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Photograph by Noelle Luchino
I LOVE A PARADE: But you can also get your meat a la carte at Pampas, like this duck breast.

March of Meat

Pampas' Brazilian rodizio service is a parade of rotisserie roasts

By Stett Holbrook

AS SOON as my friends and I loaded up at the self-serve salad bar at Pampas, Palo Alto's new Brazilian-style churascaria, servers wielding long knives and skewered hunks of spit-roasted meats approached our table proffering their wares—grilled linguiça, tender leg of marinated lamb, slow-roasted tri-tip, Brazilian-style top sirloin, juicy chicken legs, herb-crusted pork tenderloin. It was a total of 14 different beef, lamb, pork, chicken and turkey selections.

Wearing avocado-colored chef coats, the pasadores arrived one at a time, but queued up like planes waiting to land, idling before they could touch down on the runway of our table. The meat parade starts suddenly and keeps marching to your table until you signal your surrender.

Pampas specializes in rotisserie-roasted meats. It opened two months ago in a beautifully remodeled space just off University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. The brick walls, walnut wood bar, leather chairs in the lounge and helical steel lamps hanging over the multilevel dining room all give the upscale restaurant room a handsome, masculine feel. This is a meat lover's haven after all and girlie pastel colors just wouldn't do.

The rodizio service, as the Brazilian-inspired meat parade is known, is $44 and gets you unlimited meat and trips to the side bar. Everything I tried from the rodizio was quite good and the experience was enhanced by the visual appeal of the glistening, beautifully roasted meats sliced before your eyes. Fortunately we all liked our meat cooked to the same degree, but a table with fans of medium rare and well done might create a challenge.

Standouts included the yogurt, garlic and mint marinated leg of lamb, spicy and juicy chicken legs and onion-and-herb-marinated skirt steak.

To signal the pasadores to keep coming, keep the puck on your table turned to the green side. Flip it over to the red side when you've had enough. Even when you put on the stop sign, the meat men still stop by as if to say, "Are you sure you don't want more?"

Although Pampas is all about meat, the sprawling side bar offers one of the most extensive selections of vegetarian options you'll find in a nonvegetarian restaurant. If you want just the side bar it's $27 for all you can eat. There are green salads, yes, but also roasted eggplant and peppers, grilled peaches and cheese, quinoa salad, hummus, great soups, grilled potatoes, sweet potatoes with coconut, and on and on it goes.

On a blazing hot day last week, the watermelon gazpacho and chilled cucumber soup hit the spot. This is a Brazilian restaurant, so I was pleased to find a great version of feijoada (a hearty, smoky black bean and sausage stew that is Brazil's national dish).

Aside from the rodizio there are other dishes worth seeking out. For a restaurant that specializes in meat, the pan-roasted halibut ($28) was great. The crisp-on-the-outside, moist-inside fillet was delicious paired with a buttery passion fruit sauce, potato gratin and tender baby carrots.

The vegetarian garbanzo bean stew with roasted eggplant and tomatoes over couscous ($18) is another satisfying dish. From the lunch menu the crusty grilled skirt steak sandwich ($15) with roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions and roasted garlic rosemary purée was good, too. It would have been even better had my served asked me how I wanted it cooked.

A scaled-down rodizio service is available at lunch for $28.

Consulting pastry chef Marisa Churchill, who made a name for herself as a fetching contestant on Top Chef, created the dessert list. Her chocolate torte with caramel ice cream, crème fraîche sauce, bacon–Brazil nut toffee and smoked sea salt ($9) is superb. I loved the interplay of salty and sweet. Coming in a close second is the warm blueberry-açai crisp with vanilla bean ice cream ($9). Açai, a Brazilian palm fruit with high antioxidant and other nutritional properties, has bumped off pomegranate as the trendy miracle fruit du jour, and its berry-cocoa flavors marry well with the blueberries.

Service at Pampas is generally smooth, but some of the pasadores can be hard to understand unless you speak Spanish as they announce their meats. That said, these hardworking guys do all the heavy lifting.

I do have a few quibbles. If someone at your table isn't having the rodizio, they can feel left out as they wait for their food to arrive as the rest of the table digs into their meat and side bar selections. Maybe a heads-up from the servers that those who don't go the rodizio route will be foodless for 10 or 15 minutes while rest of the table chows down would help.

Pampas is a natural for groups out for a good time because the constant coming and going of the pasadores creates a lively, fun atmosphere. I suppose you could go to Pampas solo, but it would feel weird to feast on all that meat alone. But with all those meat-wielding men around you won't feel quite so lonely.


Address: Address: 529 Alma St., Palo Alto

Phone: 650.327.1323

Hours: Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm Mon–Fri, dinner 5:30–9:30pm Mon–Thu, 5pm-10:30pm Fri–Sat and 5–9pm Sun.

Cuisine: Brazilian Steakhouse

Price Range: All-you-can-eat meat $44. Other entrees $18–$36.


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