You step inside the heavy doors, and your eyes immediately adjust. Outside the sun might still be setting, but inside there are few windows, and the light is a dark and moody amber. You make your way to the dining room, where the tables are all gorgeously appointed, with white linen and elegant silverware.
You are famished, but, as it so happens, you don't actually need to communicate this to anyone. You don't even need to tell them what you'd like to eat. Instead, you are handed a cardboard disk, colored green on one side, red on the other. Lay it on the table with the red side face up, and the waiters, or "gauchos," as they are known here, will leave you alone.
But turn the card green side up, and they arrive, like a swarm of bees to a newly discovered honeycomb, bringing with them filet mignon, beef tenderloin, bacon-wrapped chicken, perfectly seared lamb chops. They begin piling these meats on your plate. And piling. And piling some more.
Raise your hand in a simple gesture of "Stop," or perhaps whisper "That's all," in your best Miranda Priestly-in- The Devil Wears Prada voice, and they will scurry away, as quickly and surreptitiously as they arrived.
It sounds like a scene out of some apocalyptic re-imagining of Marie Antoinette, a vision of grotesque excess and ruthless consumption in the face of widespread economic crisis.
In fact, it's a scene that gets repeated at a number of local restaurants, and dozens more across the country, virtually every evening.
The Brazilian steakhouse, or churrascaria, is a dining concept that originated in the late 1970s in Brazil. Inspired by the "gaucho" style of cooking -- meats that were roasted over open flame by the "cowboys" who lived and worked on the South American Pampas -- these restaurants allow diners to sample more than a dozen meats, delivered to your table on large skewers and carved directly onto your plate.
And, as often seems to be the case when we're discussing large quantities of meat, Dallas was one of the cities responsible for the concept first catching fire in America.
Fogo de Chão, the brainchild of two sets of Brazilian brothers, Jair and Arri Coser and Jorge and Aleixo Ongaratto, opened in Addison in August 1997, before expanding to a number of other American cities, including Baltimore, Minneapolis and Miami. Within a few years, other churrascarias, including Texas de Brazil, were opening up across Texas and the rest of the United States.
The ultimate symbol of a live hard-play hard era, with many of the fancier churrascarias featuring expensive wine lists and/or private cigar rooms, these restaurants seemed to exist partly to assure us that we had earned our right to such privilege and excess. Eat as much meat as you like, the philosophy seemed to be. There's always more.
Fast-forward 13 years, though, and the landscape looks a lot different: Record unemployment and reduced wages make it harder than ever to enjoy a fancy night on the town.
There are also widespread fears about global warming, the environment and the rising cost of healthcare -- fears that could be partly curbed, many experts believe, if Americans would reduce their meat consumption.
Is the Brazilian steakhouse, then, merely a relic of a bygone and best forgotten era, surviving only on the shoulders (and credit cards) of those who refuse to face our new reality?
Or is there another way entirely to look at this: In an age when many of us have had to give up expensive vacations and impulse luxury purchases, might these restaurants be a relatively affordable way to allow ourselves to be fussed over and catered to and feel, if only for a night, like a million bucks? (Most of these places cost about $45-$50 per person).
With our bellies empty and our arteries ready to be clogged, we decided to go investigate, by visiting the three most popular Brazilian steakhouses in the Metroplex.
Would we rediscover an appetite for excess that has too long been suppressed? Or would we just walk out feeling dirty and (literally) full of ourselves?
The only thing for certain: Before dinner was over, we were definitely going to have to unbutton our pants.
Fogo de Chão
4300 Belt Line Road, Addison, 972-503-7300; www.fogodechao.com
The back story: Opened in Addison in 1997, Fogo de Chão was the first churrascaria on the DFW scene. Back then, there were only three other Fogos, all in Brazil. Texas got the first U.S. restaurant at the urging of former President George H.W. Bush, who was a fan of the São Paulo eatery. (Currently, there are 16 U.S. restaurants and six in Brazil.) Earlier this year, the Addison location underwent a million-dollar renovation.
The scene: We arrived promptly for our 8 p.m. Saturday reservation and were wowed outside by the impressive mod tower, with a peekaboo glass window through which you could see the roaring fire pit in the lobby.
Once we stepped inside, however, it was hard to notice much aside from the insanely massive, elbow-to-elbow crowds. Neither the lobby nor the bar are built to accommodate this crush of people. As we stood by the bar to cool off with a couple of beers, we were repeatedly bumped by fellow diners (and one time, physically moved). Word to the wise: You might want to make your reservation for earlier than you actually want to eat. We got seated 30 minutes after our reservation.
The salad bar: Our tummies growling, we were mercifully seated right near the salad bar. Previously warned about overindulging here, my girlfriend and I practiced pseudo-restraint as we circled the bar like ravenous wolves, eyeing the fresh mozzarella balls, asparagus, marinated baby portobellos, artichoke rounds, chicken salad, thick and crispy strips of bacon, and three kinds of lettuce (iceberg, mixed greens and romaine). It was all delicious, but the one thing I still can't stop talking about was the basil dressing. Beautifully balanced and lighter than the blue cheese, this stuff has magical powers.
The extras: Before the meat started coming, the wait staff delivered a few bonus items to our table: a refillable basket of warm pão de queijo, or cheese bread. Surely they must serve this pillowy bliss in heaven. We also got three family-style side dishes: garlic whipped potatoes (so-so), polenta squares (dry and relatively flavorless) and carmelized bananas (banana lovers we ain't).
The meats: At long last, bring on the carnage! We flipped our red disk over to green for go, and let the delicious assault begin. We watched as they came toward and around us, brandishing those swords, weaving seamlessly from table to table; it was like watching a ballet on amphetamines. Fogo has 15 types of meat, and between us, we tried nearly all of them -- with quite a few red-disk mercy breaks in between.
