The first surprise was the name: it’s not pronounced as you might think.
The second surprise was the popularity: the place was nearly full on a Tuesday night.
The third surprise is the price: much less than you might imagine for all-you-can-eat.
The fourth surprise (and this is the last one, I promise) is the quality: way better than you might also have thought.
Let’s take these in order.
Yours truly, who has been meaning to take a class in Portuguese, simply assumed the name was pronounced chama GOWcha, as in Spanish — but no: It’s shama gaOOsha. Much more mellifluous, perhaps, but also not quite as rough and ready as the gaucho image suggests. Chama means flame, and though no flames are visible from the dining room, we are nevertheless encouraged to imagine the macho gaucho from southern Brazil hunkered over a primal pit tending his spitted slabs of beef.
Next, almost no serious place in San Antonio is ever that full on a Tuesday night — especially one at the tail end of a recession. Yet several good old boys with toothpicks sauntered out as we arrived, young couples with tiny infants in carriers arrived while we were there, and the noise level was high almost throughout our stay — high, but not punishing. (As an architect, let me tell you that a desirably active yet not annoying acoustic environment is not always easy to achieve.)
Some of the popularity surely has to do with the price point: It’s $33.50 per person, salad bar (but not dessert) included. Considering the amount of food one could conceivably put away for that price (not that we’re encouraging this), it’s an amazing bargain. But another factor may also be ease of ordering (this accounts, in part, for the high number of special parties accommodated throughout the week — there was a pharmaceutical group of 120 in attendance on this night, though we would never have known if it hadn’t been mentioned to us).
The system is very simple: Your first stop is at the salad bar, beautifully presented and impeccably maintained. Try not to overload your plate with a variety of very good salads, cold cuts, cheeses (including fresh mozzarella balls), marinated vegetables and mushrooms, jumbo asparagus spears … you could make a meal of this alone, and in fact a $19.50 salad-bar-only price is available.
Up to this point, you will have kept the card you are given upon ordering with its red side up. This is important — unless you want to be besieged by gaucho-garbed servers while attempting to appreciate your salad selection at leisure. When ready, simply turn the card over to its green side. Fresh plates will magically appear.
The meats, about a dozen of them, won’t arrive in any particular order, so until you decide which are your favorites, we counsel caution. With the little pincers on your plate, simply help the server out as he slices slivers of, say, bottom sirloin from an impressive, skewered slab. Say yes to maybe a couple of more kinds — perhaps the pork rib or the marinated chicken legs. Try the chewy but good slabs of fried polenta, the mashed potatoes, the suave, sautéed bananas, the excessively appealing popovers, all of which will automatically appear. Then …Flip.It’s almost beside the point to evaluate each selection; you will like some we didn’t and vice-versa — though for the record, almost all were perfectly moist and impeccably cooked, and Dining Companion and I agreed on most of them. So, also for the record, our favorites were, in order, leg of lamb, bottom sirloin, pork ribs, prime sirloin and rib-eye.
You could return to the salad bar for a palate refresher of lightly dressed greens at this point. Or you could simply sit back for a moment and savor the wine you will have ordered. There are no Brazilian bottles of any consequence that I’m aware of, but you can get close to the feel with one from neighboring Argentina. True, our Terrazas de los Andes 2006 Malbec Reserva did, at $40, cost more than a single dinner, but it should nevertheless be considered very fairly priced. We especially enjoyed it as it opened up during the course of the meal. Special mention: The glassware is impressive.
Now we’re back to green and more meat. Since I mentioned the options we liked most, let me first suggest that one tends to get more critical as the evening wears on. It was perhaps luck of the draw that the lamb came early on, but I think it would have stood out regardless — in fact, we returned to it later. (It’s interesting to note that the leg is coated with mint, lemon pepper and such and turned over a charcoal fire until crusty; it’s then sliced in the dining room until the meat begins to show too rare, at which point it’s re-rubbed and set back over the fire.)
It’s not obligatory, but now’s the time for dessert, should you be so inclined. Reviewers, in any case, are obliged, so we settled on a large schooner of papaya cream and an equally hefty wedge of key lime pie. An attentive server arrived with a bottle of crème de cassis to splash over the papaya cream. Do not resist. The mousse is pleasant enough, and the liqueur helps. And the same can be said for the key lime; it’s cool and creamy. You don’t need either of them, but we won’t tell if you decide to indulge.