Restaurant Reviews

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.