Gut Instinct: Meat Your Match

Every so often, my friend José likes to remind me of his brief flirtation with bulimia. He was dining at Midtown’s Churrascaria Plataforma, a Brazilian meat circus where customers can chomp unlimited medium-rare barnyard animals.

“It was so good,” he says, eyes glazed with flesh remembered, hands caressing belly. “But I was full. And there were still meats to sample.”

A normal man would cry no más. But José brims with machismo, stubbornness and, most crucially, a thrifty streak. José wanted his money’s worth. So he excused himself, wandered to the bathroom and, like a teen suffering self-image issues, calmly turned his stomach inside out.

“Then I sat down and ate until I was full again,” he says happily. “I had two dinners.”

José tells this tale not with shame but pride at his simple solution. I’m hungry. How can I eat more? I can vomit. No matter how often I’ve heard this story—and lord, I can by now taste José’s bile—I’m still mortified. Go on, call me a hypocrite: One recent belly-roiling weekday, I chopsticked up 20 boiled pork-and-leek dumplings at Zheng’s, then nipped numerous bourbons at Brooklyn whiskey lair Char No. 4.

The crucial distinction is that a deep chasm separates the hedonistic giddiness of devouring your favorite food…and upchucking to eat seconds. Think of all the starving Ethiopian children! His wanton hunger was tricky to fathom—until I received an invitation to test my eating off switch.

“Come dine at Porcão Churrascaria [360 Park Ave. South at 26th St., 212-252-7080],” the invite said. Two dozen meats, served tableside rodizio-style. A salad bar. All-you-can-eat for $50.

“Not in a million years,” said my girlfriend, a staunch vegetarian.

“There’s salad. You love lettuce. I’ll eat enough cow for both of us.” Mmm…double dose of bovine. She looked aghast, as if I said was considering becoming a transvestite hooker. Scratch that. I went to Plan B: Julie B. Licorice-skinny Julie has the appetite of a female Michael Phelps and a chain-smoking teen’s metabolism. She regularly devours greasy cheeseburgers and a dozen chicken wings, still keeping a single-digit dress size.

“I like to eat,” she explains, as if unabashed love of gooey nachos and bacon magically allow her to retain her girlish figure.

“It’s time for the tummy test,” I say as we arrive at Porcão’s cavernous dining room, New York cool as interpreted by a neon- and leather-loving Don Johnson. But tonight’s sole vice is unrepentant carnivorism. A cordial, clean-faced waiter introduces himself. “And this is your…”

“Surrogate girlfriend,” I say. “Mine won’t come within a hundred feet of a steakhouse.” The waiter smiles, his face frozen in friendly rictus, and passes us several plastic discs. When hungry, he explains, flip the disc to green; when full, flip it to red.

“Is it go time?” I ask Julie.

“I’m wearing elastic,” Julie says, turning our discs shamrock.

As quickly as unleashed caged tigers, a procession of servers spring forward. Each cradles a throat-slitting knife and spitted meat. Skirt steak, rib-eye and flank are carved into silky-thin slices, which I grab with mini tongs evidently fashioned for munchkins. Tender beer-marinated chicken breasts give way to gnaw-worthy beef ribs.

“Is churrascaria Spanish for heart attack?” I ask Julie, chewing provolone-topped prime rib.

“My elastic needs to stretch further,” she replies, stabbing soft, pecorino-coated pork loin.

Gluttony comes quickly and tastily. “Filet mignon…wrapped in bacon,” says one server, like he’s selling an illicit drug. I take two slices, savoring the juicy, fatty animal-on-animal heresy—I’m too stingy to become a smoker again, but I could become addicted to this flavorful cattle-pig Frankenstein.

To further muddle our senses, a bartender wheels around a drinks cart to muddle caipirinhas. “He’s like a drunken dim-sum lady,” I whisper to Julie. I sip my third blend of passion fruit and cachaça, fermented sugarcane juice that, on its own, recalls first-aid antiseptic. The caipirinha is fruity. It is refreshing. It is, after all that medium-rare animal, much too much.

Churrascarias—like unlimited buffets and sushi dens—offer overdoses of pleasure. What’s great in moderation is not exponentially better by the wheelbarrow. Despite a lifetime of beer commercials pleading us to “know when to say when,” we still don’t. Open bars are guaranteed to end in slurring shambles, just like a churrascaria visit inevitably concludes with hands clutching distended stomach, cursing cows for being born so delicious.

“More filet mignon?” a server asks, his knife poised on the burnished, bacon-wrapped exterior.

“Nuhhhhhhhhh,” I mumble, flipping the disc to red and waddling to my bathroom fate.

