by Michael Charles
Portland teems with healthy eaters and special needs diners, but carnivores have yet to be banished altogether and there are restaurants that still exist to serve them. Enter newcomer Fogo De Chão.
Sure, the new Portland branch has not yet actually opened to the public, but there was a media dinner and it’s been a little dry around here lately content-wise, so this Brazilian churrascaria (meaning: “we hate vegetarians”), with more outlets in the USA than in Brazil, is fair game for a review. Besides, I wanted to beat all those ambitious young pups at PoMo, WW, The Mercury, Eater and on the various foodie-wanker blogs.
Let’s start with the name: “Fogo” is a Brazilian word loosely translated as “mountain” (actually, it’s more akin to the French word “tian” which works out in foodie English to “shitpile” or “a whole bunch,” as in “for $50, they serve you a Fogo of meat.”) And “de chão” is a nothing more than a clever PR bastardization of the English phrase “of chow” to give this carnivore’s paradise a little exotic flair. Clearly, they knew their intended audience even in the early days back in São Paulo (meaning: “a sow named Paulo”).
The place is expensive and it’s downtown, so you should probably add the price of valet parking or a parking citation into the cost. But you get a lot, something Portlanders enjoy, so you won’t walk away hungry like you would at some wussie sushi bar or a joint where the dishes look like a tribute to landscape architecture.
But here’s the thing: to get the most out of your Fogo experience, you must be wary of the value-eroding tricks they will play to get you full before the expensive meats are served. So, if you go to the salad bar at all, skip all the proffered starches and Sysco cheese and cold cuts. They have hearts of palm, which are expensive at least, even if they have a bizarre mooshy texture, plus you can tell your healthy-eating friends that you did, in fact, enjoy some vegetables with your bastion of beast. Likewise, skip the little cheesy rolls they put on your table (though they are really good, so maybe one wouldn’t hurt) and the garlic mashed potatoes and fried polenta sticks. They will take up valuable abdominal real estate.
It’s also useful to arrive very hungry. So, for a maximum value, I recommend the python diet. These crafty snakes eat one giant meal (after crushing and suffocating their prey) then lie around and digest for a week or two. If, say you want to try Fogo the middle of the month, start fasting now so by the 15th, you will be ravenous. And the great thing is you won’t have to assault and asphyxiate your prey; they will serve it to you pre-killed and freshly roasted from a gigantic vertical rotisserie. Just remember to book a couple weeks off work after your dinner.
Service is extremely entertaining, not that you are likely to notice should you follow my dietary tips. Servers, mostly dudes named Joaquim, wear black pleated bloomers which they have cleverly rebranded as “gaucho pants”. Many bloomer-wearing fake gauchos circulate the hangar-sized 250-seat space. For authenticity, some of them seemingly have been required to use a spray-on tanning product to simulate Brazilianness. This is a very impressive touch. (To maintain decorum, my dining partner and I refrained from inquiring about any shaving/waxing habits required for additional authenticity.)
In any event, these “gauchos” swarm around bearing skewered meats and very long, sharp sword-like knives. At the preview, things went well but I rue the possibility of a stumbling gaucho or one who suffers a paranoid breakdown after one too many complaints from the meat-free crowd. I’ll bet the insurance premiums here must run high. Good thing they don’t do flambé.
There are maybe 200 different cuts of meat that they bring around, though it might be a little more or less. It was hard to count after all the free caipirinhas and a couple kilos of animal product I consumed at the preview event. For the little people, those drinks will set you back at least a Hamilton, not that I remember for sure, but I guess authentic distilled fermented sugar cane juice (cachaça) is pricey. Or for recovering alkies who still enjoy a good caffeine buzz and don’t mind pacing around their pathetic little apartments until 4 am, they have a wicked soda called Guaraná that contains twice as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. Beware! It tastes normal, kind of bubbly and fruity.
Now that my eyes have focused and I can see the menu, it seems there are only 15 meat offerings. Bear in mind that South Americans have this odd notion that meat should be cooked until it is fully gray, chewy and non-juice-bearing. For those who prefer to avoid incinerated meat, be sure and let your gaucho know. They are pretty accommodating. When we smartened up after a couple early samples cooked for palate-numb South Americans, we were able to procure some deliciously mid-rare pieces of the specialty picanha (mid-sirloin), bacon-wrapped or naked fillet mignon, fraldinha (bottom sirloin) and beef ancho (from the rib eye). The pork ribs and parmesan-crusted pork loin were tender and not overdone either. I’m tempted to write off the chicken, which had the texture of chalk, despite its bacon wrapping, and sad gray leg of lamb since this was, after all, the night before they opened and everything should be perfect, right?
There were a dozen desserts not included in the all-you-can-slam $50 Fogo-de-chowdown (about $30 at lunch, presumably on the theory that most midday diners have to go back to work and can’t afford a post-prandial meat coma). We were already stuffed, but since it was free, we had the sugar-crusted roasted pineapple ring which looks like it came out of a Dole can but tastes a lot better. They had several chocolate choices and a specialty dessert called papaya cream, but frankly the thought of anything creamy or chocolaty–anything beyond basic fruit–made me want to hurl. And I saved about $9 in imaginary money.
This a decent addition to the Portland food scene, especially for boring West Hills Republicans freaked out by anything Quasian, cartopian, otherwise innovative or that isn’t from a publicly-traded mega-chain. I’ll likely return at some point, though I’m not sure when and I will definitely need to go python first. The opening of Fogo will probably deal a serious blow to a couple grossly overpriced international chain steakhouses that might be conjoined to read Ruth Morton. Live by the sword, die by the sword, I always say.
Now where can I get a pair of those gaucho pants?