You doubtlessly know the deal with Brazilian churrascarias: South American men in funny pants bring an endless, phantasmagoric parade of meat to your table until you cry "uncle!" or wave a white flag to get them to stop. Fogo de Chão, the latest upscale steakhouse to grace the Inner Harbor, takes that basic concept and goes one better than your average meatfest in just about every detail.
A major chain spanning the Americas, Fogo is the brainchild of two Brazilian brothers intent on spreading gaucho culinary culture far and wide. Around the southern cone of South America, these cowboys are the keepers of the flame (literally—Fogo de Chão roughly translates as "campfire"); they're grillmasters who learn the art of barbecue before they can walk, and who take this centuries-old tradition very, very seriously.
Judging from the literature, Fogo's owners—former gauchos themselves—likewise seem pretty passionate about their undertaking. To you and me, it's a steakhouse; to them, it's a mission, one they've been pursuing for more than 30 years, first in Brazil, and, since 1997, here in North America. It's obvious that Fogo strives to be grander, bigger, better than your average churrascaria. I have to say, it pretty well succeeds.
You certainly won't see many churrascarias as elegant as this. The huge space has soaring ceilings, lots of mahogany, white tablecloths, walls lined with wine racks, and a glass-enclosed private dining room. A handsome bar area sits to the left of the entrance, nice for nestling with your caipirihna before the hostess seats you. Despite the place's size, you may indeed have to wait a bit. Fogo has been wildly popular around the country and so far, Baltimore is following suit. It's packed on the weeknight Señor M and I arrive with M's Argentine cousin in tow, although we've barely taken a sip of our cocktails before we're whisked past the mammoth buffet table in the center of the room to our table.
Which reminds me: You need a strategy to eat here. Okay, maybe you don't need a strategy, but a little planning ahead certainly won't hurt. A plan will stave off all manner of potential disaster (like, um, protein overload) and insure that your dining experience will bring good bang for your buck. At $42 a pop, that's a serious consideration.
First, about that buffet table: I've seen many a South American cold buffet, and Fogo's is up there with the best. It is truly enormous, and its offerings are irresistible if you love beautiful salads, vegetables the size of small mammals, plus smoked salmon, meats, cheeses, you name it. (Even wayward vegetarians who inexplicably find themselves dining here will not be deeply unhappy.) But if you're hell-bent on trying every last variety of fire-grilled meat—that would be 15 kinds—you'll never make it if you don't exercise serious restraint at this end of the meal. Be forewarned, too, that once you turn your little two-toned coaster to "green," the meat will not stop coming. Want to make it through the whole shebang? Flip the coaster to "red" and take a breather. Accept only one serving of each meat. Try, try to be prudent.
On the other hand, if your goal is to maintain your waistline or the illusion that this is a healthy meal, pig out on the buffet. You will be too full to eat excessive quantities of anything else, including the delightful but distracting sides of airy cheese rolls, fried polenta, and plantains that appear on your table.
There is another way to eat here, provided you know what you want. Our Argentine cousin—no stranger to South American meat or the gaucho ethic—is a particular fan of picanha, a thin, well-marbled cut of sirloin liberally seasoned with salt and garlic. After a few sidetracks into rib-eye and linguica sausage, he homed in on his holy grail, cultivating the picanha-bearing gaucho so much that they were best buddies by night's end, thus striking a blow against the notorious rivalry between Brazilians and Argentines.
In fact, much of the fun of eating at Fogo de Chão is cultivating the gauchos, almost all of whom hail from Brazil and who not only bring all that meat and slice it onto your plate, but are responsible for cooking it. This makes for perfectly grilled product—gauchos are a proud lot—as well as a subtle but unmistakable friendly competition. Each one is vying to be your go-to guy. Favor rare filet mignon, and in no time the filet mignon gaucho will be plopping rare filet on your plate with stunning regularity. If you know what you like, you can have your fill here and skip the rest.
The gauchos aren't the only ones who make eating here a pleasure. Like a number of savvy upscale chains, Fogo obviously puts lots of time and money into training its service people. Hooray, we say. It's nice to know that, within weeks of opening, a restaurant's staff can not only handle a couple hundred customers without dropping a beat, but it can do so with unobtrusive grace and efficiency, from floor manager to busboy.
The wine list, too, distinguishes Fogo from the competition. Staff is specifically trained to guide diners through the extensive list of meat-friendly wines, with emphasis on South American and European selections.
And dessert? We asked ourselves how we could go there after eating ourselves into a food coma. Then we ordered some anyway. The specialty is a cool, airy concoction called papaya cream, a whipped-up mix of papaya, crème de cassis, vanilla ice cream, and mint. I can't demand that you make room for it—if you're eating here, that's a lost cause—but get it anyway. It somehow fools you into believing it's light as a cloud. There's a strawberry cream, too, and standards like molten chocolate cake and Key lime pie, all surprisingly good. After all, you don't necessarily expect fine desserts at a place where grilled meat is king. But that's yet another way Fogo de Chão has figured out how to one-up its competition, which is not really other Brazilian steakhouses but other steakhouses, period.
So get dessert. Go crazy on the buffet. Eat every single piece of juicy, smoky, sizzlingly earthy animal flesh that lands on your plate. Is it likely a rabid carnivore (and it's hard to imagine eating here if you're not) will really heed all my caveats and advice anyway? Probably not. Keep those gauchos busy. It will make their day.