Gut Instinct: Nice to Meat You

Rummage through my dresser drawer’s crumpled sweatshirts and faded, crotch-frayed jeans, and you’ll find a sparkly fabric rectangle that I affectionately call my “meat flag.”

It displays a picture of me grinning with serial-killer glee, hoisting taut, pink kielbasa above my head like a trophy—a picture taken seconds before I swung the greasy lengths like nunchaku onto a glowing-red grill.

“Grilling might be the only time you’re truly happy,” my girlfriend says.

“Except when I’m drunk,” I add.

Sweet lollipops, I love to grill. Invite me to your barbecue and I’ll liberate spatulas from lesser men and dole out my medium-rare rapture. The secret is grade-A meat, a mixture of deliciousness and minimum expenditure that requires a field trip to distant Brooklyn. For my Memorial Day weekend provisionary run, I enlist my pedaling pal Aaron.

“We’re heading to meat heaven,” I say, as we aim toward the Atlantic Ocean. “But first, we must snack.” Upon entering Russian Brighton Beach, we pit stop at M&I International (249 Brighton Beach Ave. betw. Brighton 1st St. & Brighton 1st Pl., B’klyn; 718-615-1011). M&I’s a bastion of smoked fish, pickled vegetables and pierozki ($1.25 apiece). They’re deep-fried oblong pies packed with cabbage, potatoes or “meat.” Which meat?

“Meat,” says a thick woman wearing a hairnet, manning the sidewalk-ordering window.

“Delicious,” I say, as she fills a plastic bag with pies. We bring them to the boardwalk.

“Should they be so…greasy?” Aaron asks. Oil drips onto wooden planks.

“Just eat,” I say, as we chomp in unison.

“It’s dessert and dinner all in one,” Aaron proclaims—funnel cake with a meat chaser.

“And you’re complaining?”

“Not at all,” he says, fingers glistening in the sun.

Covered with a greasy sheen, we continue our trek to my grilling secret: Coney Island’s Major Prime Meat Market (1516 Mermaid Ave. betw. W. 15th & W. 16th Sts, B’klyn, 718-372-8091). I first found Major four summers prior when, following a lobster-red beach afternoon, I stumbled into the sawdust-strewn shop. I was intrigued by Major’s shop window filled with vintage Coney photos, but my heart swooned for silver-haired proprietor Jimmy Prince, a fixture since 1949.

“You looking for a steak?” he asked, immaculate in a button-down and tie.

I was.

“I’ll be right back.” He sliced me a hefty sirloin beaut, marbled with marvelous fat.

“Cook it right, and you won’t find a finer steak,” he said.

I did. He was right. I’ve returned to Major again and again, whenever my meat lust demanded satiation. Like today.

“I’ll be with you in a moment, fellas,” Prince says, as we swing inside. Prince smiles—he’s always smiling—and shuffles into his walk-in cooler, where his meat (prime only, thank you) dry-ages and develops a dense, concentrated flavor. We sway to big-band music and examine canned goods and produce until Prince reappears, hands on hips.

“I need burgers,” I announce.

“We can do that,” Prince says. He lugs an antiquated grinder into the walk-in. He returns with a fat, red lump of fresh-ground beef, which he hand-stamps into patties with a steel contraption. He displays the thick, third-pound patty like a parent proud of his son’s straight-A report card.

“That’s beautiful,” I say, nearly choking up. I want to hug him. He’s the butchering grandpa I never had and never knew I needed.

“I only use prime chuck. It’s the perfect mix for juicy burgers.”

“Ten, please,” I say, wiping away a drop of drool. Prince grinds and presses, presses and grinds, and passes us our patties (about $4 a pound). They’re separated by wax paper and placed into brown paper bags, lovingly folded like a child’s school lunch.

“Have a safe ride, fellas,” Prince says paternally, as we head to the burgers’ final destination: Bushwick Country Club (618 Grand St. at Leonard St., B’klyn, 718-388-2114). This Williamsburg dive offers two-for-one happy hour (until 8 p.m.), a six-course miniature golf course and grills.

They’re hot. They’re primed. They sizzle as I gently lob my patties onto the grill, like I’m launching the world’s costliest Frisbee. I let grill stripes accrue, then I flip the burgers—just once, and no pressing out precious moisture. Their smoke is a Siren’s lure.“Can I have one?” a random bar-goer queries.

“Of course not,” I reply, sliding burger onto bun, a juicy torrent staining the white bread brown. Ketchup? Mustard? No need. I bite, and rich, mineral-y, meaty goodness gushes over my chipped incisors and craggy mandibles. Grill season, I think, as I cram my maw with flesh tender and flavorful enough to convert a vegetarian, has officially begun.

