La Brasa, located amongst a sea of strip malls and car dealerships on Mansell Road, bills itself as a grill and sports bar. Sounds pretty standard for this neck of the woods. Except that it's not quite accurate -- South American grill and discotheque might be a better fit. A giant dance floor dominates the center of the dining room, with a ring of booths around the periphery, a small bandstand in one corner and a handful of cocktail tables near the bar. It's easy to envision a wild Saturday night here, with the sangria flowing and sweaty bodies gyrating to salsa music. Alas, the rest of the week it's just a big, forlorn, empty expanse.
Dancefloor Dining: It makes for an odd experience, eating dinner in an empty dance club. Luckily, salsa could liven up a funeral home, and they keep the volume turned up on the stereo even on slow nights. A couple of regulars camped out at a bar table venture onto the dance floor every so often, treating the rest of us schlubs to a knockout performance. There's something hypnotic about watching accomplished dancers. They make it look effortless. Salsa dancing is especially fun to watch -- the guy gets to shimmy and swivel his hips as much as the girl does.
Pleasures of the Flesh: La Brasa's menu focuses on South American cuisines and especially churrasco, grilled meats. It's divided up into sections titled tierra (land), cielo (air) and mar (sea). Fans of the Brazilian steakhouse trend will be thrilled with the parilla Argentina, a mixed grill platter. A sizzling cast iron skillet is heaped sky-high with grilled chicken, sausages, skirt steak with chimichurri sauce and pork ribs. You may be curious about the jet-black sausage identified by the server simply as "morsilla." He's being coy, hoping to avoid freaking you out with the English translation -- blood sausage. Be not afraid. If you can get past the concept of a sausage made from curdled blood, it's not half bad, with an earthy flavor and crumbly texture.
Chicken is prepared two ways, either grilled "a la parilla" or rotisserie-roasted. The rotisserie chicken is just about irresistible. A long soak in a Caribbean marinade of garlic and citrus makes for a juicy, deeply flavorful bird. Green plantains have a garlicky punch of their own -- hunks of unripe plantain are smashed and pan-fried, then basted with garlic. Saucy, fragrant black beans round out the meal.
Tapas Tango: A separate tapas menu offers an assortment of small plates priced at $6 or $7 apiece. A few items are lackluster, particularly pollo envuelto, a weird dish of chicken breast pounded flat, stuffed with flavorless veggie filling and sliced into medallions. The whole thing is awash in a thick cream sauce, making it difficult to get a handle on what you're actually eating. Instead, opt for the arepas, corn cakes topped with stewed chicken, green chilies and plenty of melted cheese. Camarones al ajillo are a good bet, too: sautéed shrimp in a lively garlic-butter sauce with a little diced tomato thrown in for good measure.
In case you're wondering what makes La Brasa cheap eats -- there are a handful of entrees over the $20 mark on the menu -- it's the portions. The parilla Argentina is marked at $20 for one person and $28 for two, but for God's sake, just order the singleton portion. It's enormous. You'll have leftovers. Half a roasted chicken is just $10, and it could easily serve two people. Frankly, with the quantities of food served here, it's a miracle anyone makes it onto the dance floor. Me, I'll just sit back, sip my sangria and watch.
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