Photo by Anne FishbeinFogo de Chao is less a restaurant than a sizzling theme park of meat, a quarter-acre of sword-wielding gauchos, smoldering logs and soaring walls perforated with bottles of the heartier red wines. It is a land of razor-sharp knives and double-weight forks, A1 and chimichurri and salsa picante and sauce raifort, and all the dripping, smoking flesh you can eat: $48.50, cash on the barrelhead.
After only two weeks in business up on the old Restaurant Row, sandwiched between the Japanese steak house Gyu-Kaku and the seat of the Matsuhisa sushi empire, Fogo de Chao is already mobbed with Japanese tourists, Brazilian hearties, and the big, hungry boys who have already made the São Paulo–based chain such a runaway hit in the carnivorous precincts of flyover country. (If there has been an airline magazine published in the last five years that doesn’t feature a Fogo de Chao ad, I have missed it.)
Churrascerias, Brazilian steak houses, are not new in Los Angeles, of course. Picanha and Gaucho’s Village and Roda Viva are decent examples of the breed, and the local branches of the Queens-based Green Field chain in Long Beach and West Covina are huge. But in ambition, scope, sheer theatricality — and cost! — Fogo de Chao is on a tier by itself.
The salad bar is sleek and mighty, the salad bar of a transatlantic liner, impeccably arranged and stocked with mesclun lettuce and chopped romaine, potato salad and mayonnaisey Waldorf salad, hearts of palm and tiny roasted beets, prosciutto and salami, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano served out of mammoth rounds of cheese, and delicious mesquite-smoked salmon sliced into finger-size chunks. A fastidious eater might notice that the golf balls of marinated mozzarella are served too cold to be really luscious, that the slabs of sweet pepper still bear their skins, and that the chilled asparagus, while the spears are thick as a fat man’s thumb, is served unpeeled, so that the sensation of eating it is rather like squeezing asparagus-flavored purée out of a fiber tube.
Baskets of cassava-rich Brazilian cheese puffs, pao de queso, come to the table, crisp and steamy, elastic and smooth in the center as tiny popovers, so you are tempted to clean out the entire basket before they cool and turn into croquet balls. There are fried polenta sticks, light, crunchy and hot, showered in grated cheese, which also demand to be eaten the moment they arrive at the table, and fried bananas dusted with cinnamon, and gratin dishes laden with mashed potatoes. You don’t have to belong to the tinfoil-hat crowd to believe that Fogo de Chao is conspiring to fill you up before you deplete all of the restaurant’s precious lamb-chop supply.
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In front of each place is a signaling device, printed on heavy card stock, which you turn green side up when you are finally ready for the essential Fogo de Chao moment. When the salad plate has been whisked away and you have flipped your markers onto their green sides, you are at once surrounded by a crowd of uniformed gauchos dense enough to blot out the sun, each eager to transfer a grilled chicken leg from his sword to your plate, ease off a rosemary-scented sausage, or carve a dark sheet of protein from the surface of the massive alcatra, top sirloin, that he carries. Bacon-wrapped filet mignon cascades onto your plate, grilled pork loin, barbecued spareribs, slices from a leg of lamb, beef ribs plucked from an actual fogo de chao, campfire, in the front window. Dennis Ray Wheaton, the critic for Chicago magazine, describes this procession of grilled animal as dim sum for carnivores, and just as at a dim sum feast, you are likely to come away from your first moments of Fogo de Chao’s rodizio with a plateful of food you’d never heard of until a few moments earlier, food you can’t pronounce but suddenly can’t do without.
If you are hoping that a slab of beef ribs comes walking by, a waiter will notice the look of slight panic in your eyes and track the beef-rib guy down for you. If you are temporarily sated, but you’d like to try the bacon-wrapped filet, you can leave the cardboard marker on red while a waiter looks for the desired cut. Wineglasses are filled. Cold puffs of cheese bread are swapped out for hot. Plates piled with unloved scraps disappear and are replaced with clean plates, so that you never feel obligated to eat a chunk of flesh that displeases you.
In Brazil, in the fancier churrascerias at least, the term picanha properly refers to the hump of the cebu ox, a fatty, tender lump of flesh that is very heaven itself when sprinkled with coarse salt and seared over a wood fire, but in California, even at Fogo de Chao, we must content ourselves with a slab of meat sometimes known as the rump cap, bent into the shape of a rainbow, impaled on a sword, and sizzled just until the surface blisters and chars and oozes delicious juice. Picanha is like that caramelized strip of crusted steak fat devoured alone in your kitchen, like the dripping backside of a broiled beef rib, like a well-seared slab of foie gras — oily and crunchy and salty and seasoned with flame, the crack cocaine of the meat world — and you will ask for it again and again and again.
Fogo de Chao, 133 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 289-7755. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Prix fixe, food only, $48.50 per person.