The smell of grilling meat perfumes the air on Frank Street in Bridgeport. What’s going on here? This drab residential neighborhood is crowded with cars. And what’s that funky-looking vividly green-and-yellow building? The sidewalk’s striped green and yellow too, the colors of the Brazilian flag. This is Pantanal, a Brazilian buffet and churrascaria. We’re going in.
It’s Thursday at lunchtime and the place is crowded. We grab plates and try to take in all that’s offered at the cold and hot buffet. We’re overwhelmed, and we’re in the way. Everyone else knows what they want. We’re gawking, and we know we could easily overload our plates with the choice of salads, fruits, hearts of palm, collards, white rice, Spanish rice, mac ‘n cheese, black beans, pinto beans, fried sweet plantain, fried chicken, fried fish and stews. Customers are digging in to those stews. The chicken and okra stew looks intriguing, but I need to exert restraint. I need to focus. I chose an orange-colored stew of smoked pork ribs and white beans. Excellent choice, smoky and deeply flavorful.
At the end of the hot buffet, we reach the grilled meat station. A charcoal brazier is loaded with long skewers. There’s a list of the meats, and once again we’re awed. Brisket, beef ribs, pork loin, pork sausage, chicken wings, chicken breast wrapped in bacon and two kinds of steak, picanha and alcatra. There’s only one answer. The picanha. This tender cut from the rump has a thick fat cap that makes it great for grilling. These days, it’s considered the Brazilian churrascaria meat.
The guy at the counter asks how I want it. “Rare,” I say. He pulls a skewer from the grill, and cuts into the meat to show me. Too pink-grey for me, and he knows it, and pulls down another skewer. This meat is bright pink. Perfect. He cuts a hunk from the skewer, and with two sharp knives, slices it into pieces, and sets an impressive pile of meat on my plate.
We take our plates to the cash register, where they’re weighed. Yes, this is by-the-pound eating. And though our plates are heaped with food, the tab for two (with a coke and a bottle of water) is only $20. We carried our plates into the wood-walled dining room. There’s a great buzz in the room. It’s filled with an assortment of people, some dressed for business, others dressed for work in the trades. The walls are decorated with big-box store art in the European still-life genre. It’s the worst thing about the place.
We dig in. My plate’s loaded with white rice, black beans, fried sweet plantain, the pork and bean stew, raw collard salad, hearts of palm, and the picanha steak. And a spoonful of the orange-hued mac ‘n cheese. (On visit two, I’m able to resist it.)
The grilled steak is tender, with that soul-satisfying charcoal grilled flavor. Umm, the black beans taste like they’d been simmered with a ham hock. The fried plantain is sweet, soft and caramelized. The raw collard salad is a surprising stand-out. It’s sliced into a chiffonade and tossed with olive oil and chopped scallions. It’s fresh, healthy, and it makes us feel better about the gluttony of the steak. (On my second visit, I take an extra-large serving of the collards).
Brazilians eat grilled meats with a vinegary tomato salsa (offered at the cold buffet) and farofa, toasted maniac root flour. Farofa is an acquired taste. I give it another try, letting the farofa absorb the meat juices on the plate, and rolling a piece of meat in it. I’m not fond of the gritty texture. But it’s the taste of home for Brazilians. Thursdays, the buffet offers farofa cooked with eggs, carrots and bacon. I won’t be trying it.
The offerings at the buffet change each day, and Pantanal’s website has a schedule, a chart, actually. Filled with small print. Depending on the day, the buffet offers hard-core dishes like beef tripe stew, gizzards, and fried pork skins with yucca, and for the less adventurous, chicken lasagna, fried chicken wings, and fish stew.
My husband and I love discovering off-the-beaten track places, and Pantanal fits the bill. We went back the next week. I wish I could tell you I tried a whole bunch of new things, but I liked what I had the first time so much that I choose the same foods. It wasn’t the day for the pork and bean stew, alas. It was a Monday afternoon and the place was less busy.
There’s just one problem with Pantanal (other than the art). Lunch can do some damage. The two times I ate here, I ate a lot, and it made me very sleepy. So sleepy I couldn’t stay awake. I had to take a nap. I woke, feeling stuffed and subdued. There was no need for dinner that night. “Want to play cards?” my husband asked. And we laughed – we only play cards during black-outs. But what else can you do when you can’t eat another bite but you’re still craving the flavors of Pantanal.
(Note: I have only eaten here at lunch and I do not know the neighborhood at night, but given how many people this restaurant draws, it seems like it would be safe. Any CTbites readers have a report?)
Pantanal Restaurant and Churrascaria
215 Frank St., Bridgeport, 06604, 203-335-1071