All over southeastern South America, diners flock to grilled-meat emporiums where they can act out their inner gaucho. Argentineans and Uruguayans call them parrillas, while the Brazilians call them churrascarias. These restaurants are as ubiquitous there as steak houses are here. Each country has its own take on the formula, but, at their core, these are very tradition-bound places. You can count on finding huge servings of grilled meats and elaborate salad bars. The locals usually have a wide selection of these places to choose from, and since the restaurants all have similar formulas, good raw ingredients and execution are everything. As Mies van der Rohe used to say, "God is in the details." Fogo de Chão (pronounced fo-go dee shoun) started when brothers Jair and Arri Coser and Jorge and Aleixo Ongaratto had to leave their small farming community in southern Brazil to get jobs in the city. They were all just teenagers, and the best work they could get were menial jobs in restaurants. Over a few years, the four squirreled away enough money to start their own restaurant in Porto Alegre in 1979. They decided to make it a churrascaria. Their first restaurant was a huge success, so they decided to go for the big leagues and opened two in the largest city in the Americas, São Paulo. Now Fogo de Chão is a chain with five restaurants in Brazil. In 1997, they came to the U.S., where they now have 10 restaurants. The most recently opened is ours, here in Austin, which opened last November. Stop and take a look at the open-flame rotisserie when you walk in. Note the massive ribs. They are there for show, but the little pans that catch the fat and keep it out of the flames are important. Unlike the way most of us and our barbecue places cook in Texas, churrascarias are very specific about keeping burnt fat aromas out of their meats, so they always grill in such a way that the fats are trapped and sent elsewhere. In Fogo de Chão's kitchen, the juices drop into water, away from the flames. You end up with a sweet, meaty flavor. I love the difference.
Fogo de Chão charges a flat $42.50 ($24.50 at lunch) for a meal. That may sound like a lot, but consider this: Just a rib eye steak at Ruth's Chris costs $41. For the price at Fogo, you get all the beef, lamb, and chicken you care to eat and as many passes as you'd like at one of the best salad bars anywhere. The service is almost like Disney World - professional and well-orchestrated, if a little fantasylike. The meat servers weave their way through the tables with hunks of meat skewered with a saber and fresh off the grill. There seems to be a worker for every diner, and their eagerness to please borders on excessive.
Everything on the salad bar is impeccably fresh: The vegetables crunch, the salumi satisfies, and the cheeses are high quality, from the fresh mozzarella to the Parmesan. The bar is about 30 feet long and filled with some surprisingly high-end products, like big asparagus, red and yellow bell peppers, smoked salmon, artichoke hearts, and hearts of palm. Just the salad bar is worth the price of admission. Once you finish your salad, they'll bring three delicious sides. The best is the warm cheese bread, with the crispy hot polenta running a close second. The fried bananas are also good, just not at the level of the other two. The parade of meats is endless. You can specify your favorite doneness, and the runners get it out hot. Linguica (spicy pork sausages) is a good place to start, very rich and tasty. The thin-sliced alcatra (top sirloin) is seasoned with just salt and the sweet smoke from the fires. Cordeiro (leg of lamb) has the light flavor of a genuine lamb instead of the mutton-flavored things we often get. And filet mignon fans will be patting themselves on the back for getting such good value for their money when they see the huge cut of meat on the saber. I have a hard time not ordering my two favorite items repeatedly. The picanha (sirloin) with garlic has enough power to get a Sicilian excited. Best of all is costela, slices of tender meat from giant beef ribs. They don't seem to bring it out very often - maybe it's too heavy - so you might have to ask for it. It's worth the trouble. Try to get a piece that's had its back to the fire.
Fogo de Chão's wine list is heavy on the items that delight expense-account diners and help win Wine Spectator awards (expensive wines with prominent names), but dig a little deeper, and you'll find some good South American wines. The best wines for these grilled parrillas and churrascarias are those from Argentina and Chile. We had two good Chilean wines. The first was Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon ($42), made by the same folks who bring you Château Lafite Rothschild. I actually liked it better than the more expensive Primus ($52), which is still a very good wine. Next time I go, I'll be trying one of their Argentine Malbecs. We were so full, we felt like giving up, but this was a review, so we forced ourselves to try a dessert. Their signature dessert is the Papaya Cream ($7.75), which had a delicate aroma of papaya and a rich, creamy texture. To twist as many cultures as possible, I had a Jameson whiskey ($8) to finish the night off. Very happily, I might add. In a few months, Fogo de Chão will be raising its prices to get them a little more in line with the Dallas and Houston outposts, both of which charge $46.50 a person, so now is a good time to go feed your meat cravings.