Men and meat

Aside from being situated at opposite ends of the hemisphere, it's hard to imagine what Brazil and Texas have in common. All attempts to uncover harmonious congruence seem to put a gasket-blowing strain on credulity.

Brazil is a geologically integrated nation with a web of rivers and tributaries spread over its irregularly shaped land mass like a mat of thinning hair on a bald spot. Texas is a huge state with a maze of man-made lakes riddling its surface like waterlogged nine-iron divots, and borders that look as though they had been drawn by toddlers with Etch-a-Sketches.

Brazil hosted the Earth Summit, where people such as Al Gore and John Denver wallowed in their own green piety and urged everyone to save the world by doing things like roasting weenies in solar ovens. Texas hosts the Mary Kay convention, where people like Mary Kay urge devotees to get rich and paint their cars Pepto-Bismol pink.

Brazil shares a border with Bolivia, a major producer of illicit narcotics that it ships all over the world. Texas shares a border with Arkansas, a major producer of illicit ethical standards that it ships in bulk to Washington, D.C.

These are just a few of the untidy parallels that can be drawn between these two jurisdictions. Which is why it's interesting that a Brazilian restaurant group decided that Texas--indeed Dallas--was the perfect spot to introduce its specific brand of Brazilian cuisine to Americans. According to Orlando Preissler, general manager of Fogo de Chao, a new dining spot on restaurant row in Addison, Texas really does have a lot in common with Brazil, especially with that country's southern region. "There was a reason we came to Dallas," he says. "It's the similarity that Texas has with Southern Brazil. You have the cowboys here, there we have the gauchos. We like meat, just as you people here love meat."

Sure, we have cowboys. But ours wear helmets and cleats, run intricate patterns over fat white lines, and lock themselves in motel rooms exploring new ways to develop the market for Bolivian exports. Brazilian cowboys--or gauchos, as they are called--roam the pampas (the vast savanna in southern South America) and herd livestock wearing baggy pantaloons, hand-tooled leather belts and boots, and scarves. These gauchos are the inspiration behind Fogo de Chao.

With two locations in Sao Paulo (the largest city in South America) and one in Porto Alegre, Fogo de Chao is narrowly focused on the churrasco, the gaucho barbecue that incorporates beef, pork, chicken, and lamb. Traditionally, the churrasco begins when an animal is slaughtered on the pampas and pieces of meat are cut and impaled on a metal spit. The spit is then forced into the ground next to a fire at such an angle that the meat hangs over the coals--it's positioned so that it doesn't burn, but roasts slowly. As it cooks, it's basted with a mixture of salt and water.

This traditional gaucho mythology, which calls for the consumption of vast quantities of barbecued meat, is memorialized in the elaborate barbecue silo built into the front of Fogo de Chao (which means "fire of the ground," or campfire, in Portuguese). Encased in thick glass that makes a transition to blue and orange tiles as it rises above the roof line, the cylindrical room holds beef ribs or other cuts of meat that are impaled on long skewers, then arranged in a spiky circle around a small pile of smoldering embers. Several feet above the fire and meat is a polished copper hood, which carries the heat and smoke out through the top of the silo.

The dining room tempers this unusual barbecuing structure with contemporary ranch-style touches, including a low wooden lattice ceiling held up by thick, angular wooden pillars. Near the front of the restaurant, the ceiling is vaulted with thick wood beams and planks. The tables are set with heavy Brazilian flatware that has an elaborate gauchos-on-the-pampas scene embedded into thick handles. These settings also include a small pair of tongs.

A handsome salad bar, covered in large slate tiles, sits like an oasis in the middle of the dining room. This structure anchors one end of the Fogo de Chao dining experience, which is based on sespeto corrido, or continuous service. The concept is very simple, really. There is no menu. Each diner is charged a flat rate, which includes unlimited visits to the salad bar, a few side dishes, and countless stops at your table from the gauchos. Dressed in blue shirts, red scarves, thick hand-tooled black leather belts and boots, and those baggy pants, the gauchos wander around the restaurant with long skewers of chicken, beef, pork, or lamb, looking for places to unload it.

You signal your carnivorous desires with a two-sided disk next to your setting: red for nao obrigado or no thank you, and green for sim por favor, or yes, please. The gaucho traffic control, however, often isn't smooth. On a number of occasions, our table was approached by skewer-wielding gauchos when there was no green disk in sight. And watch out when you flip it to green, because the skewer traffic at your table will gridlock your appetite. In one instance, a tall blond gaucho (surprisingly, the folks in Southern Brazil have more of a Germanic look than those in the north because of variations in European immigration patterns) sliced us pieces of picanha, a Brazilian cut of beef near the rump. He returned two more times within just a few minutes, not seeming to notice the heap of sliced meat on our plates.  

