You don’t expect much when you see prime rib on a menu. Usually it means an inferior cut of meat being passed off as “prime” grade, even though the designation only refers to the position of the bones on the bovine rib cage. Most often, prime rib is touted in franchise restaurants and small-town supper clubs. That’s why some friends and I were blown away when we encountered it at a Brazilian restaurant in Astoria. Though the serving was only a single rib—humorously dubbed “costela Bam-Bam” ($17.95)—that rib was dinosaur-size. Swinging from the rib’s length was a hammock of meat, roasted to deep, caramelized perfection, yet miraculously pink and bloody in the middle. It sliced like a giant roast, and took several of us to finish it.
Favela (the Brazilian term for a shanty town) is a barroom and restaurant that is to Brazilian food what a diner is to American. The greatest hits of the churascarria menu have been ripped off, including not only the Bam-Bam rib, but also picanha grelhada ($14.95), four mini-sirloins crosshatched from the charcoal grill, reclining in their own juices on a bed of parsley. All beef cuts are accompanied by farofa, a coarse manioc meal fried to crunchiness with tidbits of smoked pig. Sprinkle it on the beef as you wolf it down. As additional seasoning, there’s an oily onion-and- pepper relish, and a little cauldron of home-pickled peppers—like Thai bird chiles with a few tiny onions thrown in. I saw the waiter decanting the peppers from a jar in the rear of the restaurant one evening: They appeared to be homemade.
While the rib and sirloin epitomize the meat-bearing plains of Brazil, frango fundo de Quintal ($11.95) represents the mining district of Minas Gerais. Chicken is immersed in an okra-thickened stew poured over rectangles of polenta, which continue to absorb sauce and swell as the meal progresses. Once again, the serving is large enough to be shared. Other chicken dishes on the menu lean in an Italian direction, including dodgy Brazilian versions of chicken Parmesan and chicken Milanese. But Favela pointedly ignores the most famous output of Minas Gerais—the scrumptious cheese-stuffed bread balls known as pão de queijo.
The hardest type of Brazilian food to get right is the Bahian cooking of the north, much of which reflects an African heritage. Moqueca ($16.95) is the cuisine’s masterpiece, a coconut-laced fish stew kissed with bright orange palm oil, which is called dende. At Favela, it comes authentically sided with pirao, a pudding made from the stew’s gravy thickened with manioc flour, creating a parallel culinary universe of delectability. By contrast, the bobo de camarao, another Bahian specialty, is disappointingly bland, even though the roster of ingredients in this shrimp stew is similar to moqueca.
You shouldn’t bother with the appetizers, because the entrées are so friggin’ big. But if you choose Favela as your favorite Brazilian bar, you’ll find that many starters make wonderful bar snacks. King of the heap is carne de sol ($9.95), a salty beef jerky jumbled with manioc fries in a sort of a dryish hash, making the perfect chaser for a deep draft of Brahma beer. The smoky grilled sausages called calabresa grelhada are similarly fab. But, gee, who expected the spicy sausages of Calabria, Italy, to show up in Brazil?