Meat Lovers' Swordfight at Fuegovivo Churrascaria

The server with the filet mignons wrapped in bacon was hovering nearby, and the guy with the lamb chops was on his way. But I was busy catching thin slices of rare rib eye with my tongs as they were carved off the sizzling steak. There were so many guys in puffy pants waving swords at us at Fuego­vivo, the new churrascaria on West­heimer, we felt like we were in a pirate movie.

For a steak lover, a Brazilian churrascaria is usually an all-you-can-eat paradise. The costumed servers with swords are supposed to look like gauchos, the South American version of cowboys. They carry freshly grilled meats around from table to table, carving portions at your request. The problem was that my dinner companion and I were the only customers seated in the restaurant, which, at the time, had only been open a month or so. And there were a whole lot of gauchos.

The swords are how you can tell a Brazilian "rodizio-style" churrascaria from other Latin American steakhouses. Rodizio is Portuguese for rotisserie, the swords are the skewers. In a steakhouse, they cook your meat to order. In a Brazilian churrascaria, the meats are already roasting when you get there.


Fuegovivo Churrascaria

11681 Westheimer, 281-597-8108.

Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Lunch: $25.95

Salad bar lunch: $19.95

Dinner: $42.95

Salad bar dinner: $29.95

Sunday brunch: $42.95

The waiter invited me to take a look. So I followed him across the elegant three-level dining room to a window that looks into the kitchen. I watched the meats turning in front of the fire, and then I took a tour of the restaurant on the way back to my table. The best room in the house was a private dining room with a huge stone fireplace at the far end of the restaurant. There was also a handsomely appointed bar. Both stood empty.

All decked out in white linen and dark woods, Fuegovivo is a nice-looking restaurant. The problem is, you need a decent crowd to make this kind of operation work. When there's only a couple of customers, it's difficult to offer the customary ten or 11 varieties of meat, and the few cuts of meat you do serve tend to get overcooked. And then there's the intimidation factor caused by having too many servers.

My dining companion wasn't so concerned with the choices of meat that night. A bacon-wrapped filet and couple of slices of rib eye were enough to keep her happy. It was the salad bar that put her off. There were too many gloppy preparations like potato salad and tuna fish salad on the serve-yourself buffet and not enough interesting vegetables, she complained.

All of which led me to suspect that Fuegovivo might not make it. In anticipation of a quick closing, I waited several months before I ventured back.

On my second visit to Fuegovivo, last week, the first thing I noticed were all the cars in the parking lot. When I stepped inside, I felt like I had walked into an entirely different restaurant. Our waiter told us that the restaurant had already replaced its first manager with a churrascaria specialist from Brazil. The new manager had made a lot of changes and business had taken off, the waiter said.

And since the traffic had picked up, so had the quality of the meats. The rib eye seemed juicier than it had on my first visit and there were several more selections including a garlicky flank steak, the Brazilian sirloin tri-tip roast called pincanha, pork sausages and some tiny grilled chickens. The only meat item I didn't like were the lamb chops, which looked excellent but proved to be grossly overcooked.

But the biggest improvement was the salad bar. There were all the usual lettuces, tomatoes and cucumber slices, but there were a lot more choices of high-quality olive oils and expensive sherry and balsamic vinegars lined up on the glass shelf above the vegetables. And there were also a lot of well-made salads, like an excellent cucumber and olive concoction made with several varieties of black and green olives, a dish of haricots verts with red peppers and a plate of hearts of palm dressed with sliced scallions and an herb vinaigrette.

There was also an antipasti selection of salamis and cured hams and a luscious-looking platter of Italian thin-sliced tenderloin carpaccio, covered with capers, raw red onions and olive oil. In the seafood department, there was a big bowl of ceviche, cold mussels on the half shell dressed with olive oil, and a huge bowl of jumbo boiled shrimp with thin-sliced onion, red peppers and Italian dressing.

Along a low divider wall beside the salad bar, another buffet featuring fresh fruits, puddings, cakes and an after-­dinner cheese selection had been set up. It was added as part of a Sunday brunch offering, the waiter told us. The spread was so spectacular, my dining companion opted to skip the steaks and just get the salad bar.

Although I have never actually managed to pull it off, the idea of going to an upscale churrascaria like Fuegovivo and just ordering the salad bar has always struck me as a brilliant idea. It's a more appealing salad selection than you can find in any health-food restaurant or soup and salad buffet. There's plenty of selections for vegetarians and also enough carpaccio, salami and boiled shrimp so that meat eaters don't have to worry about protein deficiency.

But somehow, once I set foot in the door and smell the steak, I forget all about the idea of just eating salad.

Fuegovivo is the third Brazilian churrascaria in Houston. Fogo de Chão on West­heimer is the original. Then there's Nelore, a cozy little churrascaria located in a cottage on Montrose. It has a limited salad bar selection and a tiny bar, but it suits its Inner Loop patrons just fine. Several other Brazilian steakhouses, including Rodizio and Avenida Paulista, have also operated in Houston at one time or another.

The Houston Fuegovivo is the fourth location of a Florida-based operation that was originally called Fogovivo. Fogo means fire in Portuguese, while fuego means fire in Spanish. The Fuegovivo chain changed its name after a dispute with Fogo de Chão, according to our waiter. Dallas-based Fogo de Chão has 12 locations in the United States and six in Brazil.

The two Brazilians, Fogo and Fuego, are evidently battling it out in several U.S. markets. The Houston branches are very much alike. Both are large operations located on Westheimer; Fogo is close to Dunvale, Fuego is outside Beltway 8 near Kirkwood. The restaurant's all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse menus are all but identical. Fogo charges $32.50 for lunch and $48.50 for dinner, Fuego gets $25.95 for lunch and $42.95 at night.

So which one is the better choice?

I stopped by both restaurants on a recent weekday evening for a comparison. I give the edge to Fuego in the atmosphere department; the three-level dining room is a little more elegant than Fogo's cavernous expanse. Both have inviting bars.

The salad bar at Fogo is essentially a selection of raw ingredients. You have to assemble the naked hearts of palm, generic-looking sliced tomatoes and lettuce leaves into a salad and dress it yourself. Fuego's salads are much more appealing, and so is the seafood and carpaccio. Although I haven't eaten there in a few years, I am willing to bet that thanks to a larger clientele, Fogo has the edge in meat variety.

But Fogo's main advantage is in the wine department. The restaurant has a huge temperature-controlled wine cellar and an extensive selection of great red wines from around the world. I wouldn't buy an expensive red wine at Fuego because the reds appear to be stored at room temperature. The red wine by the glass list at Fuego is also a snooze. Besides a couple of mid-range selections from the Argentine winery Trapiche, there's nothing but wines you see every day at the supermarket.

So the swashbuckling meat-on-a-sword fight between Fogo and Fuego is a draw by my scorecard. Go to Fogo if you want good wine. But if an awesome salad bar and an elegant dining room are more important, you are better off at Fuego. Either way you're gonna get some great Brazilian-style steak.

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