It would be difficult for even the most refined carnivore to refrain from licking his chops when first laying eyes on the spacious dining room at Fogo de Chão. Scurrying from table to table in the recently opened South Brazilian restaurant are seemingly dozens of waiters with flashing knives and long skewers of meat, looking as if they're begging customers to sample these prime cuts of beef, lamb, pork and chicken.
Be calm, I told myself. There's plenty of meat for everyone.
Ready to consume, we were confused when first seated at a table covered with a crisp linen cloth: We were presented with only a wine list. I glanced around for menus. One of the many waiters immediately rushed over and asked, "Has anyone explained to you the way things are done here?" I quickly got the picture.
Dinner is a flat $38.50 per person ($24.50 at lunch), which includes not only all the meat you can eat, but also a colorful, panoramic salad bar. Each place setting is equipped with a dollar-size token; one side is painted red, the other green. Once you're ready for any of the 12 cuts of meat, you simply turn the token to green, the universal symbol for "go," as in "go fetch me some meat." Red, of course, means you've had enough -- for now.
The waiter advises taking a few samples of meat, then turning the token back to red. That way you can eat what you have while it's hot, without piling up a lot of food that will grow cold before you get to it. "So relax and enjoy yourself," the waiter said before disappearing. Relax, he said. How can anyone relax when everything about this place says "Dive in!"
It's clear from the start that Fogo de Chão (pronounced "fogo du show") is for meat lovers. Still, a vegetarian could settle down very comfortably, even live happily ever after, at the churrascaria's large oval-shaped salad bar, which comes equipped with full-size plates, not those typically stingy little saucers that make transporting your haul back to the table a balancing act.
And it's a good thing. There are more than 25 items to choose from, including firm red tomatoes, a perfectly tossed Caesar salad, yellow tomatoes that look like miniature light bulbs, pungently marinated and hefty hearts of palm, and shiny white objects that look like misshapen boiled eggs but are really lumps of bland farmer's cheese. Hot items include black beans and Brazilian rice mixed with fresh tomatoes, parsley, onion and bits of rump roast. Within reach on top of the bar are dozens of flavored olive oils and vinaigrettes.
As I munched on my salad bar selections, including a tasty and Italian salami, I watched a parade of waiters, in authentic gaucho garb, offering slices and hunks of meat to green-token customers. The servers almost seemed to swarm. My dining partner and I debated when we should let them swarm over us. It's a serious decision when to turn over one's token. It took us all of two seconds: Now! we decided.
A waiter appeared instantly. He used his knife to slice a long, thin piece of meat, which we grabbed with the small pair of tongs by our plates. The rest of the night was a blur of meat, all cooked slowly (for ten hours) over a mesquite and hickory flame with very little seasoning added other than salt. The most popular item, we were told, is the picanha, a cut from the rump steak that comes plain or seasoned with garlic. My first taste of this acclaimed flesh was unfortunately fatty and not so tender. I had much better luck on my second trip when the waiter sliced a thinner cut, which was much leaner. The flavor was divine.
All of the meat is first-rate. The churrascaria uses U.S. beef and chicken and flies its lamb, including an exquisite, gently tangy leg of lamb, fresh from New Zealand. A beef lover will swoon over the top and bottom sirloin as well as the filet mignon. But said lover will get down on bended knee for the beef ribs. I had never eaten a naked beef rib in my entire life, always accustomed to them swimming in barbecue sauce. These were different: Anything but salt on these ribs would have gilded the lily. They were so tender they could not be served from a skewer; the waiter carried them on a cutting board and gently lifted them with the flat of his knife. Even then, they sometimes fell apart. (Incidentally, the very generous side dishes included mashed potatoes, incredible yucca fries and fried bananas dusted with cinnamon.)
There was no dessert menu, either. So we grabbed the nearest gaucho, and he recited a seven-item list. Take my advice and don't listen to a word of it; just order the papaya cream ($6.75). It was the perfect light ending to our heavy bull session. The waiter added a healthy dribble of blackberry crème de cassis, which blended nicely with the papaya.
Those who insist on chocolate will find satisfaction in the mocha chocolate mousse cake ($4.50), two layers of white and chocolate mousse pressed between three levels of rich chocolate pound cake and topped with a thick fudge icing.
The Westheimer churrascaria is Fogo de Chão's fifth location; three others are located in Brazil, with a fourth in Dallas. I'm told that Texas's reputation as a meat-loving state influenced the owners to expand northward, which no doubt also explains that other Brazilian all-you-can-eat restaurant on Westheimer, Rodizio Grill (see "All You Can Meat," by Margaret L. Briggs, October 10, 1999). The hugely successful Dallas branch of Fogo de Chão opened three years ago in the same way the Houston location did: quietly and with no advertising. Management wants to build its customer base slowly; they want to make sure the restaurant is fully prepared for any stampede on this meat haven. Staff will be added as more customers arrive.
And they will.
Fogo de Chão, 8250 Westheimer, (713)978-6500.
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