Gut Instinct: Gone Country


Gone Country Driven by culinary compulsions, Southern food is consumed at an alarming clip—pork cracklin’ and all

My obsessive-compulsive urges mean my toilet is always sparkling. Sparkling. I maniacally manicure my eyebrows, which would otherwise conjoin like Siamese twins. I listen to songs on repeat, nibble my nails to the bloody quick and, with a single-mindedness that demands institutionalization, fixate on food.

Some weeks, I’ll only slurp ponds of nose-watering Thai curries. Then I’ll devour crisp dosas, stacked like firewood, followed by a month of chorizo tortas. My whims are as arbitrary as the weather. Take last week’s Southern addiction: My mania began, as often occurs in this modern age, with an email. “Put on your cowboy shirts. We’re gonna eat barbecue,” a pal wrote.

Several days later, I was seated at fat-dude-favorite Hill Country (30 W. 26th St. betw. Broadway & 6th Ave., 212-255-4544). It’s a ginormous Texas mess hall with SS-style hospitality. Ropes corral customers. Diners are crammed together like cattle. The by-the-pound ’cue (prices range from $10-$20) is doled out, cafeteria-style, by carvers with tongues sharper than their knives.

“NEXT! STEP UP AND ORDER!” a young lass ordered with dominatrix élan.

“Quarter-pound of moist and lean brisket!” I shouted back. “Gimme a sausage and a rib, too. A big one.”

I got a big one. She wrapped my meat in wax paper along with bread slices as thick and white as my butt. At an adjoining station, I nabbed baked beans, cornbread and mac ’n’ cheese: enough calories to last a week. I descended downstairs to our long, communal table—wrinkled men with sauce-slicked fingers sat beside me—and tore into flesh.

“Wipe your mouth,” my girlfriend ordered. Brown goo surrounded my pucker like misapplied lipstick.

“Mmmpphh,” I grunted, lost in carnivorous rapture. The beef ribs were caveman delicious, though the sausage was kindling and the sides as forgettable as a Paris Hilton flick. The brisket was so luscious, I chucked my manners.

When a fellow diner tied his shoe, I sliced off a blackened brisket nub. “Stop. Stop that right now,” he ordered. I repented, then repeated my crime when he visited the toilet. My Southern-eating urges were as uncontrollable as my beating heart.

My fervor continued days later when I pedaled east from my Crown Heights apartment, searching for Southern grub. Miles ticked away. Trucks invaded my path. I detoured onto frenzied Atlantic Avenue and spied Carolina Country Store (2001 Atlantic Ave., B’klyn, 718-498-8033).

Bare-bones Carolina possessed a gamy odor of grandma mixed with butcher shop. Diamond-hard candies and Day-Glo tonics beckoned beside pig parts sliced, diced, smoked, cured, brined and cased every which way but Sunday.

“What do you want?” barked a woman behind the counter.

“Uh, just looking around,” I replied.

“Mmmhmmm,” she said as sternly as a schoolmarm.

I fingered peanuts and peanut brittle. Bone-in ham was appealingly pink. “Made up your mind yet?” the lady asked, drumming her fingers. Buy something, she telepathed. Buy something.

“Not yet.”

“Mmmhmmm.” Buy something!

Flustered, I grabbed a softball-size bag of crisp cracklings. They looked like Styrofoam packing peanuts and were a red-orange hue typically painted on hookers’ toenails.

“Mmmhmmm,” the counter ma’am said, weighing my bag. “A buck ninety-two.”

I paid and popped fried epidermis into my mouth, grinding crackly skin between my molars. The cracklings were aggressively salty and stinky as a swine pen. No wonder the Jews prohibit pork consumption. To kill the foul flavor, I ventured across the street to Saratoga Country Kitchen (1991 Atlantic Ave., B’klyn, 718-498-0200). Inside the no-frills, no-menu Southern restaurant, middle-aged women with matronly bosoms piled steam-table ribs, baked chicken, collard greens and black-eyed peas into aluminum containers.

“What are your favorites?” I asked.

“All good,” a gap-toothed woman said.

“I know that,” I said. “But what would you eat?”

“Fried chicken, mac’n’cheese and cabbage.”

Done. She loaded me up with enough edibles to feed Ethiopia’s famished children. Cost? $8.32. The gooey mac was worth double, and the cabbage was as earthy and savory as it was soggy. The chicken? Cold and dry as the Mojave after midnight. Despite my clucker’s shortcomings, I still joined the clean-plate club.

I burped my thanks, remounted my steed and pedaled home, scanning East Brooklyn’s faded storefronts for another Southern gem to sate my single-minded hunger.