It's obvious from all of the taxidermy now hanging inside this sunny Northeast restaurant that the old coffee-shop decor of the former Gingham House has gotten a new gaucho look.
There's a woolly steer head perched above the room to welcome you to Picanha Brazilian Grill. There are fur-wrapped canteens shaped like cow legs hanging beside the register that are ideal for toting your caipirinhas.
"It will look like a farm when I'm done," says owner Adson Nunes, who is still decorating his seven-month-old churrascaria, or barbecue house. "I want people here to feel Brazil."
Poised at the corner of Castor and Hellerman Streets, Picanha sits at the nexus of Philadelphia's burgeoning Brazilian community, as evidenced by the growing assortment of bakeries, Brazilian pizzerias and markets. And if Picanha's stuffed-cattle decor, all-you-can-eat black bean buffets, and big-screen broadcasts of TV Globo don't quite transport you to Sao Paulo, just close your eyes and follow your nose.
The primal smell of rodizio meats - sizzling as they turn on swordlike skewers atop a barbecue pit at the back of the room - is as close to the South American pampas as Philadelphians can get. Even the rock salt that crusts the meat and the handmade natural charcoal, called carvao
, are imported from Brazil.
Manager and churrasco boss Lima Queiroz tends to the pit, shearing off slices of juicy flesh so crusted from heat, so burnished with the shine of salty savor, they look like props from Quest for Fire.
The restaurant's namesake cut, picanha, is a great place to start, a half-moon of top sirloin that is amazingly tender considering it's sliced along the grain. I also loved the garlicky links of linguica sausage, the bacon-wrapped chicken breast, and the tenderloin. The costela short rib, though, was particularly memorable, a thick tower of heat-blackened beef, balanced on a blade of bone, that melted into butter when I took a bite.
Queiroz, who slathers each skewer in more rock salt before replacing it on the grill, will slice meats rare on special request - but the well side of medium seems to be his default. Interestingly, it didn't matter much, as every morsel, seasoned with little more than salt and the scent of the carvao, painted my mouth with such beefy essence that I could taste it in my sleep.
Picanha, it must be said, has none of the high-end design, polished table-side carving, or expansive wine lists of some of the better-known chains, such as Fogo de Chao, that are bringing upscale churrasco to the American mainstream in other cities.
But Picanha was not created with expense-account diners in mind. It is a friendly cafeteria conceived as a taste of home for the Brazilian immigrants who show up for pay-by-the-pound late dinners after their day jobs, or a Saturday pilgrimage for feijoada, the Brazilian national dish of garlicky black-bean stew lorded with variations of pig in all its glory, from tender morsels of loin to smoked trotters, ears and sausage.
It may be BYOB, and the waitresses may speak no English, but if you show up with a bottle of cachaca rum and a bag of limes, the staff definitely knows what to do, putting the juicer into high gear for caipirhinha heaven.
And according to my guest, Brendan, who lived several months in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais (the origin, incidentally, of many Philly Brazillies), Picanha's food is also spot-on.
That's probably because most of the non-grill fare is done by two Minas natives, Adalgifa Cobrinha and Cleide Passarela, who lend Picanha's buffet a home-cooked touch.
There are some cold salads that might, to an American palate, seem out of place in a steakhouse setting. But they are totally authentic and well done, including a finely minced chicken salad with vegetables, and a Brazilian-style tuna-potato salad topped with slices of mayo-glazed bread. My favorite items came from the buffet's hot side, including the slow-stewed short ribs, the sweet plantains, and the myriad variations on beans and rice that I sprinkled with a toasty manioc flour called farofa. The black beans rang with garlic and cumin. The red beans were mild and creamy. There also was a zesty red bean mash called tutu scattered with crouton-size chicharrones.
Perhaps the best non-churrasco dish at Picanha, however, is a special-order shrimp soup called bobo de camarao. The large bowl brought a gorgeous stew brimming with tender shrimp and a rich broth thickened with potatoes that was turned to a lustrous hue of gold with dende palm oil.
A meal of such powerful savory flavors demands two things that Picanha does well: strong coffee and seductive sweets.
The demitasse cups of Pilao coffee may look small, but this popular Brazlian brew has an intensely dark, raisiny richness that was the perfect antidote to snap me out of a carnivorous daze. And just in time to savor some excellent renditions of classic Latin sweets.
Picanha's pudim is one of the creamiest flans in town. But I especially loved the custardy clouds of mousse flavored with the floral tang of tropical fruits, such as guava, lime and mango. Yes, even meat-eating gauchos pause for a spoonful of passion-fruit mousse.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.