It's a long way from the slums of Rio to the plush banquettes at Gol! The Taste of Brazil in Delray Beach, the latest rodizio to open in these parts. At Gol!, you don't chase the chicken; the chicken chases you and rather than having not enough to eat, you'll certainly have far too much. Rodizios started appearing in the U.S. about ten years ago, imported from Rio, where they'd spun off from the classic Latin American churrascaria of grilled meat that originated with the pampas cowboys. The rodizio craze in the United States has just about crested, I think, and it's worth pondering why Americans have taken such a shine to these all-you-can-eat meat fests in the first place.
For a fixed price (in Gol!'s case, $39.95 half that for kids 6 to12), you get unlimited access to a salad/sides bar (yeah, whatever) and as much animal flesh as you can devour in one sitting. Strolling "gauchos" (they're always described as "strolling," though at Gol!, they're more likely sprinting) wielding dripping swords of beef, lamb, sausages, fowl, etc., proffer slices of seared fillet, bacon-wrapped chicken breast, rare sirloin, bottom round, grilled shrimp. You have a little circular token on your table one side is red, the other green. As long as you're giving the green light, the gauchos keep coming in theory, at least. It's as close as you and I will probably ever get to participating in a competitive eating contest.
The key word here is gluttony. Or at least the illusion of it. Proprietor Franklin Reider at Gol! (which means goal, as in, to score he's already clearly winning this game) is a former Chase banking exec who spent many years living in Brazil, and the guy is no dummy you can bet he's calculated down to the penny how much sirloin he can afford to feed the clamoring crowds and still make a heady profit. And for the most part, the illusion of unlimited feasting remains secure, with any stray images of emaciated Rio slum kids kept at bay by the festive atmosphere and constant activity: patrons bearing plates of marinated veggies; the cart wheeling around plank-seared salmon or the fixings for caipirinha cocktails ($9.50 sugar cane liqueur, lime juice); those sprinting gauchos; the pretty hostesses; and Reider himself, who stops at each table at least twice to pick up a plate, motion for another pitcher of sangria, or chat with customers.
The meat is absolutely delicious if you can swallow your cynicism for a couple of hours and just coast along in a fog of ignorance. You have to forget practically everything you know about food to do this. As Michael Pollan rightly pointed out in a long essay in the January 28 edition of the New York Times Magazine, we've known since at least the late '70s that we need to eat less meat, even if the government has squelched such warnings for fear of angering the food industry. But there's little chance of circumscribing your meat intake at Gol! the experience of dining here is like dreaming in full color. The dream, of course, is that we can indulge ourselves and indulge ourselves and indulge ourselves, suffering not a smidgen of guilt, not a twinge of conscience, not a quiver of fear, and be entirely free of adverse consequences.
There's something almost charming about the childish greed of this fantasy, the gimme, gimme, gimme-ness of it. And if we do insist on retaining a shadow of virtue, Reider and company have taken a lot of trouble on their website to assure us how nutritious this meal is. The water at Gol! is specially filtered for purity. Reider's wife oversees the salad bar, and she's a stickler for eliminating trans fats. As you peruse the selection of Mrs. Reider's green and worthy foodstuffs marinated artichoke hearts, grilled slices of eggplant, hearts of palm, caesar salad, gigantic glistening spears of asparagus, potatoes, black olives, butternut squash soup, squares of tofu, broccoli florets, black beans, and rice you might imagine that you're actually going to leave Gol! with a spring in your step, brimming with health and vigor (likely only if you limit yourself to said salad bar, for $24.95, and maybe a piece or two of cheese bread, which is free). But once those skewers start circulating, you're done for.
It took a while for the skewers to get rolling the busy Saturday night we visited. This restaurant is huge, seating several hundred hungry people at once; we found that the gauchos tended to come in bunches, then not at all for a while, then again in bunches. The pace is fairly frenetic, and the noise level is about 8.5, which adds to the general jollity. Our second orders for wine and martinis were forgotten in the hubbub, but we didn't really care. By that time, we were purely focused on the tastes and textures of a slice of chargrilled New York strip, medium rare, versus a chunk of filet mignon wrapped in bacon. Carnivores will delight in comparing different cuts of meat the satisfying chewiness of sirloin against the garlic-laced chunks of tenderloin, a crusty, fatty end of bottom round against a well-marbled slice of New York strip. The beef is perfectly salted and for the most part cooked medium rare; it tastes great with fat pink shrimp grilled in their shells, linguica sausage (which tastes to me like a very garlicky hot dog), a couple of tender and nicely bronzed little chicken legs, seared baby lamb chops (these had a noticeably sheep-like flavor), or a chunk of warm grilled pineapple. Except for the salmon, we didn't see much fish that night, but I understand they have grouper or mahi. Which delicacies you're offered may depend on the rhythm of the kitchen and the hour you get seated. Our one quibble was that extricating ourselves from the round booths to run back and forth to the bar for side dishes was a hassle, and we wondered if bowls of potatoes or beans and rice couldn't be set on every table after customers have served themselves at the salad bar, as is the case at some other rodizios.
Getting seated at all will likely depend on a reservation, because Gol! is a hot spot, evidently a favorite with meat-seeking missiles of all sizes, shapes, and ages: young families with kids, snowbirds dressed up and dressed down, big parties of golden-haired dames with their dates (there are so many shimmering blonds on Atlantic Avenue these days that you might as well be in Helsinki). These youngish people, we noticed, eat together in groups of eight or ten the girls all sitting together on one side of the round tables, the guys on the other. They order a lot of wine from Gol!'s excellent list, handpicked by Reider and featuring particularly Malbecs and Carmeneres from Argentina and Chile (including dozens of interesting wines served by the glass), or pitchers of sangria, and then they barely converse across gender lines. Weird.
By the time dessert comes around, remember that in Brazil, it's the height of rudeness to say how stuffed you are. Politeness precludes groaning, rubbing belly, loosening belt, making disgusting burbling noises, or pretending to gag on index finger. Brazilians say, "Thank you; I'm satisfied." If you can't bring yourself to utter those words, you can opt for a frozen papaya cream concoction ($8.50) with blackberry cassis I found this almost flavorless, and it gave me an ice-cream headache, but I ate every bite. There's a ridiculously rich chocolate mousse cake ($7.50), so dense it cleaves to your mouth like peanut butter (this got raves from everybody). And a whole bunch of dessert drinks to choose from too, but since no prices are listed on the dessert menu, proceed with caution. Oh, what the hell. Just order a chocolate martini.