Our table is decorated with guarana soda, arroz e feijão (black beans with rice), fried bananas and collard greens before the churrasco makes its debut. We have a rodizio waiter just for bringing the different cuts of meat and he has no hesitation of laughing at our astonished faces.
The family-run restaurant was born out of Chris de Sauza’s fathers passion for churrasco or Brazilian barbeque and his Cuban mothers passion for hospitality. His father immigrated to New Jersey in the 1960’s from Rio Grande do Sol in South East Brazil. The restaurant started in 1987, a few years after Chris was born. He grew up in the kitchen and spent his school career as a dishwasher. He didn’t expect to be running the place now, but when his father needed to go back to Brazil to take care of his father, Chris needed to step in as manager. “At the end what kid doesn’t want to make their parents proud,” he says with sincerity.
Gauchos or cowboys lived and survived on the livestock rich landscape of Southern Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina by skewering churrasco, 18 different cuts of meat – beef, pork and chicken over a charcoaled wood fire. The cuisine born from meat-dependent cowboys has permitted popular Brazilian culture and has made it an iconic staple of the cuisine. It is especially ingrained in the culture of Southern Brazilians, a meal which ties families together, symbolizes celebration and festivities. Brasilia Grill is the only churrascaria in Ironbound, an old Brazilian/Portugese neighborhood in Newark. The large banquet hall filled with 25% capacity reminiscent of cold east coast days where the restaurant was bustling with crowds of Brazilians, laughter, soccer chants and parties. Now there are a lot less staff and a lot less people, although the bar is a major pull for customers. Sounds of soccer matches blaring on the television make their way into the dining area as the waiter comes out to bring us another cut of meat.
It’s hard not to have hungry eyes. Each piece of meat looks distinct, juicy and practically asking to fall on your plate. Of course you can decline, but honestly I had no problem surrendering to my state of near-explosion. Traditionally nothing gets added to the meat other than salt, “it brings the natural flavors out of the meat, but many people eat it with farofa.” Farofa is toasted cassava vegetable (aka yucca) in bacon fat, comparable to a breadcrumb. It’s a salty and slightly crunchy garnish sprinkled across a plate packed with every bit of meat, carb and protein.
At Brasilia it’s buffet style and customers pay by the pound, which I would imagine induces most customers into a deep meat and caipirinha coma. To my surprise, people sit and eat and drink and eat for hours. “Brazilians find every excuse to party and get together. We won – let’s party. We lost – let’s party,” Chris tells me.
The dish that steals my heart is the picanha, the top sirloin cap – it’s so tender and perfectly salted that it could melt like a piece of butter in your mouth. The fried bananas make their way onto my fork which provides the beautiful melding of sweet and savory. The faijão troperio is another delicacy born from the adored feijoãda, hailed as the “national” dish. Faijão troperio is a combination of beans, bacon, sausage, collard greens, manioc flour and hard boiled eggs. The flour, the derivative of farofa, serves as an imperative element which unites the diverse flavors and textures, rounding the meal out as a hearty and filling one. I wash it all down with two passion fruit caipirinha – a dangerously delicious staple of Brasilia.
Chris had no idea that he would run the restaurant, but as he recounts the humble beginnings of the family restaurant he expresses a deep admiration for his father and the Brazilian chefs and staff. “He started from nothing and went to where we are now. We can’t just let it go, we have to keep it going.” He’s passionate about making sure the restaurant remains open during the pandemic and continues to be the traditional churrasco it’s known and loved as.
Brasilia Grill | 99 Monroe St, Newark, NJ 07105. | $$ | Mon-Sun 11:30am-12am | Follow @brasiliagrill on instagram | Recommended dishes: Passion fruit caipirinha, faijao troperio, chicken and bacon, picanha. | (973) 589-8682 | https://www.brasiliagrill.net/.
India Witkin is a New York native, born to an Indian mother and Dutch/Italian father. She is a documentary filmmaker, singer and the podcast creator and host of Eating America with India.