Recent years have seen Brazilian steakhouses, called churrascarias, grow in popularity. There a variety of them from corporate chains to establishments that rise to the level of fine dining. The origin of the churrascarias dates back to the early 19th century when European immigrants settled the Rio Grande do Sul area of Brazil and became adept at raising and herding cattle. These settlers came to be known as gauchos. Their method of cooking, called churrasco, was inspired by the gauchos. Churrasco involved putting large cuts of the best meat on skewers and slowly cooking them over charcoal. The chefs, called passadores, used their knives to slice off thin pieces of meat onto the plates of their dinner guests.
The tradition continues today with churrascarias enjoying growing popularity throughout the world, and our beloved Saigon is home to one of our very own, Au Lac do Brazil (238 Pasteur, D3; 3820 7157). Au Lac is the passion of Nga Stromler who is a self-confessed foodie. Nga explained that she wanted to open a restaurant for some time before happening upon a churrascaria while on holiday in Portugal. “I knew immediately that I wanted to bring this back to Vietnam,” she explained. Nga and her husband Jan set about opening up their first location at 238 Pasteur; she picks out the food for the menu and he curates the wine list. Thirteen years later their passion for attending to the carnivores of Saigon burns as hot as the coals over which they roast their meat.
Au Lac’s staff greets their guests warmly, foreshadowing the experience that waits. Once seated, uninitiated patrons will notice a small plastic button that accompanies the otherwise typical place settings. Upon closer examination, the button has a green side and a red side. As long as you keep the green side up, the passadores will continue bringing meat. When one has finally had enough, simply turn the button over to red to signal your surrender. But until that moment arrives, and it will, you are free to gorge yourself.
While there is an a la carte menu available, most opt for the all-you-can-eat churrasco (VND650,000 per person) menu that includes a variety of side dishes. The churrasco features calabrian sausage, bacon-wrapped shrimp, chicken wings, pork ribs, smoked ham, grilled pineapple, beef shoulder, leg of lamb, and picanha, which is a sirloin cut and a specialty of Brazilian steakhouses. The beef and lamb are imported fresh via daily airfreight from New Zealand while pork and chicken are sourced locally; an exclusive provider supplies the ham and sausage.
The parade begins with sausage and bacon-wrapped shrimp. Both are wonderful starters as they are on the light side and couple well with the variety of condiments on the table such as tangy mustard or chimmichurri sauce. Chicken wings and pork ribs come next. The wings offer some zing as they’re barbecued with Vietnamese palates in mind, and the beef rib packs quite a mouthful, while the smoked ham and grilled pineapple offer a sweet combination for a change of pace. The beef shoulder was a wonderful surprise. It’s a savory selection with a pleasant, grainy texture that falls apart as it’s eaten. We favored it over the ribs and recommend making it a point to get a second serving. The leg of lamb was terrific. Again, one can have it more well done, but lower temps are the way to go. The signature cut of churrasco menus is the picanha. It’s a tender, thinly sliced cut of meat that is best enjoyed at medium rare to rare, although they will have some cooked up a bit more for those who are squeamish about their meat being too red. Without question it’s something you’ll want to come around again, and possibly again, so keep that button green side up!
Not everyone has the fortitude to go in for the never-ending procession of meat, and for those people there is the plank steak (250g, VND650,000). New on Au Lac’s menu, it’s a great ribeye steak served with a choice of rich, mashed potatoes or a baked potato, bacon-wrapped asparagus, and grilled tomatoes. Tender and juicy, it’s a perfect fit for less ambitious carnivores who don’t want to be left out of the fun. Whether for more intimate affairs, or large family or business gatherings, Au Lac do Brazil is sure to please everyone but the vegetarians amongst us.
Images by Ngoc Tran