Almost 20 years ago, I got to experience red meat the way God intended it to be served: sliced off huge slabs that moments earlier were roasting on a spit over a flaming grill.
The occasion was a visit to the then newly opened restaurant Fogo de Chao, a churrasqueria that had recently enjoyed a splashy debut in Atlanta’s upscale Buckhead neighborhood.
In Portuguese, churrasco refers to beef or other grilled meats, and thus a churrasqueria is a Latin American-style steakhouse specializing in red meats roasted on skewers and sliced to order.
Fogo de Chao, which along with Rodizio Grill was one of the first authentic Brazilian churrasquerias in the United States, offered an all-you-can-eat array of more than a dozen selections of roasted beef, pork, lamb, sausage and chicken served by “authentic” gauchos right at your table.
Who cared that the wait staff were more likely Mexican, rather than Brazilian? The meats were sizzling, crispy and delicious, and nobody monitored how much you chose to consume.
Over the ensuing couple decades, the concept became a serious success story, such that Fogo de Chao, which currently operates 38 restaurants in the United States, just announced a deal to be acquired by private equity firm Rhone Capital for $560 million in cash, or $15.75 a share, a 25% premium over the firm’s share price in February.
The capital will fuel Fogo’s ongoing expansion in the Middle East and Mexico, according to CEO Larry Johnson, as well as plans to open new restaurants in Europe and China.
Soup-and-Salad vs. Steak
No doubt the patrons of those new stores overseas will share the excitement our little party experienced back in the late 1990s: Fire-roasted meat served hot and crispy is an absolute culinary delight.
But here at home, Fogo (and likely its Brazilian concept brethren) is trending in the opposite direction.
According to a review posted on the lifestyle website www.NextPittsburgh.com, a Fogo de Chao restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh now offers what’s described as a “Market Table & Feijoada Bar,” which the reviewer noted serves black bean stew and other vegetarian options, along with charcuterie and cheese selections.
“It’s a colorful and seasonal feast,” she gushed. “Lentil-quinoa salad. Bright green stalks of asparagus. Big chunks of hearts of palm. Artichokes and tiny cherry-red, kiss-shaped Peppadew peppers with seasonal soups like asparagus and sweet pea.”
Okay, all that does sound quite seasonal and colorful, if not necessarily delivering flavor to die for.
But c’mon, people. Fogo serves giant hunks of beautiful, fire-grilled meat, sliced to order, and you can eat as much as you can handle, without ever having to get up and conspicuously head over to the buffet line for your fourth trip to the prime rib station.
Me, I’m happy to load up on fresh fruit and black bean stew on occasion — but not at a Brazilian steakhouse!
Now, I know many restaurants specializing in main dish meats include vegetarian entrées to cater to the one (or more) diners in a group who loathe the sight and smell of beef or pork, but who are tagging along to the steakhouse with a spouse, family members or co-workers for some social occasion.
It’s a well-known dictum in foodservice that one outspoken veggie can — and will — scuttle an entire group’s restaurant choice if the destination doesn’t feature a slew of vegetarian options.
(Of course, anyone who tries to nix a vegan-only restaurant on the basis that its menu is seriously unappealing gets either laughed down on the spot or hate-shamed for not being “adventurous,” or worse, for being insensitive to the dietary proscriptions of others).
At least in the case of the Pittsburgh reviewer, after she finished drooling over the kiss-shaped peppers and carrot-ginger soup, she and her party sampled ribeye, lamb chops, chicken and the house specialty, picanha, a high-end Brazilian steak (hey, it pays to be a restaurant critic).
“Every meat was perfectly done and delicious,” she wrote, and that summary captures the reason the churrasqueria concept has been so successful.
Expertly roasting and serving a variety of meat in a foodservice setting is high art, one that requires genuine skill.
Anyone can whip up a lentil-quinoa salad.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.