Fogo de Chao joins the area’s panoply of churrascarias when it officially opens its doors today on International Drive. You’ll remember that a churrascaria is the South American/Brazilain style steakhouse that features grilled meats carved tableside by roaming gauchos. I’ve lost track of how many of these restaurants we have in the area -- they tend to open and close or move without much notice. I do know, however, that Fogo will compete primarily with just one: Texas de Brazil.
The two share similarities beyond an International Drive address. Both have an upscale mien, or as upscale as an all-you-can-eat concept can have. And both do a good job in terms of the qualities of meats and side dishes, including the items served on the impressively arrayed salad bar. The advantage may go to Fogo, however, for its better proximity to the convention center and for the way it has designed itself to deal with groups, several at a time and in varying sizes.
Fogo de Chao means fire of the ground, and although you’ll want to pronounce the last word in the name chow, it’s actually pronounced shoun. Chow fits better because, like all other churrascarias, it’s all about the food and lots -- LOTS -- of it.
The experience begins with the salad bar, a designation that really doesn’t do justice to the array of foods splayed out. The salad bar sits in the center of the main dining room beneath massive rings of light fixtures that looks as thought they’re fashioned out of alabaster (they’re not). Physically, the bar is gorgeous: granite counter with a thick glass top that serves as the inelegantly named sneeze guard. Atop it are two colorful sprays of decorative flowers. Glass platters sit atop crushed ice and hold such things as artichoke bottoms, salami, prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes, hearts of palm, thick stalks of asparagus, smoked salmon, aged Manchego and Parmesan cheeses, breads, and, since it is a salad bar after all, numerous greens and accoutrements.
Novices make the mistake of filling up on the salad bar goodies, and it is an easy thing to do when everything is so attractive, not to mention tasty. (The smoked salmon and the prosciutto were my favorites.) But you’ll want to save considerable room for the meats that will be coming your way.
They include top sirloin, bottom sirloin, ribeye, beef ribs, lamb chops and leg of lamb, chicken, sausage and pork tenderloin. (Interestingly, the only seafood offered is the salmon on the salad bar.) These are delivered to your table by the gauchos, the men (I’ve never seen women in the position) who move swiftly through the dining rooms dressed in the manner of South American cowboys. The meats are still on the skewers they were cooked on, and the gauchos slice the meats or slide whole cuts off the skewers and onto the guests’ plates. (There’s a set of tongs for you to grab the slice as it’s cut.)
The meats come at you with alarming speed. If you feel overwhelmed, simply turn the green disk that sits at your table setting over so that the red side is facing up. That signals the gauchos to pass your table. Want more? Turn the green side back up and they’ll start swarming around your table again like buzzards on carrion.
All of the meats I sampled at a preview dinner recently were very good, the disappointingly dry pork tenderloin the only exception. The side dishes weren’t stellar. I liked the black beans and rice and the farofa, the sawdusty topping for the meats. But the fried polenta and overly creamed mashed potatoes weren’t very good.
The staff, though overwhelmed perhaps by a full restaurant during the preview, were well-trained and thoroughly accommodating, especially the gauchos, who besides delivering the meats also cook them on the long grill in the kitchen, out of view of the dining room. (There are meats circling a fire in a glass room at the entrance to the restaurant, but those are strictly for show.)
The restaurant really is lovely, and it features a stylish bar and lounge off the entrance and a massive wine room behind a wall of glass. (It’s very quiet in there, and you may find yourself wishing you could have a seat there when the restaurant is full and at peak noise level.) The wine list, not surprisingly, features mostly South American labels -- 200 of them -- several private reserves of Fogo’s. The Fogo de Chao malbec was a lovely, fruity accompaniment to the red meats.
The building was constructed with the forethought of a meeting planner. The various side rooms can be closed off and configured for large and small groups -- very smart planning.
Fogo de Chao’s address was most recently held by the doomed India Blue restaurant and, before that, Bogard’s. Longtime locals will also recognize it as the location of Darryl’s. The original building was razed for the new construction.
I’m surprised that the churrascaria concept comes out of South America because it fits the American manner of eating so well. Not only is it all you can stuff, the only actual exertion required is a lap -- or two or three -- around the salad bar. At a churrascaria, the buffet comes to you. It’s easy to overeat, especially when you feel that in order to get your money’s worth you need to cram as much in as you can. My best advice is to pace yourself -- and make ample use of the red side of that disk.
Fogo de Chao is at 8282 International Drive, Orlando, It is open for lunch and dinner daily. (Lunch hours begin next week.) The cost, by the way, is $42.50 at dinner or $26.50 at lunch. You may opt to have just the salad bar for $19.50 at either meal. Here is a link to fogo.com. The phone number is 407-370-0711.