Meat up

The Spanish-style Kress five and dime at Houston and Presa Streets in downtown San Antonio opened in 1939 but was soon eclipsed by the mall-construction boom of the 1960s. The property drifted for years until finally being salvaged by Texas de Brazil, a chain of 18 churascarias (Portuguese for barbecue or grill) last year, receiving expert attention across the facade and ground-floor interior. The outfit opened with acrobatic flair to excited local diners on New Year’s Eve.

The salvaged space now harbors a 30-foot-high, glassed-in wine room, where acrobatic young woman in red unitards do somersaults from a trapeze and harness apparatus while seeking expensive bottles for diners (giving high-end wine a new meaning). And while we’re all for the adaptive reuse of historic architecture, the proof is in the pudding — or, in this case, the steaks.

Texas de Brazil is first and foremost a steakhouse, reflecting the setting of a grand estancia or ranch. The main attraction is the sizzling meats sliced and served with panache tableside by waiters in black gaucho pants. We didn’t sample all fifteen meats, but came pretty close. My favorite? The garlic-marinated picanha, a sirloin cap with succulent flavor. My companion tagged the leg of lamb as first-rate. Other winners include the small, spicy Brazilian sausages and the filet mignon. The herb-marinated pork loin was wanting in herbs, and the chicken breast wrapped in bacon was on the dry side.  All meats are served rare, but a gracious staff is willing to cook to order if you need things a tad less bloody.

Before indulging their inner carnivores, guests start off with soups and salads at a huge rectangular serving bar that separates the room into two dining areas able to serve about 100 people each. For soup we both tried the lobster bisque, very rich with loads of butter and heavy cream but a bit scant on the lobster. Then I went back and had the tangy black beans and pork.

For the month of January the restaurant is offering two complete dinners with desserts and a bottle of wine or champagne for $74. Since the dinners regularly go for $39.95 a person without drinks or desserts, it’s definitely a deal. Our wine choice was a 120 Santa Rita cabernet, a big-bodied Chilean red that costs about $25 in most restaurants. It offered a nice complement to the meats. Regular wines on the menu lean heavily toward Argentinean and Brazilian varieties, with reds outweighing whites.

 The salad bar is well-managed, frequently replenished, and everything is labeled. I recommend the smoked salmon, pepper salami, prosciutto, tabouli, and artichoke hearts. My dining partner raved over the quinoa with cranberries. We both found the fat, steamed asparagus spears to be woody, but I enjoyed the strawberry dressing they came with. 

Meals include small cheese rolls, garlic mashed potatoes, and fried bananas in honey. Plantains would be a more authentic side. We went easy on the rolls (as my daddy told us kids, “Smart money doesn’t fill up on bread and water”), but enjoyed the garlic potatoes enough to request a refill. Diners signal their wish for more meat by flipping a placard (green for mas, red for basta), and the waiters come by frequently to make sure no really means no. My partner thought they were too attentive, but I liked the service and the staff’s comfort in answering questions about preparation and ingredients. 

 No proper Brazilian meal should end without flan, but I let myself be seduced by a huge piece of carrot cake, while the girlfriend opted for coconut chess pie. Dessert choices are presented on a tray of plastic replicas (a rolling dessert cart with originals would be a lot classier). But the carrot cake was moist, crunchy, and rich, and the pie was buttery and sweet. Other offerings include crème brulee, papaya crème, and key lime pie. 

All in all, Texas de Brazil does a first-rate job replicating the model started in Addison in 1998. Staff were friendly, attentive, and well trained. The already-spacious décor is amplified with the use of large side mirrors and huge floral arrangements. Unfortunately, the high vaulted ceiling and uncarpeted floors also amplify the noise, making table conversation difficult. •

Texas de Brazil

313 E. Houston St.

(210) 299-1600

THE SKINNY: Excellent, well-prepared meats. Superior service and welcoming atmosphere.

BEST BETS: Picanha (sirloin), roast leg of lamb, Brazilian sausages, prosciutto, Brazilian black beans and pork

HOURS: 5-10pm Mon–Thu, open until 10:30pm Fri; 4:30-10:30pm Sat; 4-9pm Sun

PRiCES: A complete dinner for two with wine, $74 per couple through January. Dinner without wine or dessert, $39.95 per person (25% discount available online by joining restaurant’s eclub).

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