist and rare, with a slight bitter bite from the charcoal, perfectly salted. We both loved those melting, sweet, fried bananas that were served as a side (they dissolve on contact with the tongue), but the black beans were as flavorless and bland as the salt cod.
When the lights dim at 8:30 and the reed-thin blond emcee appears in her skimpy glitter dress, don't bother to settle back complacently. For one thing, if you're sitting anywhere within reaching distance, you're going to live in terror for the next 20 minutes, praying that this total bombshell won't let her gimlet eye fall upon you. Because if it does, she's going to drag you, shaking your head and frantically back-pedaling, onto the dance floor. She's going to force you to approximate your feeble rendition of a samba in close proximity to a pair of endless legs and a smile as wide and wet as the Amazon River.
But if you live through the suspense without keeling over, you'll get your just reward: two hours of spectacularly shaped and muscled, nearly naked bodies accompanied by an array of drums, stringed instruments, and horns, doing the most impossible things imaginable. They will bend in ways that are not human. They will hang in midair as they complete triple spins. They will bossanova with almost ridiculous grace on platform shoes while wearing feathered headdresses nearly as tall as they are. They will jump around on their hands for many long minutes. They will go from back flip to cartwheel to handstand to back flip on a minuscule stage while making it all look completely effortless. You think your yoga class is hard, you whining, pathetic gringo?
Damn, with the climate we've got, it makes you wonder what we're all doing -- driving around in pitch-black Hummers with the air conditioning and the Blaupunkt going full blast, yakking into our brain-scrambling cell phones. Looks to me like a spangly G-string and a couple of lambada lessons, plus a sunny day or two, might just put the gleam back into paradise.