The south of Brazil, where my wife hails from, bears a strong resemblance to the American South. Like in the US, it is a more politically conservation, traditionally agricultural, and European influenced part of the country. The sort of famous African influence, dancey, care-free and colorful stuff (e.g. Rio) is largely absent. You have to go north and east to find a lot of what gets generally sold as the face of Brazil.
The one exception is when it comes to food. Likely, if you ask anyone outside of Brazil what they know about Brazilian food you'll be told about gauchos wielding swords of meat. The Brazilian "steakhouse" is a sort of recent international phenomenon, and its roots are uniquely South Brazilian. Those gauchos who serve you? That comes from the pampas in the southern states of Brazil where, much like in America, cattle were and are the big industry. The lack of any seasoning other than salt on the beef? That's also the south's doing. Go anywhere else where there was a lot of African influence, such as the northeast, and you find lots of spicy, hot food.
That Brazilian Steakhouses are usually up-market, expensive affairs in this country (e.g. Fogo de Chão which, again, was born in the south of Brazil in a town called Porto Alegre ) is an intentional contrivance. As my wife will tell you (and also this great article from EATER) the whole rodizio concept of a churrascaria was meant as a place for truck drivers to fill up while on the road. In those days, meat was cheap and easy to serve because of all the cattle running around. It wasn't until later, specifically with Fogo de Chão, that an effort was made to convert a rustic concept into a theatrical and expensive experience due to its "exotic" nature in a big city environment. Such a move was ripe for exportation to the US, for as we all know, American's go crazy for "exotic" things served by "ethnics" (first Italians and pasta, then Japanese and sushi, later Indians and Thai) and are willing to be charged a premium for the pleasure. Thus basic food like grilled beef, rice, beans, and cheese bread suddenly became something for which people pay thirty to sixty dollars a pop.
The truck stop churrascaria is very much still a thing in Brazil, just with the meat cooked and served at the buffet line and not with all the pomp and circumstance. It fact, my first meal in Brazil was at a gas station churrascaria shortly after crossing the border from Argentina on my first bus ride up to Curitiba, my wife's hometown. It is invariably cheaper in price but offering the same food. What you pay for at the rodizio, where they carve the meat at the table as they do rounds, is the "entertainment." When we lived in Atlanta, we had the best of both worlds. There is a large enough Brazilian presence in the northern suburbs, such as Marietta, that a few, down-home style Brazilian buffets exist where you pay for the meat by weight if you don't want to go a vontade, aka all you can eat. Our favorite was Sabor do Brasil, but there are others. At the same time, if we had a big event to celebrate, we could go to an upscale place like Fogo de Chão, or the newer Chama Guacha and be entertained.
Since moving to Savannah, our options are severely limited. We could of course drive four to five hours back up to Atlanta...or, as it happens, take about an hour drive across the river to Hilton Head Island. There on the island you can find Cowboy Steakhouse, which if you did not know any better you would almost certainly think was some terrible Western Sizzler knockoff. Despite the silly name, it is indeed a Brazilian Rodizio Churrascaria.
I looked the place up on Yelp and Tripadvisor before-hand to try and gauge what kind of experience we were in for, and the the reviews ran from either ecstatic to utterly outraged..so, Yelp reviews basically. Most of the complaints centered on the service, with one reviewer even going so far as to say that the waiters had "Gullahtude" which is almost certainly veiled racism. I didn't necessarily have high expectations, given the location, but my wife was game and we knew that if all else went wrong, we would still be eating lots of meat.
We showed up right when they opened on a Wednesday, so we were the first customers through the door. Their website advertised an "early bird" discount if you were seated before six o'clock. Inside, we found a relatively small, but otherwise satisfactory salad and hot bar bearing some, if not all, of the hallmarks of a good Brazilian buffet. They had heart of palm salad, which is a personal favorite, and the requisite rice, beans, and farofa. Additionally there were some American tweaks, such as a tasty but inauthentic chicken salad and a basket of yeast rolls. Also, it's the Lowcountry after all so there were some pretty good chilled shrimp. We were disappointed not to find pão de queijo (cheese bread) readily available. I later glanced some on another diner's table, so maybe you had to ask for it. By the time I came to this conclusion, we were already stuffed and it was a moot point.
After a few minutes dedicated to the salad bar, the "gauchos" finally started to do rounds with a progression of meats. They began with chicken: sausage, grilled leg, and breast wrapped in bacon. Then came the most Americanized part of the whole experience: barbecueed baby back ribs.
Now, it is not uncommon to eat pork ribs in Brazil, and I've been served them at other rodizios. However, they are always thick cut and, like all the other meat, seasoned only with salt. At Cowboy they were straight-up Chili's style with a barbecue sauce glaze. My wife was unimpressed, shaking her head at the American colonization of her beloved homeland's cuisine. For my part, I thought they were a sweet, tangy break from the parade of salty. They were a tasty addition and not at all unwelcome.
Finally the beef came. We had the usual assortment of steak cuts: filet mignon with and without bacon, garlic sirloin, flank steak, and of course, picanha. Picanha is the "house special" of any churrascaria and it is always pictured on the advertising (and the heading of this post). The reason being that it simply is the best. It's a sirloin rump cap, that when rare and sliced right off the outside so that you get the crusty exterior and bloody interior, is purely meat heaven. Serving the picanha to us was, to my true surprise, a native Brazilian. He, in the kind of coincidence that seems to happen to us all over the world, was also from my wife's home state of Parana in the south. They got to converse in their native tongue, and I got to benefit from his prolonged presence by having my plate piled high with picanha slices.
There were later offerings of lamb chops, which came pre-seasoned with mint. I prefer lemon if any seasoning, but the meat was delicious still. A Parmesan crusted pork loin was also brought out, and it was surprisingly appetizing even with all the beef still to be eaten. The end of the meat parade was a grilled, cinnamon spiced pineapple that really was the perfect sweet touch to cleanse the palate of all the salty and savory.
The service was good all around, and our waitress gave us the early bird discount even though I failed to mention it when we were seated (something the website said you were supposed to do). Indeed, we benefited greatly from the Brazilian connected but even if we hadn't, the experience still would have been a pleasant one. We both agreed that we would be happy to return. Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse may not be the most authentic place to feast on Brazilian chow, but it's all the meat you can eat and that's never bad.
Addendum: The bathroom opens right out into the buffet line, which is just weird if not outright wrong. Most everybody we saw in the restaurant and elsewhere was geriatric, which I suppose is the nature of Hilton Head. I haven't spent much time there, but it was striking how many old white people there were.