Meat Beat

It's not mastodon, but you'll feel like you've eaten one: One of the many giant skewers of meat at Fogo de Chão

It's not mastodon, but you'll feel like you've eaten one: One of the many giant skewers of meat at Fogo de Chão

Fogo de Chão Churrascaria, 645 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.338.1344,

When I first heard that a Brazilian churrascaria was slated to open in downtown Minneapolis, I thought, Nah, they'll never do it. They will never offer Minnesotans all the steak, lamb, pork, and chicken they can eat, served hot from rotisserie skewers brandished by gauchos sprinting from table to table, carving as they go. They won't! They can't. They'll chicken out; they'll put some kind of portion restriction, weight restriction, height limit, something. After all, the last would-be churrascaria to open here, the now-departed Mojito in St. Louis Park, looked hard at what it means when Minnesotans decide to really eat meat—and turned yellow as a canary among dandelions, chickening out with an à la carte meat menu.

Come on! Minnesotans eating all the meat they can! We're not some wimpy Texans up here—we are a tall, thoughtful people raised on bottomless portions of mushroom-soup casserole, and that breeds not just an unquenchable, Depression-era-style hunger, but the ribcage-to-hipbone length needed to consume a giant meal. Plus, one out of three Minnesota wives has done nothing for the last 30 years but try to keep the menfolk from eating all the steak they can. Plus, Minnesotans are stubborn as granite. Plus, we like bargains. And challenges! I tell you what, I've lived here long enough to know that betting a group of Minnesotans that they can't eat all the meat you've got is like betting a pack of fourth-graders that they can't deafen you.

You just know that there's a sizable number of folks around here who will take this as a personal challenge, and implement training: six days out, initiate pilates torso-stretching routine; five days out, cut handballs in half to use for chewing practice; four days out, purchase elastic pants and maternity tunic; two days out, assemble trolley and leaning board so you can be wheeled out, Silence of the Lambs style....

You know, none of that is really a bad idea when contemplating your first visit to Fogo de Chão, because the food items are nothing short of countless. Countless! The number of foods on offer here is as great as the number of grains of sand on the beach, as vast as the number of burps in a baby, as gargantuan as the number of Swedish meatballs in Christmas. A lot!

Your meal at Fogo de Chão starts with a basket of warm gougeres, and these plump little cheesy-buns are your starting flag. You then run to the center of the room, grab a plate, and set to giggling, or goggling, or both, as you contemplate a salad bar so absurdly overfilled that it looks like one of those fruit stands in a Herbie the Love Bug movie, before the villain-car drives through it. What's in it? Everything: three sorts of olives as big as quail's eggs; morsels of real Parmiagiano Reggiano plucked from a bowl made from one of the whole enormous cheeses, filled with itself; three other sorts of hard cheeses and pale golf balls of fresh mozzarella; slices of pink smoked salmon; salami; a thin, bright, Prosciutto-like ham; sun-dried tomatoes; big, wavy-gilled marinated mushrooms; whole brined artichoke hearts; hearts of palm as big as police batons; roasted red and yellow bell peppers; endive; pickled hot cherry peppers; makings for Caesar salad; roast, sliced rounds of beets; endive; a creamy apple salad; two sorts of potato salad; a roast green bean salad; steamed broccoli; a minced parsley salad; huge steamed asparagus spears; slices of good bread; and probably another hundred things I've forgotten.

What are you supposed to do with all of this? Beats me. The servers I talked to at Fogo de Chão told me that some people ignore the salad bar entirely, some do a salad course and then proceed to a meat marathon, others break up the night with little trips to the salad bar, little piles of meat, and so on. One night I somehow ended up with two dinner plates side by side, and that worked well enough, with one for meat and one for "salad." Yeah, it's a free for all.

Then the meat starts to pour in. Here's how that happens: There are about a dozen cuts of meat on offer at every meal at Fogo de Chão, and "gauchos"—guys in great flared pants with high boots—run around serving them from huge rotisserie skewers. These gauchos are incredibly quick. I saw some of them carry a stick of chops or kabobs all the way from the kitchen to a dining room 150 feet away, serve a dozen people, and when they got to me, the meat was still hot. Now, to get this meat you take your special little signal chip—it's a coaster that's red on one side and green on the other—and flip it so that the green side is up. Green means go, and go you do: You go eat meat.

