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Porto Brasil: poor man's churrascaria

A Brazilian meat fest for $10.99. Yep.

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Churrascarias get a bad rap among food snobs. Maybe it's the guilt-inducing, all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of meats, salad bar, and gooey cheese rolls. Maybe it's the bridge-and-tunnel clientele that frequents such establishments. Maybe it's the lofty price. Well, this food snob is going on the record as a churrascaria fan. Unfortunately, I'm not a fan of paying $50-plus for the experience — even if the value is high. So I've been on a mission to find a lower-priced alternative. Many local Brazilian markets, such as Marietta's Coisas do Brasil, sell inexpensive plates of thin steaks with beans and rice, but there's little variety and satisfaction when you're craving a more full-blown meat extravaganza.

Porto Brasil (7887 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs, 770-390-2280) is a happy alternative. The restaurant looks like a franchise with its bright yellows and greens reminiscent of the Brazilian flag. Appearances can be deceiving, though; it's actually an independent restaurant tucked away in a small strip mall close to the border of Sandy Springs and Roswell. Porto's concept is simple. It provides an all-you-can-eat assortment of traditional Brazilian cuts of meats, a cold bar, a hot bar, and some desserts for $9.99 during the week and $10.99 on the weekends.

Those expecting a fancy Fogo de Chao atmosphere will be disappointed. The décor, save a few posters, is relatively spartan. The staff's warm hospitality, however, makes up for the sparse furnishings. They're always smiling and extremely attentive despite the self-serve setup. Porto is all about instant gratification. The minute you walk in, you can make a beeline for the buffet, grab a plate, and get to eating. The containers of hot sides hold the treasures. Fork-tender braised oxtails. Breaded and fried bananas. Corn soufflé. Kidney beans mixed with bacon. Black beans. Dried and crumbled yucca with bacon, which you sprinkle over your beans. On the cold side, there's crunchy romaine best eaten with the lip-puckering Italian dressing that doesn't resemble anything you'd get out of a bottle.

The centerpiece of the experience is the meat, but there are no gauchos or red and green discs á la Fogo. Instead, you scuttle up to the buffet where one of the staff members tends to the rotating skewers of meats. Grab some tongs and choose your indulgence, whether it is picanha (the most famous cut of beef from Brazil), beef tenderloin, sirloin, tiny Brazilian sausages, chicken wings, chunks of chicken wrapped in bacon, pork ribs, etc.

After a couple of visits, I've concluded that timing your visit is key in the doneness of the meats. If the restaurant is empty and turnover is low, the meat will be too well done. Lunchtime seems to be the best time of day to dine at Porto, because more diners equals more turnover.

Desserts are where Porto's independent nature really hits home. The woman who offered us dessert boasted she makes all of them from scratch every day. Do yourself a favor and try her creamy and dreamy flan. And even when we were cooing praises for the flan and the passion fruit custard, she told us to return on the weekend because that's when she makes a big batch of Brazil's national dish, feijoada — a black bean, pork and beef stew.

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