As the gauchos approach a table, they ask if you would like a bit of whatever it is they have on their skewer, which they carry with two hands: one holding the top, the other pressing a small metal drip cup against the tip. They set this cup on the table, and slice off a bit of meat, urging you to clutch the flapping flesh with your tongs as it's cut away from the skewer. The really amazing thing is that on some cuts, the gauchos will ask how you like your meat (rare, medium, or well) and will twirl the skewer to the appropriate spot and cut off a bit of meat with the appropriate hue.

The gauchos control every aspect of the meat's preparation--from its seasoning, to its placement on a special Brazilian grill designed to hold the skewers, to its removal and service. And how is the food overall? On one level, it's hard to get away from the fact that everything seems in service to this gaucho gimmick. A few cuts of meat were fairly good. The bottom sirloin was rich, juicy, and tender--if slightly chewy--with lots of hearty flavor. The lamb chops were fresh, tender, and silky with balanced, rich flavors. Fairly good, too, was the picanha that, with a thick ribbon of fat on the outer edge, was juicy and heartily flavorful.

But that's pretty much where it ends. Most of the meats are seasoned just with salt or imperceptibly light marinades that do little, if anything, to bring out the flavors. One preparation, a filet wrapped in bacon, was so overcooked and stringy that the only flavors in this swaddling nugget of meat were from the bacon strips. Skewers of chicken thighs--grilled to a nice golden brown--looked inviting. But they proved to be dry and almost flavorless. Covered with a crisp crust, the sausages presaged a welcome burst of rich taste, but the inside was dry, almost bland. The garlic meat--chunks of picanha in a garlic marinade--came packed with lots of lively flavors, but the tough, chewy texture proved stifling.

Other creations were little more than range food. The pork loin with cheese--pieces of pork sprinkled with parmesan--tasted like twine sprinkled with the dustings from a green can of cheese gratings from Kraft. The beef loin picked up that twine theme, substituting cheese with a layer of charred fat.

The salad bar, however, makes up for whatever miscues seem to infect the skewers. Everything on the table--from the romaine to the orange and yellow bell peppers to the tomatoes--was fresh and bright. In addition to the usual staples, there were some interesting additions like mozzarella balls; a bowl of whole, dried bacon slices; a rich, satiny sweet prosciutto; slices of a robust, lean salami seasoned with fennel; salsifies; large angled cuts of juicy, tender hearts of palm; fresh shiitake mushrooms in very light dressing that let the delicate, earthy tones of this mushroom shine through; even a fresh tabbouleh. Hot dishes included a nearly flavorless black bean mexido, beans thickened with flour; and rice carreteiro, a flavorful mixture of rice, dried beef, peppers, onions, and tomatoes.

And if all of this isn't enough, the gauchos also bring sides to your table, including little muffin-shaped nuggets of a puffy parmesan-cheese bread that is baked to order. These little things can be dangerously addictive and can easily kill your appetite for the skewer fare (maybe not such a bad idea). You also get moist, sweet fried bananas; creamy mashed potatoes with shredded mozzarella, cheddar, and scallions; and fried tapioca, which tastes like a big mealy french fry.

Fogo de Chao also has a modest wine list with mostly California selections, plus one from Argentina and four from Chile. I would have expected some Brazilian selections, especially since Southern Brazil, from which Fogo de Chao draws its inspiration, is the home of that country's thriving wine industry. Brazilian wine is not yet deemed world-class, but its absence on the list is unfortunate--like Star Canyon without Texas wine.  

Fogo de Chao's primary offerings (salad bar excepted) hardly have enough interest to hold diners for very long. Yet, on another level, when you remember that this is range food, it works quite well, and the experience is something that should be indulged at least once. But then again, Dallasites are no gauchos. And Addison ain't no pampas.

Fogo de Chao. 4300 Belt Line, Addison; (972) 503-7300 Open for lunch, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; for dinner, Sunday-Thursday 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 5 p.m.-11 p.m.

Fogo de Chao:
Dinner $25.50
Lunch $19.50
Salad bar only $16.50

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Fogo De Chao

4300 Belt Line Road
Addison, TX 75001


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