Review: Chama Gaúcha Brazilian Steakhouse Thrives in a Crowded Field

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"Would you like to try our picanha? It's our most prized cut of meat," says the server dressed in a tan-colored shirt with a red scarf around his neck. He holds the three-foot metal skewer just to the side of your plate, close enough so that you can see the juices glistening over the charred edges of the meat. It's a mouthwatering sight, made all the more so when he starts slicing the meat right in front of you.

From afar, the distinctive shape of the picanha is immediately recognizable. Considered the most prized cut at a Brazilian steakhouse, or churrascaria, it is skewered on the ends so the meat appears curved, its form reminiscent of the popular French pastry known as the palmier, rounded and crescent-like. Up close, one can see the thick, fat cap wrapped around the outer curve of the beef. Ask your server to slice a piece with the fat attached so you can revel in its pork-belly-like tastiness. When the fat is crisped to a near char, it's like taking an indulgent bite into a meaty cut of uncured beef bacon.

The picanha is just one of 15 meat selections offered at Chama Gaúcha Brazilian Steakhouse, the popular all-you-can-eat rodízio-style steakhouse on Westheimer just outside The Galleria. At Chama Gaúcha, which is modeled after the successful Brazilian chain Fogo de Chão and staffed by many of Fogo's ex-employees, you pay one price and can get your fill of family-style sides (fried bananas, fried polenta, mashed potatoes, rice and beans, and pão de queijo, or cheese bread), a 30-plus item salad bar and as many of the 15 meats as your heart desires.

The ultimate meat buffet, a meal at Chama Gaúcha gives meaning to the term "belt-busting" because you'll undoubtedly stretch your stomach to its maximum and thoroughly enjoy doing so in the process.

"Chama Gaúcha" (pronounced "SHA-mah gah-OOH-shah"), in Portugese, means the flame of the gaúcho. It's a reference to the flame upon which Brazilian cowboys used to cook their meat, the same flames used to grill the meats in modern churrascurias.

There are currently three Chama Gaúcha locations (San Antonio, Chicago and Houston), with another set to open in Atlanta later this year. In Houston, the fact that it can hold its own against close to ten other steakhouses -- among them Pappas Bros., Morton's, The Capital Grille and Del Frisco's -- not to mention steakhouses of its own genre -- Fogo de Chão, Angus Grill and Pradaria -- says something about the quality of its product, which emphasizes great service and fresh, high-quality ingredients.

Indeed, our servers were extremely attentive and solicitous -- overly so, in many respects. Certainly that's what happened when not one but three of them gathered around my friend Anita (not knowing she's a sommelier by trade) to offer suggestions -- unasked -- on what wine we should order, urging us to try a bottle that was twice the price of what we were contemplating.

This kind of overzealous attentiveness lasted throughout the night. The minute we flipped our on-off cards from red to green, indicating that we wanted to be served, three gaúchos descended upon us, swarm-like, flanking each side of our of table with glistening cuts of meat.

"Would you like top sirloin?" one asked as -another showed off a skewer of bacon-wrapped filet mignon, while yet another brandished a juicy-looking chunk of rib eye.

For a buffet restaurant, overly attentive service is definitely preferable to lack of service, but as the night wore on, the hawklike scrutiny that came with the attendant service -- water glasses constantly being refilled, wine glasses topped up, side dishes replenished without our having to ask -- began to feel intrusive. If it's date night, do yourself a favor and ask for a table somewhere in the back of the room, farther away from the action, to avoid feeling as if there's an uninvited guest sitting in on your meal.

Service aside, the food, on the whole, is of high quality, generally excellent and very consistent, starting with the pão de queijo. They seem innocent enough until you bite into the warm, lightly crisped outer shell and taste the glutinous, mochi-like, chewy center. The moment your palate registers not only the faint cheesiness but the utterly swoon-inducing texture of the cheese puffs, you'll realize the bell-shaped two-inch puffs are dangerous -- to your appetite and your meal. In other words, they were designed to be addictive, and when eaten indiscriminately, will ruin your appetite. Try not to overindulge because there's so much more to enjoy.

There's a temptation to skip the salad and go straight to the meats, but to do so would be a shame. The 30-plus-item salad bar is incredible, easily rivaling the best all-you-can-eat salad places around town. The vibrant colors of the produce-- reds, greens, yellows, purples -- leap out, the selection varied and displayed enticingly.

Marinated artichoke hearts, roasted red and yellow peppers, asparagus, whole roasted beets, fresh pineapple, fresh melon, tossed salads and more are on offer, everything appearing fresh with not the slightest hint of dryness or wilting. The tangy marinated mushrooms had a silky texture, while the piquillo peppers were crispy and sweet.

The cheeses, smoked salmon, charcuterie (salami, prosciutto and bresaola) and hot items -- Brazilian black bean feijoada, lobster bisque and cream of mushroom soup -- were not very remarkable. In fact, the lobster bisque suffered from being overly concentrated and salty, so skipping these in favor of the meats is advisable.

For first-timers, the meat parade is a thrilling experience. The servers are constantly weaving back and forth between the table and the kitchen, so that all the meats arrive at your table charred to a light crisp. In addition to the picanha, there are glistening long cuts of alcatra, or top sirloin, the meat firmer in texture than the equally delectable rib eye, a denser, smoother piece of meat that tasted like a cross between a juicy roast beef and a more tender prime rib.

The costela, or beef ribs, are so full of fat and so meltingly soft, it's almost as if they've been braising for hours. They exhibit a beefier, gamier flavor than the other cuts -- think of a barbecue beef short rib, only moister and softer. Filet mignon wrapped in bacon is a bit salty but tender and quite good; linguiça, or pork sausage, is pleasing and savory, though not quite as good as an Argentinean chorizo.

Leg of lamb and lamb chops, garlic beef, pork loin, shrimp, small chicken drumsticks, bacon-wrapped chicken and costela de porco (pork ribs) are also on rotation, though the latter three should be tasted only to satisfy curiosity. They're the least memorable of the meats, and it would be advisable to skip them in favor of second helpings of the premium cuts, because the great thing about Chama Gaúcha is that it's not stingy with its food.

When your button is on green, it's an all-out, eat-as-much-as-you-can, nonstop, sensational meat feast, and you can load up, top up and get seconds or thirds to your heart's desire. And in contrast to places that might be a bit slow to bring you your food, Chama Gaúcha's managers are constantly walking the floor, making sure that your table and plates are full until you tell them it's time to stop.

Novices will be so full that they'll find it hard to walk by the time they call it quits. And that, in the end, is the key to Chama Gaúcha's success -- the hook that keeps people coming, if you will. The meal is not inexpensive by any means, but you'll never leave Chama Gaúcha without feeling as if you've eaten your money's worth and then some.

Chama Gaúcha 5865 Westheimer, 713-244-9500, www.chamagaucha.com. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5 to 10:30 p.m. on Fridays; 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Saturdays; noon to 2:30 p.m., 4 to 9 p.m. on Sundays.

Lunch $29.50 Salad bar only lunch $18.50 Dinner $45.50 Salad bar only dinner $21.50 Sunday lunch $35.50 Papaya cream $8.95 Chocolate mousse cake $8.75 Flan $8.25 Coffee $3.25

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