Growing up in the heart of South Carolina, I thought I understood the buffet world. Mac and cheese, soggy vegetables, corn bread, mystery meat, and some bread pudding. Maybe if you went to Golden Coral you would wind up with something slightly different, but more or less, the idea of the American buffet is to consume as much unidentifiable food as possible.
Here in Porto Alegre, buffets are fairly common and aren’t just food factories for the overly obese. Everyone goes to them, and they have a wonderful display of foods and cost on average $3 to $6 dollars.
Starting with the salad portion of the buffet, there are usually options including a myriad of lettuces, tomato, onion, beets, carrots, farro grains, and hearts of palms. I can just picture my nearly vegetarian mom spending most of her time here.
Then, there is a section of sides. Black beans and white rice make up the standard side. You’d be hard to find a Brazilian who doesn’t put a bit of both on their plate, mixing them together to get a nice bean, rice jumble. Usually, there are some plain noodles with butter, chicken with vegetables, some form of potato (bakes, fries, mashed), yucca (fries or mashed), cooked vegetable medley, just to name a few options.
And finally, at the end of the buffet line, are the meats. Some cheaper places only let you pick up one meat, but as many sides as you want. While other more upscale buffets, let you load up on all the meats your heart desires. This might include some chorizos, chicken, milanesa, white fish, pork, steak, chicken hearts (eeww..), cow tongue (double eeww…).
And on top of all of the food already mentioned, there is a separate desert buffet. Most of the tables I have seen, have been filled with various kinds of mousse-like deserts, for example, a chocolate mousse or a dulce de leche creamy mousse.
The most interesting thing I have come across for desert has been an avocado cream, which is a sweet avocado with a pudding-like consistency. It was such a strange experience for my tongue to have the sweetness of a desert and the flavor of a vegetable (even though it’s a fruit!), I’m not sure if I really did like it. Thinking back on it, I probably would have preferred just a few squares of chocolate over any of the creamy, mousse-like things.
Apart from the buffets, there are a healthier options in Porto Alegre: the vegetarian restaurants. At these vegetarian restaurants, most of them serve just a plate of the day, where there is a fixed price and they serve you whatever is being cooked. This might be a bread-like loaf, a carrot medley, salad, beans or bean soup, eggplant, or stuffed red peppers. It’s a magical mix of flavors, which would probably be complicated to make if you were attempt to cook it at home. Not to mention all the spices involved….
The other day-to-day lunch options include what I would call “side of the road “places, serving typically just a plate of the day, which includes a meat (fish, chicken, beef), side salad of just tomato and lettuce, black beans and rice, and french fries. These aren’t fancy restaurants, just a little kitchen, a few plastic tables and chairs, and standard foods for having a quick lunch.
Lastly, there are churrascarias, which are the traditional Brazilian steak restaurants. This is where the meat is cooked on metal swords and come around to your table and cut off pieces of the ones you want. I remember going to one in Atlanta called Fogo do Chao during a family reunion growing up, and it’s the same show, but obivously more authentic and cheaper here.
After a month of eating meats, buffets, and more food than any person should, I’m off to buy a bigger pair of jeans, rather than limit myself to the flavors around me. May even be in style to be on a diet once I arrive in NYC in July!