In downtown D.C., a Brazilian churrascaria puts meat and service on the main stage
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
March 2, 2006
** (out of four)
There are no dancers. Otherwise, Fogo de Chao has all the ingredients for a great stag party: lots of alcohol, lots of guy food and the sense that things might get out of control as an army of servers wielding knives and chunks of meat roams the vast dining room in search of eager eaters. The salad bar looks like the entire produce section of some grocery stores, and a cart stocked with every after-dinner tipple imaginable is rolled out just when you think you can't put one more thing in your mouth. Women and children are welcome here, but whenever I've dropped by, groups of men have filled most of the seats.
A recent import to Washington, Fogo de Chao is a Brazilian churrascaria, or steakhouse, with five other branches across the country and four restaurants in South America. If you're new to the concept, a waiter patiently talks you through the experience. Those kerchief-wearing sword-bearers with the puffy black pants? They're gauchos, or Brazilian cowboys, and they offer more than a dozen types of meat, which they slice before your eyes. The tiny tongs next to your plate? Those are to pluck the freshly shaved meat from the gauchos' skewers. As for the name, Fogo de Chao is Portugese for "fire in the ground," or campfire.
"You decide the pace of your meal," a waiter coaches me. "You can eat in 20 minutes or two hours." A round card is set on the table to let the servers know whether to drop by; one side is green, which means "keep the meat coming." The other side is red, which calls for a pause in the action. Except for the wine list, there's no menu. Warm cheese puffs, similar to French gougeres, show up instead of the usual bread basket; side dishes of plantains, polenta and mashed potatoes land on the table once you start requesting meat. But first, you may "help yourself to the salad bar." In fact, diners can order just the salad bar for $19.50, at lunch and dinner.
Fogo de Chao is not for the faint of appetite. That salad bar alone runs to some 30 items, among the best: fat asparagus, silky red and yellow peppers, hearts of palm and marinated artichokes. But the buffet is also decorated with several kinds of cheese and sausage - as if you need more protein - and a few composed salads, including a creamy toss of apples and raisins; parsley mixed with onions and tomatoes; and potato salad. The items from the salad bar, by the way, outclass the side dishes, of which only the soft-cooked plantains are worth taking up any real estate in your stomach. The same is true of desserts, which are better than you expect but not so irresistible that you can't say no. Actually, I take that back. Though I was "fat as a tick" full, as a friend likes to say after big meals, I found extra space for the oh so creamy and utterly comforting tres leches cake.
You'll want to save plenty of space for meat. For the most part, it's terrific. Sirloin oozes juices; rib-eye comes with a nice salt massage; and the signature, uber-beefy picanha (prime sirloin) practically pulses with garlic. And those are just cuts from a cow. Just as lusty are some of the pig parts - herby sausages and slow-roasted pork ribs. There's lamb, too, in the form of flavorful chops. On the other hand, chicken breast wrapped in bacon is moist but otherwise ordinary, and Parmesan-dusted pork tenderloin was arid in my encounter with it. And as juicy as the filet mignon is, it reminds me that meat on the bone is superior in flavor. Eager to please, the gauchos - most of whom hail from Brazil and all of whom navigate the dining room as briskly as runway models - slice from the part of the meat that is cooked closest to your taste.
Once you get past the introductory spiel about how the place works, you can sit back and relax. Clean plates and wine lists show up just when you think you might like to see them, and the entire staff works to make you glad to be part of the party.
"Is there another cut of meat you want?" a gaucho inquires. "We don't want you to leave hungry," a manager says. "I have the perfect wine for you, from Chile," a server suggests. Fogo de Chao is a chain restaurant with the personality of an independent business and the hyper-attentiveness of the Secret Service. If I were a restaurateur looking to poach talent, here's where I would begin my search.
What isn't a window or a mural on the wall is a wine rack in the dining room, gently illuminated with what appear to be votives set atop smooth wagon wheels and punctuated with wood-paneled columns that help break up the sprawl.
Everything's big here: the space, the smiles, the food, the fun. Just remember to bring along a similar appetite -- outsize -- when you visit.