With the holidays past and 2019 in full swing, most people are trying to eat a little healthier now. In that spirit, we decided to go very protein-heavy in the dishes we picked to spotlight for this month’s “dishes worth the drive from Los Angeles to Irvine.”

Our first culinary stop is for all the carnivores out there: Brazilian steakhouse Agora Churrascaria. Churrascaria is a Portuguese word for a place where meat is cooked churrasco style, also known as the “Rodizio” style, which is the specific way the meat is grilled. At the restaurant, the meat is cooked on an open fire and carved tableside by traditionally dressed Gauchos – ranchers from the South of Brazil. Agora Churrascaria is right next to John Wayne Airport and first opened in May 2005 by Choon Cho and Dan Kim, who owned a fashion company in Seoul, South Korea.

“[They] spent many years in Brazil where they developed a love for its people, its lifestyle and its cuisine,” says Front of House Manager Alex Coimbra, who is from South Brazil himself. “For many years the family owned and operated restaurants in San Paulo, Brazil. Those experiences inspired them to bring churrascaria-style to Southern California.” Coimbra describes the restaurant as having a “dramatic interior” and says it’s “very rustic with the river-rock lined walls.”

Photo courtesy of Agora Churrascaria

Agora Churrascaria serves 14 different kinds of meats for dinner and 11 for lunch. With so many options, we’ve helped you narrow down which two are truly worth the drive to Irvine. First is the Picanha, which is a top sirloin-cap. This is a prime cut that the restaurant specially orders. While Picanha is a traditional Brazilian dish that is served at many Brazilian steakhouses, Agora Churrascaria’s Picanha stands out because of the quality of the meat. “It’s served medium rare. It’s pretty tender [and] has a cap of fat around it so when it cooks, the fat melts in and it delivers to the meat a really nice and moist flavor,” says Coimbra. Indeed, the tenderness of the meat really makes Agora Churrascaria’s Picanha a dish worth the drive to Irvine, no matter how many Brazilian restaurants may be serving the dish in Los Angeles.

The other Agora Churrascaria dish worth the drive is a more unique dish that a lot of Brazilian restaurants don’t serve: chicken heart. While the dish is common throughout Brazil, many Brazilian restaurants in the U.S. don’t serve it. “I know that we’re probably one of the only [Brazilian] steakhouses in California that has chicken hearts,” says Coimbra. “It’s a marinated chicken heart and it’s grilled over our 100 percent mesquite wood charcoal and served right after [it’s] cooked.” While chicken heart may sound a bit exotic to an American palette, we assure you that the dish is so delicious that it’s worth the commute from Los Angeles to Irvine. All meat is available at a fixed price that includes the hot food as well as an extensive salad bar. Adult lunches are $32 and adult dinners are $54 (children 6-10 are half price).

Our culinary tour switches languages from Portuguese to Spanish for our second restaurant this month, Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen. The first location opened in Brea in 2009 followed by the Irvine location in July 2017. “We started off as tacos and tequila and have since, over the years, evolved into the Latin kitchen because we have expanded a little bit more on the Latin cuisine, not just Mexican, but a little bit of Spanish and a little bit of South American,” says co-owner Peter Serantoni. “Everything is made in house, everything is made from scratch [and] everything is made from fresh, seasonal stuff. Everything is made to order, nothing is prepared. That goes for both the bar as well as the food. It’s a high labor type of concept because it takes a lot of people to pull that off on a daily basis, but we think it’s worth it and so far we have been blessed with a really strong, supportive guest base that keeps coming back and we’re very grateful for that.”

Photo courtesy of Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen

Knowing that everything on the menu is equally fresh and made from scratch, what dishes should you go with? The first is for seafood lovers: the Fresh Seafood Caldo, which is fresh fish, shrimp, clams, squid, saffron-tomato broth, herbs and toasted angel hair. “Our Seafood Caldo is sort of a very hardy, rustic seafood stew, a stew only in the sense that there’s a lot of different types of seafood,” says Serantoni. “And it’s served on a bed of toasted angel hair, which is basically angel hair pasta that we bake in the oven raw so it gets a darker color and then we cook the pasta so it has a unique toasted flavor. And then we finish it off with fresh thyme and olive oil. It’s a very flavorful dish that looks good, tastes good and has a lot of variety within. You take a little squid with the pasta, you’re getting a little tomato with the clams and then you’ve got some nice seasoning and garlic shrimp in there. So there’s a lot going on and we serve it in a traditional Spanish clay dish so it keeps the temperature.” This kind of seafood dish is so full of flavor and not a common staple at most Latin restaurants, definitely making it worth the drive to Irvine.

The other dish worth the drive is pretty common at other Latin restaurants, but not in the way that Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen does it: the Carne Asada. The dish is a grilled, marinated skirt steak with roasted potatoes, poblano peppers and fresh chimichurri. “We select our skirt steak, which we butcher, clean and trim ourselves everyday so it’s a very flavorful meat to start with. And then we put that in a marinade for 48 hours or so and let it really get a deep, rich flavor [before] we grill it,” says Serantoni. “For us, it’s all about the flavors and it’s highly flavorful. You’ve got the warm, creamy potatoes and you’ve got the fresh herbs and the oils and a little bit of a spice from the chimichurri. And then the steak itself is really highly flavorful as well. So it’s a focus on flavors.” Indeed, many Latin restaurants throughout L.A. have carne asada, but the way in which Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen marinates the steak and pairs it with the spices and sides really makes it stand out and worth the drive to Irvine.

Hopefully one of these four dishes we spotlighted will hit the spot for you. And if they do, come back next month for four new dishes at different restaurants.

Agora Churrascaria: 1830 Main Street, Irvine, CA 92614, http://www.agorachurrascaria.com

Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen: 13126 Jamboree Rd, Irvine, CA 92602, http://www.chachaslatinkitchen.com/