Why does the picanha taste better than the filet mignon at a Brazilian steakhouse? I pondered this question over a large dinner at Texas de Brazil in CityCenter last night. It's certainly not because it's a better cut of meat. Known in American meat-cutting parlance as the culotte or rump cap, the picanha is part of a larger cut called the top sirloin. It's not that easy to find in a meat market, but it's not highly prized or particularly expensive either. The culotte steak is doubled over and impaled on the gaucho's sword in a C-shape.
The gaucho comes to your table and slices off the outermost part of the steak, then returns the sword to the fire where it rotates until it's done enough to slice again. The picanha stays juicy throughtout this process—it seems to stand up to the continuous cooking process of a churrascaria better than the tenderloin or most other cuts of beef.
The key to eating well in a churrascaria, if you ask me, is to wave off the swordsmen bearing legs of lamb, sausages, pork loin, chicken, and the rest and get your fill of picanha first. You can always sample the other meats later. Also, get yourself a bowl of chimmichurri sauce from the salad bar. The Argentine parsley, olive oil, chile pepper, and vinegar sauce may not be authentically Brazilian, but it sure tastes good on a steak.
By the way, the salad bar is a actually a spectacular Brazilian buffet with salad items, smoked salmon, primo paremesan, expensive olive oils, lobster bisque, sauteed mushrooms, and more. Two of my dining companions opted for the $24 salad bar only dinner. The full deal with salad bar and meat parade is $45.
There's a decent selection of South American wines, but you might want to opt for cocktails. The mojitos, served in tall pilsner glasses, are outstanding, and the lime caipirinha is among the best I've had in Houston.
If you are thinking that the Texas de Brazil chain is pandering to our local pride, guess again. The chain opened locations in Miami, Chicago, and Las Vegas before coming to Houston. The name is an attempt to link the legendary cowboy culture of Texas to the ranching traditions of Rio Grande do Sul, the cattle-raising area of Brazil where churrasco originated. The connection goes way back. The first churrascaria in the U.S., Fogo de Chão opened in Dallas in 1997.