The Swiss Connection
Some Texans traveling in Switzerland last month were astonished to see a bold red sign announcing a steak house named Churrasco, as out of place on its bustling thoroughfare in Lucerne as a longhorn steer. Yep, there it was, in all its black-and-white cowhide glory, apparently the furthest outpost of Churrascos, the Houston-based Cordœa family's empire. Eager to dine on something more substantial than cheese and chocolates, my homesick friends rushed in.

Imagine their disappointment to discover that the cafe was an impostor. There was a green sauce all right, but not the devilishly addictive chimichurri they knew and loved; this stuff was an insipid pseudo-salsa. There were no exotic Central American foodstuffs, no yuccas or plantains; instead, this Churrasco served -- gasp! -- french fries. Otherwise, the menu offered a Swiss take on Tex-Mex, with tough, dry fajitas that more closely resembled what we'd call Swiss steak.

Heartbroken, my friends turned on the hapless waiter. "What's the dang deal?" they demanded. "Well, we used to be affiliated with Churrascos of Houston," explained the waiter, in excellent English that lent some credence to his claim. "But we're not anymore."

Overhearing this, the restaurant's manager rushed over to deny it: "No, no, no. We never had an association with Churrascos in Texas." Compared to the usual calm and precise demeanor of the Swiss, the man seemed downright distraught. "No connection whatsoever."

To find out what chef and co-owner Michael Cordœa might think about this latest encroachment on his trademarked territory, I checked with Bill Floyd, director of Cordœa operations. "Oh, we heard about them," said Floyd. "Apparently they've got four locations in Switzerland and Germany. We even got a copy of the Stuttgart menu last month. But Michael just laughed about it."

There's not much else the company can do, Floyd notes, as the Churrascos copyright only protects the name in the United States. But it also turns out the Cordœas are concentrating harder than ever on their home turf in the Lone Star State, not dreaming of European expansion. Their first attempt at an out-of-state store -- an outlet in Chicago, which opened last December -- closed three months ago. "We couldn't see eye-to-eye with our partner, whose background was in nightclubs," says Floyd. "We had good food reviews but major operational headaches. Michael had never had a partner before, and it's not something we'll try again."

The next Churrascos will open in suburban Sugar Land, and Floyd is busy scouting locations for the Amazon Grill concept he mentioned in this column in May. "The Grill needs a high-density urban location," says Floyd, "possibly West University or the Galleria." For the time being, plans for a Dallas outlet have been back-burnered. "Our next out-of-town restaurant might be in San Antonio," he says. "We have an offer there that may be too good to turn down."

Churrascos Houston-area locations are: 2055 Westheimer, 527-8300; 9705 Westheimer, 952-1988; and 1320 W. Bay Area Blvd., (281)461-4100.


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