This Week in the Meats and Eats of Agora Churrascaria
Irvine is in the midst of a dining boom, with Chakra Cuisine wowing Indian grub veterans and novices alike and foodies finally discovering the city's two Chinatowns. Latest buzz-worthy newcomer: Agora Churrascaria, an all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecue palace minutes from John Wayne Airport. It's a carnival for carnivores. Agora seasons all its meats with rock salt, rotates the selections over an open fire, then rounds up an army of waiters dressed in goofy gaucho outfits. In turn, they parade around Agora's vast premises and slice off their treasure onto the plates of patrons until they say "Não mais." The only thing that disappoints us about Agora is the meat selection: too skewed toward a mainstream audience, which means no rabbit, quail or alligator, as is customary in so many other churrascarias. Nevertheless, this is a place that knows meat, so here's a review of Agora's 12 cuts, along with a couple of other entrées for the fool who comes here looking to eat light. 1830 Main St., Irvine, (949) 222-9910; agorachurrascaria.com.
Agora can open a rotisserie franchise on these suckers alone. The drumsticks are small and manageable, with moist meat that slips off the bone with little effort. Best about this cut is the gobs of garlic marinade that glisten across the chicken's crispy skin and the wisps of green onion near the drumstick's meatiest part.
I always joke with friends that the whitest people on Earth are Argentines and Brazilians, and this dish bolsters my claim. Eastern European immigrants introduced the sweet, creamy soup to Brazil during the country's great migrations of the late 19th Century; at Agora, the trip is from the kitchen to the buffet table to your table.
Also known as chicken hearts. Sure, the tiny gray nubs don't look too appetizing. And their silvery, too-rich flavor might put off the most cowardly of eaters. But think of the coração as poultry sashimi: a bite-sized morsel that floods your palate with an intense, memorable sensation then just as quickly disappears. Besides, with all the meat waiters will dump on your plate, you're bound to eat a coração sooner or later.
In a wildly diverse country, feijoada seems to be the only thing upon which Brazilians can agree: a hearty, salty black-bean-and-pork stew that is just as at home in the Mississippi Delta as it is in the Amazon Basin. Though the feijoada at Agora may sit in a pot at the salad buffet, fear not: this soup is always boiling and delicious.
Cut directly in a long strip from a massive hunk of the stuff, this filet mignon exhibits the charms of rare meat with the smokiness of something that was rotated over a roaring fire for about an hour. Each bite produces juices in a way that's almost pornographic. It's the best mini-slice of filet mignon in South County . . .
. . . until you taste the filet mignon wrapped in bacon. The bacon isn't too greasy but imparts enough of a fatty flavor to sweeten the unseasoned pleasure of the filet mignon. Another sort of pseudo-sashimi chunk—shove it into your mouth and let the flavors meld inside. Mmm...pseudo-sashimichunk.
Agora does offer a salad bar, but this is the only fruit or vegetable you'll need. Can double as a dessert if needed, but leave room for Agora's decadent cheesecake and fruit sorbets.
These tiny, dainty things don't seem like much at first, but grab it by the bone and gnaw. The meat is lean, buttery and contains just a touch of pepper. Don't wait for the sauce—although if you're into that, Agora offers about a dozen different kinds in the salad bar.
Linguiça (pork sausage) is one of the world's great sausages: glistening with grease, plump and spiced inside and stretching a snappy skin taut. Agora is one of the county's few places to knife through linguiça, and they improve on their competition by not bothering to char the skin, leaving the meat to win you over with its porcine charm.
Though this type of pork sausage doesn't quite approach the subtle flavors of linguiça, it does come smothered with garlic and Parmesan cheese. The resulting taste is rough and quite bracing, meaning you're going to wave the guy down next time he passes by with the sword.
What you and I call cheese-bread balls. Agora leaves them on the table, and these mini-boulders prove a worthy companion to the meat with their toasted crust and milky inside. Also great to throw at waiters when you want their attention—but you didn't hear this from me.
What gabachoscall top sirloin cap—yeah, I don't know where this is, either. But this is Agora's prime cut, and it's worthy of the designation. The portion of picanha Agora offers isn't too large, but this meat is as intense as carpaccio. It's flaky, with each layer shiny and sweet, almost like caramel. Already one of my top 10 meats in any Orange County restaurant.
Soft as a pâté and just as delicate in taste, this pork tenderloin goes especially well with the guaraná, a beverage made from a citrus-y fruit that would be the next apple juice if Americans would only stop cutting down the Amazon.
The only disappointing Agora selection. Reminded me of carne asada, except without the tenderness, within a blackened top. This cut goes best, though, with a caipirinha, a supersweet cocktail made from sugar-cane alcohol that will leave you nice and soused.
Um, was that the beef with a lot of garlic, or the one with a lot of salt, or the one burnt to coal? It was quite tasty, though: I just remember my cousin and best friend—who think a Carl's Jr. $6 burger is the epitome of beef—bugging the waitress for more when she passed with her portions.
Tri-tip reaches its apotheosis in California's Santa Maria Valley, which is populated with the descendants of Portuguese immigrants, so it's no stretch for Agora to prepare a superb tri-tip: folds of beef presented like toppled dominoes, each succulent and just the tiniest bit salty.
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