The options available on any given night can include: little lamb chops, roasted crisp and crunchy. A big old leg of lamb, carved off the bone, meaty and plain. Mild pork ribs, on the bone, roasted plain. Pork fillet, cut into kabob-like chunks, roasted with a tangy Parmesan coating. Huge, Flintstones-style beef ribs, which support a beefy lace that's as fatty and rich as bacon. Little squares of bacon-wrapped beef or chicken filet. Chicken legs. Mild, juicy pork sausages. Filet mignon, cleverly arranged on the rotisserie skewer so that some cubes are medium, some medium rare, some fully rare—you get the idea. Garlic-marinated beef filet.

Plus, there are also four or so special Brazilian cuts, including an ancho-marinated section from the rib roast, and three large, well-seasoned sirloin cuts, called alcatra, fraldinha, and picanha. Your mission, at least on your first visit, is to try to sample them all. And good luck to you. In addition—in addition, punk —you will receive trays for the table of mashed potatoes, fried polenta squares, and fried plantains. Various sauces are delivered upon request, including Brazilian specialties like a roasted red pepper-based chimichurri sauce, and farofa, a traditional seasoning based on manioc flour. And there are steakhouse staples such as horseradish, mint jelly, and so forth. If you must have dessert, the best is their nicely intense and fresh key lime pie ($5.75); generally, though, skip it—especially the bland papaya cream ($7), which looks like raw sea urchin and tastes like not much.

How will you ever get through it all? Wine helps. Happily, Fogo de Chão has one of the best chain-restaurant wine lists I've ever seen. It's particularly good, as it should be, with South American reds: The Alamos 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, from Argentina ($34 a bottle, $7.50 a glass) is a dark, powerful, well concentrated wine that seems to bloom like roses when paired with beef. There are lots of good under-$30 options like the Chilean 2003 Casa Silva Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which runs $28 a bottle. The big-ticket prestige offerings are also well chosen, focusing mostly on deep, dark big guns like Eric Guigal Cotes-du-Rhones (from $98), and whoppingly intense Barolos and Riojas. The wine list is particularly well designed in terms of meeting all the needs of the potential audience, which includes both bang-for-the-buck civilians on their own dime, and expense-account warriors using the restaurant, and its dark-wood contemporary design, flower-arrangements the size of beer kegs, and bow-tied servers interchangeably with the other big corporate steakhouses in town.

Is it worth it? At $22 for lunch or $38.50 at dinner, I'd say yes and no. The first time I went to Fogo de Chão, I felt utterly overwhelmed and entirely underwhelmed—so much meat, so many countless other things; even if you just sample tiny bites, you leave feeling like you were conked on the head by a meat mallet. On top of that, much of the food isn't really delicious—the mashed potatoes on the table are bland, watery, and forgettable; the cuts of meat that aren't to your taste (in my case the bland pork ribs, ho-hum bacon-wrapped filet, and another half-dozen less than thrilling options) tend to mount and mount in your stomach, leaving you wishing someone had edited your meal to be less voluminous, but tastier. On the other hand, when I went back a second time, I knew what I loved best: the crispy lamb chops; the salty, savory half-moons of marinated picanha sirloin; the plush-as-Brie beef-rib crown of costela. The first time you go to Fogo, you drown; the second time, you surf.

One friend I brought to Fogo de Chão became completely obsessed with the idea of whether he'd rather go to Fogo or Manny's, the unsurpassable downtown steakhouse, and decided he'd rather have one spectacular steak than a bottomless supply of good ones. I've been to all the downtown steakhouses, and have seen how each one finds its own niche. Morton's, Murray's, Ruth's Chris, the Capital Grill: Each has partisans who feel their favorite is obviously, demonstrably, undeniably better than the others.

I think Fogo de Chão is original, exciting, and accomplished enough that it will find its own passionate fan base. In addition to the countless foods, they have a really well trained, helpful, and gracious service staff. I was a little dubious on my first visit when I heard that they all serve as a team—if everyone's responsible, then no one's responsible, right? Not here. There was someone energetic and truly helpful at arm's reach the whole night, and yet, within the hubbub of rushing gaucho meat-runners, that close help never seemed like it was hovering.

For me, I think Fogo is worth going to—especially at lunch, when they put out the exact same spread they do at dinner. If you played hooky some weekday (lunches are only weekdays, from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) and had an absurdly huge lunch (followed by a movie across the street at Block E?), you could skate out, with a bill of less than $50 a head including wine and tip, and feel like your tribe just felled a mastodon, and now that you've painted yourself in victorious blood and eaten the whole mastodon, you needn't eat again for a month. What if you don't want to feel like you've eaten a mastodon? Well, that's obviously personal. But I think I've given you enough information to make up your own mind. Now it's between you, your god, your thoughts about mastodons, and your elastic pants.