By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It was a veritable meat parade lead by dapperly outfitted “gauchos” wielding sword-size skewers loaded with steak, lamb, sausages and you name it. Like some medieval feast, the succulent proteins were continuously sliced onto our plates tableside until flipping over cue cards to their red sides, which signaled we needed a break.
Without a good dose of willpower, we could have potentially eaten ourselves to death at Fogo de Chao Brazilian Steakhouse. The spacious restaurant, located in the Borders Building, affords guests a full churrasco experience with an all-you-can-eat barbecue extravaganza that begins with unlimited visits to the elegant “market table.”
There, you encounter a food spread seemingly tailored for a gathering of dignitaries at a classic, luxury hotel — like Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria. To call it a “salad bar” or “buffet” undermines the tidily arranged dishes you encounter along this rectangular station, which is marked by an eye-popping bouquet of fresh flowers centered above it.
Lettuces and other fresh veggies are a footnote amid imported salamis, smoked salmon, glazed bacon strips and quality cheeses. Among the latter is an 80-pound wheel of imported Parmesan-Reggiano we found sitting vulnerably under warm lighting, and barely hollowed. Down a ways were roasted vegetables, gorgeous peppers, and a bowl of lightly oiled artichoke hearts that left me defenseless.
In addition, the display features some seasonal newcomers, such as an exquisite pear-endive salad to offset the guilt over the weightier foods you’re about to eat and roasted butternut squash soup sweetened nicely by sweet potatoes and winter spices.
A second, smaller food station is the feijoada bar, where beans, rice and stews reside. But with the cornucopia of savories calling to us from the market table, I never made it that far.
About 30 minutes later, we exposed the green sides of our cards to the roving gauchos, who not only serve the meats, but they butcher, season and cook them as well. A majority of the staff, we were told, is from Brazil.
Within seconds, we had thinly sliced picanha on our plates. Obscure outside of Brazilian restaurants and butcheries, this prized cut of beef is the cap that sits above top sirloin. In classic style, it was seasoned discernibly with sea salt and a touch of garlic, yet without masking its deeply rich flavor.
A train of other meats ensued, including succulent rib eye that became my companion’s favorite. As with the other beef offerings (and lamb cuts), you can request rare, well done, or anywhere in between. The guachos know exactly where to point their formidable knives when carving for you.
Filet mignon in unlimited servings felt sinful, but we nonetheless indulged in a couple of rounds, in addition to trying the bacon-wrapped version from a separate skewer. Leg of lamb was as equally tender, more so than the bone-in lamb chops. For both, we took advantage of the excellent mint jelly.
Glistening pork sausages served from a multi-rack skewer were over-salted and easy to cast aside in lieu of chicken pieces from the leg section. Marinated in cognac and beer, my taste buds wanted more, but my stomach signaled it was time to stop, though not without dabbing a last piece of beef on my plate into a late-arriving bowl of garlic-kissed chimichurri sauce.
Fogo carries a sturdy wine inventory, which is displayed in a temperature-controlled wine room at the front of the restaurant. There are also Brazilian-inspired cocktails, including the high-octane caipirinha, made correctly with cachaca liquor, muddled limes and super-fine sugar.
Among the newcomers is a “whiskey jam sour” blending Monkey Shoulder Scotch Whiskey with lemon, orange bitters and raspberry jam — a crafty step above traditional whiskey sours that often taste too tart or overly sweet.
Our churrasco feast concluded with a common Brazilian dessert of papaya cream drizzled with crème de cassis liquor, a more exotic choice compared to the caramelized flan, which was jiggle-free and creamier compared to the Mexican version.
Fogo de Chao has spread its Latin roots in cities throughout the U.S., Mexico and Brazil, providing a surprisingly upscale dining experience for the price (see above). The rule of thumb before visiting for the first time is to diet to your best ability for a day or two. You’ll realize it’s well worth the effort when the first piece of meat tumbles gently onto your plate.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.