Restaurant review: Estilo Brazil

G.A. Benton
Pinto beans, white rice, top sirloin coulotte, vinagrete and squash

Dining at Estilo Brazil is like going to a terrific potluck and not having to bring a dish or make small talk. That's my kind of potluck.

Estilo Brazil will be your kind of potluck, too, if you enjoy soulful, hearty food with mostly familiar flavors but probably unfamiliar names. As with any potluck, a few surprises will be offered alongside recurring mainstays.

Situated in the Columbus Square Shopping Center, Estilo Brazil is part specialty market, part cafeteria. Diners who line up for its inexpensive, ready-to-eat Brazilian dishes can expect overhead photographs and table-tents to provide perfunctory descriptions of many, but not all, of the offerings.

Diners can also expect a markedly spotless operation with white plastic tables and vivid paintings populated with people, tropical fruits, tropical birds and colorful allusions to Brazilian culture.

Here's what diners shouldn't expect: table service, handheld menus or much English to be spoken.

Even if you don't speak Portuguese and know little about Brazilian cuisine, Estilo Brazil — it means “Brazil Style” — is still a fairly easy place to assemble a memorable meal when you understand how things work there. One caveat: Although vegetables are offered, Estilo Brazil's highlights would, for the most part, qualify as a vegan's nightmare.

Most of the fare is ladled from steam table pans into plastic and Styrofoam containers. This is performed by servers in an open kitchen who stand behind plastic barriers and are accustomed to accommodating the “I'd like some of that” finger pointing of non-Portuguese speakers (my servers also understood Spanish). Behind the transparent interface, you'll also notice a brazier flaring up with the restaurant's main attraction: expertly seared, delicious meats.

Save for savory pastries and interesting soft drinks, most everything is sold by weight — vegetables and salads are $8 a pound; meats are $12 a pound — and a sizable meal will typically cost about $10 to $12. Diners pay after eating by swapping the numbered card they receive upon reaching the end of the cafeteria line for a bill at the cashier stand near the door.

The first items diners encounter are available every day and function as a sound foundation: simple but creamy and flavorful pinto beans and loose, white rice. A few other plant-based favorites generally on hand include warm chayote (mild, melon-like squash); fried sweet plantains; crunchy potato sticks; and a chilled, mayo-dressed, vegetable salad with olives, peas, carrots and more.

Fried yucca is usually available, too, and although pleasant tasting, on multiple occasions, my starchy, potato-like fries weren't crisp. Two recent Saturday specials I enjoyed were unidentified roasted acorn squash and slightly bitter, unnamed sauteed greens that, like many dishes, came deftly seasoned with garlic, oil, salt and pepper.

Getting to the meat of the matter, you can't beat juicy, grill-seared steak strips, pork ribs and Brazilian sausages. The steak is lean but deeply beefy and presented with irresistible little nubs of crisp-edged fat. Gnawing is required with the ribs, but worthwhile. The pink sausages are a bit like kielbasa and come in bite-size segments. These are all garlic-flavored — the sausages heavily so — and addictive.

Ditto for the melts-in-your-mouth, wine-sauced pork tenderloin — a Sunday special that wouldn't be out of place in a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant. Show up on a Saturday, and you can revel in Brazil's national dish: feijoada, a wonderful meat-strewn black bean stew.

Whatever you get, allow the servers — who will likely offer— to top everything with “farofa,” toasted cassava (a root vegetable) flour that resembles seasoned bread crumbs. Also worth trying: Quibe ($3), a large, winning take on kibbeh; and Guarana Antarctica ($1.50) — a widely popular, cherry-like Brazilian soda-pop made with guarana, an Amazonian fruit with caffeine-mimicking stimulant properties.

Estilo Brazil

5818 Columbus Square, Northeast Side