Take away the roving “gauchos,” the salad bar stocked with oversized vegetables that look as if they got their fertilizer from Barry Bonds’s trainer and the corporate-AmEx prices, and you’re left with Picanha Grill, a Brazilian experience of a far more authentic sort. The other guests during a recent visit bore this out: Many of the tables were filled with families, little kids scooting between chairs, the adults conversing in Portuguese, everyone occasionally glancing up at the TV to check out the variety show flashing its colors and drama on the screen.
The focus here, as is the case with so many taste-of-home restaurants in immigrant enclaves, is the food—the kind of comfort that can only come from the smells and flavors of one’s childhood. The 6500 block of Castor Avenue in the Great Northeast couldn’t feel farther from the strip-mall feel of Center City’s high-priced churrascarias, and it’s the real deal—charming, hearty and soulful.
The mile-long salad bar and buffet, helmed by Chefs William Aravjo and Juarez Machado respectively, could provide a meal on its own. Chicken stroganoff, its creamy, aromatic sauce providing ballast to the nutty chicken, could have been a delicious entree in its own right; add a scoop of beans and rice, a few slippery rounds of sweet beets and a joyous pile of thin-sliced greens topping brown beans and yucca (or manioc) flour, and you’d be able to walk out happy.
A particularly wonderful lasagna was a standout, the ideal middle ground between scalloped potatoes and a very good pasta alfredo. And while the tomato sauce on top tasted a touch tinny, it nonetheless worked in context.
There were lighter offerings too, of course. Bacalao was as elemental as it gets: shredded salt cod with a bit of olive oil. Plantains would have been better had they been seasoned more consistently—the ones that had been in the line of the salt’s fire were lovely; the other ones were just bland. Vinagrete, essentially a tomato, onion and bell-pepper salad, proved to be one of the more necessary items throughout the entire meal. The vibrant acidity of the vinegar provided a much-needed jolt to the taste buds between forays into the world of meat.
As for those meats, I’d recommend going with the $21.99 all-you-can-eat option, even if you’re not a big eater: The opportunity to experience so many cuts in one sitting is a great education, not to mention a tasty one. For repeat visitors, paying by weight is likely a better bet. Either way, you’re likely to out-consume your stomach capacity.
Skirt steak was a sweet-crusted, earth-perfumed cut of astounding tenderness. Brisket—with apologies to my mother—was the best I’ve ever tasted. Its seasoning was taken right up to the point beyond which it would have been off-puttingly salty, but Chef Alexanbre Alvef, a veritable master of beef and Brazilian charcoal, held it just short of that line. The deep savoriness combined with the arcs of caramelized fat to create something that the table began referring to as “beef crack.”
Top sirloin (the eponymous “picanha”) was carried by its salty layer of succulent fat, whose flavor had leached into the meat immediately below it—excellent. Roast beef didn’t fare quite as well: Its zippy minerality wasn’t enough to compensate for the inherent lack of flavor. Linguiça was notable mainly for the appealing snap of its casing and unexpected delicacy of its filling. Chicken was moist and perfumed with the sweet smokiness of the bacon wrapped around it, though the inner layer of the bacon was a touch underdone. (The outer layer, however, was textbook: Caramelized at the edges, dizzyingly savory and just the slightest bit sticky.)
Homemade desserts aren’t included the $21.99 deal, but though you’ll likely be beyond full beyond power of speech, power through anyway—as in a marathon, it’s all about the rush at the finish line. Bright-flavored pineapple dulce de leche cake will freshen you up and make you feel vaguely healthy, and the bave, a layered construction of Brazilian cookies, whipped cream and chocolates built on a base of condensed milk creme, will push you over the edge of fullness, yes, but is 100 percent worth
the discomfort during the ride home.
Taken as a whole, Picanha Grill embodies an obvious truth: Good restaurants need no shtick, just a broad, appealing palette of flavors and a clear vision—all of which this Brazilian gem possesses in abundance.
6501 Castor Ave. 215.743.4647. picanhagrill.com
Cuisine: Brazilian barbecue; BYOB.
Hours: Daily, 11am-10:30pm.
Prices: : $21.99 for all-you-can-eat, or just pay by weight.
Atmosphere: Wood paneling, faux-stucco, trophies, and a TV: In other words, supremely comfortable and happily unselfconscious.
Service: On the serious side, but polite and justifiably proud of the food here.
Food: Eat till you’re sick ... then eat some more.
Dinner with Luke Palladino