Meat Your Match

At Fogo de Chão, the new Brazilian steak house, the recipe for success is excess

Click here to watch a virtual tour of the restaurant.

WHEN A COOK comes out of the kitchen wielding a giant knife, you’ve got two options: run like hell or salivate. In the case of Fogo de Chão, the new Brazilian steak house where gaucho chefs in neckerchiefs and short pants rocket out of the kitchen carrying smoking skewers of meat, most customers choose to lick their lips.

Fogo is a chain restaurant that specializes in churrasco, a cooking style indigenous to the Pampas of South America, where hungry cowboys roast hunks of meat on spits over an open flame. The chain originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil, but has found its way to Minneapolis and other American cities by re-creating the churrascaria experience as Epcot would: comfortable and sanitized. No bugs, no dust, no sweltering heat. No jaguars lurking on the horizon. But the meat is authentically prepared: Not sliced, diced, or smothered with sauce beyond recognition. Just juicy flesh, some still on the bone.

Diners are charged a flat fee ($22.50 for lunch, $38.50 for dinner) for unlimited access to Fogo’s salad bar and its selection of meats, which are brought tableside until you’ve had your fill. Patrons are given a paper disc, red on one side, green on the other, which they flip to let the gauchos know if they’re ready for more or have enough on their plate. “You can flip all night if you want to,” our waiter encouraged.

The night I visited, the room was filled, mostly with couples and groups of businesspeople, attacking the meat with silverware so huge it seemed made for a meal at a castle. The dining room is large, open, and somewhat overstimulating, with its photos of Brazilian cowboys and dozens of staff circulating through the space. It’s a perfect place to take a colleague or client: There are enough interruptions and distractions to fill the awkwardest of awkward pauses. It seems a dubious date-night choice, however: Who wants to go home with someone whose belly is puffed out like Homer Simpson’s after a night at Old Country Buffet?

Meat is the main event at Fogo. But if you decide to forgo the filet mignon and roast fowl, Fogo does offer a salad-only option ($16.50 at lunch, $19.50 at dinner). The salad bar is stocked with all the standard fixings and more upscale items, too, such as sun-dried tomatoes, hearts of palm, mozzarella balls, smoked salmon, and prosciutto. There’s even a round of Parmesan cheese as big as a car tire. It’s certainly an impressive assortment, but why go to a restaurant when you could assemble a similar spread from a gourmet deli? For $20, I’d rather have a salad prepared by a culinary professional—experienced with creating unexpected pairings and carefully balanced flavors—than one I assembled myself.

Photo by Eric Moore

We heeded a neighboring patron’s advice (“Don’t fall into the salad trap!”) and avoided piling our plates like Sugarloaf Mountain. As soon as we flipped our discs to green, the gauchos—native Brazilians who whisked about the room like dancers—swooped in beside us, rested the tips of their swords on the table, and cut us slices of meat, flicking their wrists with a fencer’s dexterity. Eating churrasco is like sampling a flight of wines, a great way to compare, say, a chewy sirloin to a tender filet. The gauchos specialize in beef, but they also serve chicken legs, pork ribs, and lamb chops—15 kinds of meat in all. A few of the cuts were underdone or overcooked and the pork sausages were quite bland, but the seasoned meats came out a cut above. The picanha prime sirloin was enhanced with sea salt and garlic, and we loved the smoky flavors infused in the bacon-wrapped pieces of chicken and beef.

The gauchos, for their part, promote the pig-out. They push food as assertively as a Midwestern grandmother. When the rush dies down, if your plate is empty and your disc is green, they’ll ask if there’s a particular kind of meat they can bring you. If your plate is littered with bones, they’re quick to bring a clean one, so you can start all over again. Even when our discs were turned to red, the gauchos sometimes brought more meat. Had the restaurant skimped on its all-you-can-eat promise, it would have rankled, of course. But the excessiveness, too, was overwhelming. We barely touched the complimentary side dishes: tasty garlic mashed potatoes, polenta sticks, fried bananas, and mini cheese breads. Thankfully, the desserts I tried—tres leches cake, a passion-fruit cream, and a molten chocolate cake—were only so-so. If you skip them, you won’t miss much.

By the end of the meal, our table was a bone yard. I’d certainly eaten several times the USDA recommended daily allowance of protein, enough “decks of cards,” as nutritionists often describe meat portion sizes, to stock a Vegas casino. It was a hazard of our Midwestern thrift, I suppose, trying to get our money’s worth. But the overindulgence, quite honestly, made me a little queasy. One of my guests turned to his wife and asked, “Do you need me to pump your stomach, dear?”

I later noticed a group of Hare Krishnas gathered outside the restaurant and suspected that the vegetarian monks weren’t happy about the all-you-can-eat-meat buffet. Whatever you might think about eating animals, it takes considerably more resources to raise meat than it does to produce other kinds of protein, like tofu or legumes. Fogo’s food was tasty, but I was starting to feel a little guilty: Was my decision to eat so high on the food chain ruining the planet?

But my male dining companions seemed unburdened by such ethical dilemmas. They were lost in visceral pleasure as they wiped the grease from their chins. Hunched over their plates, they looked almost like cavemen. “This is awesome,” one said. “I was so excited to get here I was racing cab drivers.”

I couldn’t quite relate: I’d enjoyed the meal, but I didn’t share their primal passion. Perhaps I was wired differently—a gatherer among the hunters, a woman who eats her meat with a fork, not a spear.

* Click here to watch a virtual tour of the restaurant.

Fogo de Chão

645 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612-338-1344
Open: Lunch and dinner served Monday through Friday; dinner Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Dinner $38.50 ($19.50 salad only); lunch $22.50 ($16.50 salad only).
Reservations: Recommended.
Parking: Valet parking available.

Rachel Hutton is associate editor at Minnesota Monthly.