Second, Pampas is a theatrical experience. The lobby, if you think of it that way, is handsomely appointed with a black walnut bar, lounge chairs and drop lights.
With Patagonia next door, this strip of Alma Street could be called Little Lower South America. At a steakhouse set to a Latin beat, you may hear "The Girl From Ipanema" in the background. This area works nicely as a place to meet friends.
Then you go in for the show, the rodizio, featuring servers called passadors wielding tall skewers of hot meat. This type of restaurant, the Brazilian churrascaria (shoo-ras-kar-ia) has touched down elsewhere in the Bay Area, and in cities such as Memphis and Houston. A similar Pampas in Las Vegas is no relation to Palo Alto Pampas. The actual pampas are the grass-covered plains of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, where the tradition of rotisserie meats derives from cowboys and their campfires.
For my dining companion, I drafted an experienced churrasco hand, an Argentinean woman who remembers being astounded by the size of the hunks of meat when her family went to these restaurants. "I wondered if this was the whole cow — or horse — they were putting on my plate," she said.
Pampas' servings are daintier, but unlimited. Hygiene is an important detail. Each meat server comes around with a vertical spit fitted into a drip pan. He slices, you grab, with a little set of tongs.
Servers advise going the whole rodizio route your first time out, so you can see what you like. Well, of course. The side bar is $27 by itself. If you're spending that much, adding $17 for your heart's delight of high-quality meat seems almost a no-brainer. As with the way Starbucks prices its coffee, you can't help but realize that upsizing is a better deal.
The side-bar buffet is overwhelming, but is it dinner? If you paid $27 for a hotel buffet, you'd expect shrimp, prime rib, hot plates and cold plates. At Pampas, all the buffet plates are room temperature.
My expert gave high marks to the signature feijoada, despite the cold plates. The buffet's Brazilian side stars this spicy, smoky black-bean stew, spooned over rice and traditionally served with shredded kale, hearts of palm, orange slices and hot peppers. Sprinkle with farofa, toasted manioc flour.
Among the buffet's 30 dishes, I'd also recommend the grilled peaches topped with mozzarella; tamarind-flavored meat balls; smoked trout; charcuterie meats; caramelized onions; and a couple of the potato dishes. In two visits, I still wasn't able to try everything. The fixings for green salad are light years from Fresh Choice. There's pasta salad, tabbouleh, fresh fruit and grilled vegetables.
The hot/cold problem came up there, too. Another diner in line complained that the grilled veggies were cold.
When you're done grazing the buffet, turn the hockey puck on your table from its red side to green, signaling Rodizio Time. Soon you will hear, "My name is Joe and I'll be your lamb passador tonight." Or it could be tri-tip, pork tenderloin, sirloin filet, linguica, turkey breast wrapped in smoked bacon, skirt steak, chicken legs and thighs, and a few others. We were there over two hours, and didn't see all 14 meats, but we saw more than enough.
At my first visit, the meats were over-salted and therefore less distinguishable. The second time, all but a tough skirt steak were delicious, especially lamb with balsamic sauce, tri-tip and dry-rubbed pork. They ranged from medium-rare to medium-well.
Pampas also offers four seafood skewers, ranging from $11 to $20, and a couple of entrees. Beautiful Alaskan halibut ($28) was two inches tall, accompanied by shoestring curly fries, snap peas and a luxurious citrus buerre blanc.
The vegetarian entree ($18) is garbanzo stew with eggplant, tomato, ginger and couscous. It's hard to figure a way these ingredients, stewed, could add up to $18. Also there's a ribeye steak ($36) and duck breast ($29). With all these, add $12 if you want the buffet.
Pampas' children's menu features chicken fingers ($9), steak sandwich ($10), and the rodizio ($15), soda and ice cream included. If the young person in your group gets bored, a DVD player is available.
If someone in your group has hearing issues, you might mention it when making a reservation. The noise level varies tremendously.
The lunch version of Pampas includes salads, sandwiches, an $18 buffet and a $28 rodizio.
Dessert, anyone? The chocolate torte ($9) is small but memorable, with a scoop of caramel ice cream, and weirdly good bacon Brazil nut toffee. A microscopic line of creme fraiche sauce, described by the server as a reduction, connects toffee to torte.
529 Alma St., Palo Alto
Restaurant hours: Lunch: Weekdays 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Thurs. 5:30-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-10:30 p.m.; Sun. 5-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: on street and in lot
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: no
Party and banquet facilities: yes
Noise level: medium-loud
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent
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