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The beauty of the concept from a restaurant-management point of view is that there are no individual orders to get straight, no tickets to keep track of, no disputes about the bill and never a long wait for service. Diners simply sit down and dig in.
Brazilian churrascarias have quickly gained a loyal following among meat lovers. Instead of the huge steak you get at an American steak house, here you can sample a little filet mignon, a little rare rump roast, some hangar steak and a couple of lamb chops. And the price tag is considerably less than you end up paying at a steak house, once they finish gouging you for the à la carte salad and family-style orders of onion rings and creamed spinach.
Fogo de Chão (8250 Westheimer, 713-978-6500) charges $41.50 a head. Rodizio Grill, formerly located at 5851 Westheimer, charged $18 per person when it first opened. The Rodizio space is now occupied by Avenida Paulista, which charges $43 for a full meal.
Houston, TX 77057
Category: Restaurant >
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One of Avenida Paulista's owners is Steve Oldham, who was also one of two American partners in the Rodizio chain. Rodizio opened churrascarias in several American cities beginning in the mid-1990s. The chain filed for bankruptcy in 2002. Oldham left the company in 1999 and opened another chain of churrascarias in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah under the name Tucanos Brazilian Grill. The Tucanos chain charges $17 per person.
The Houston Rodizio location, which was still breaking even when the chain went under, finally closed in February of last year. Oldham got in touch with the landlord to try to negotiate a new deal. But he didn't think Tucanos was the right concept for the high-dollar Galleria neighborhood. In fact, he believed that the reason Rodizio failed in Houston is that the chain misjudged the market and sacrificed quality in order to lower prices.
The huge dining room at Fogo de Chão was packed on a recent Saturday night when I stopped by for dinner with five fellow diners. The noise level was high, and the tables seemed a little too close together. But those distractions were quickly forgotten by the three men and one of the women in the group, all carnivores mesmerized by the meat. We oohed the rare top sirloin and aahed the long strips cut off a whole filet mignon. And all four went wild for the picanha, a juicy rump steak that the waiter described as the restaurant's signature cut. The rare lamb chops were so good, I couldn't resist picking mine up and eating them off the bone.
Six of us drank two bottles of Don Melchor, a premium Chilean Cabernet with a rich cigar-box aroma and a beautiful dried-fruit finish. We gladly paid more than $100 a bottle for the wine after admiring the temperature-controlled storage room from behind a glass wall in the bar. What a pleasure to buy an expensive bottle of wine and actually get what you're paying for. In Houston restaurants that don't store their wines at proper temperatures, I recommend you drink the beer.
I was glowing about Fogo de Chão a few days later when one of my other dining companions, a woman with a limited interest in red meat, expressed a different memory of the experience. With its huge, open dining room and mobbed salad-bar buffet, Fogo de Chão reminded her of a more expensive version of Ryan's Family Steak House, she said. We had also eaten dinner together at Avenida Paulista on a previous occasion. She thought Avenida Paulista was far more elegant, with much better food. But after further discussion, it turned out to be the salad bar that had made such an impression on her.
It's interesting that my female friend liked Avenida Paulista so much more. I'm willing to bet that appealing to women and couples is part of this churrascaria's marketing plan. Unfortunately, the meat I sampled during two visits to Avenida Paulista Churrascaria wasn't quite as good as what I had at Fogo de Chão. The differences are subtle. Both restaurants serve meat seasoned with just a hint of rock salt and cooked on a rotisserie by an open fire. This kind of cooking imparts an elemental flavor to meat that reminds many Texans of barbecue. The crowds at Fogo de Chão ensure that large cuts of meat are constantly being cooked fresh, so they're always rare in the middle and never dried out.
With only a month in business, Avenida Paulista doesn't have enough diners ordering meat at the same time, so too many cuts come to the table medium well. At lunchtime, with less than ten customers in the restaurant, the servers are carrying skewers with pieces of sirloin so tiny, they look like individual shish kebabs.
But don't be discouraged. When Avenida Paulista hits its stride, it promises to become the odds-on favorite in the churrascaria race. The smaller, more elegant dining rooms are much more comfortable than those of its competitor down the street. And as soon as the crowds show up, as they surely will, the kitchen will get a chance to turn out meat and seafood on par with the spectacular salad-bar offerings.