Top honors went to the beef ancho, the prime part of the rib-eye; salty, succulent and juicy, it was the night's winner by a nose. It edged out a few other favorites: the bacon-wrapped filet (much more tender and flavorful than Fogo's regular filet, which was serviceable but slightly dry), and the lombo, pork loin filets encrusted with Parmesan. These were the delightful surprises of the night. Sure, they had us at Parmesan-encrusted, but the pork itself was smoky, flavor-packed and perfectly cooked.
Less successful: the lamb chops. Typically one of my favorite meats, this chop was nearly pure fat. I had to dig around the ample-sized chop for one piece of meat. When I finally found one, roughly the size of a Hershey's Kiss, I was exhausted and underwhelmed. Fortunately, that was redeemed by the picanha -- prime sirloin done in sea salt. With its yummy crispy sear, it's no wonder that this is one of Fogo's most popular cuts.
The dessert: We had such meat bloat that it was the first time in memory we weren't even tempted by dessert. Although my girlfriend did look at one of the heavenly cheese-bread rolls and say, "I should take this home for my mom." I looked up, expecting to see her wrapping it and sticking it in her purse. Instead, she popped it into her mouth.
"What?" she asked. "It's dessert."
The service: Impeccable from the bar to the table. With such a barrage of gauchos and wait staff checking in throughout the night, it's amazing we didn't feel suffocated. But the beefy ballet is finely tuned, and it's all very much a part of the whole experience.
The guilt factor: On the way home, the words "eat yourself sick" were muttered more than once, and it wasn't easy to shake that shameless-American-glutton stink. However, we enjoyed our Fogo food so much that we decided we'd pencil it in for a fancy occasion in the future. (At $48.50 per diner, it was the priciest of our three Brazilian explorations.) And now that we've been indoctrinated, we'll come up with a more sensible eating strategy.
The cost: $154.25 for two, including tax and tip (and two bottles of beer each).
Boi Na Braza
4025 William D. Tate Ave., Grapevine, 817-329-5514; www.boinabraza.com
The back story: Opening in Grapevine in 2000, Boi Na Braza brought the Brazilian steakhouse to the suburbs, where it continues to operate in a sumptuous space with high ceilings and large chandeliers. (You feel like you're eating in your rich uncle's house.) A second location opened in Cincinnati in 2007.
The crowd: We made a reservation for prime time, 8 p.m. on a Friday night, though the place was only half full. Still, the mix of tables was unusual: couples on dates, a group friends celebrating a birthday, another table with a dozen or so businessmen in suits. The resulting vibe struck a nice balance between the casual and the sophisticated.
The salad bar: The irony of our visit to Boi Na Braza was that, having packed on a few extra pounds over the winter and spring, my boyfriend and I had recently sworn off meat and were enjoying a mostly vegetarian diet. We were losing weight, too! But we had a job to do, and we were ready to toss principles to the wind -- until the b.f. saw the salad bar, with its creamy mozzarella drizzled with olive oil and its delicious hearts of palm (a fave that we can't seem to find on any local menus). Indeed, pretty much everything in the well-stocked salad bar was excellent, including the meat-based options, like the thinly sliced, perfectly salty prosciutto. Despite being told about 15 times not to fill up on the salad, the b.f. is soon speaking these famous last words: "I think I'm already full."
The meats: "Tough noogies," I responded. "You're eating this meat, even if it kills you." And so began the truly gluttonous portion of our evening, as the gauchos circled back and again, proudly wielding skewers of meat like construction workers with power tools. We particularly liked the way you could choose between rare, medium and well-done -- the gaucho offered all three on the same skewer. Our favorite items were the filet mignon and the alcatra (full top sirloin), both simply seasoned, a nice char on the outside, perfectly pink on the inside. The filet mignon, especially, had a splendidly buttery texture -- as good as the best beef we've had in the Metroplex.
Some of the other meats we tried were a little more uneven: The house picanha (a seasoned rump roast) was overly salty, the lamb chops were criminally dry, and the pork loin lacked any real flavor. Alas, in order to deal with this shortcoming, we simply asked for more filet mignon, which, this being a Brazilian steakhouse, they graciously brought to us.
The dessert: At this point, we were barely speaking to each another, fighting off the telltale signs (wooziness, distractedness, abdominal cramping) of a meat coma. So what did we do? We opted for the chocolate mousse cake from the dessert tray. It might have been nice had the waiter explained that dessert is not included in the $47.50-per-person price and was going to cost us an additional $7. Insult to injury: It was a standard-issue mousse cake, drizzled with a generic-tasting ganache, hardly worth the calories.
The service: Although mostly polished -- when we asked after the lamb chops, they appeared almost as if by magic in less than a minute -- there were hiccups throughout the night. For one thing, we were seated close to one of the service stations, even though there were plenty of choicer tables available in the dining room. For another, the company's credit-card system blanked out just as we were paying our bill, and the management made us wait nearly 30 minutes as they attempted to repair it. There was barely anything in the way of an apology, much less an offer to take something off our bill, for our troubles.
The guilt factor: We walk out the door, bellies bloated, and feeling of two minds: On the one hand, it's certainly been fun flipping that cardboard disk, demanding more meat. On the other, all that food left us feeling vaguely ill. For the cost, we didn't really feel as if we had the sort of truly exemplary experience that's worth splurging for. If we ever find ourselves falling off the vegetarian wagon again, we'd probably be more inclined to check out one of the other churrascarias in the area.
The cost: $141 for two, including tax and tip (and a glass of wine each).
Texas de Brazil
101 N. Houston St., Fort Worth, 817-882-8683; texasdebrazil.com
The back story: Another early adopter of the Brazilian steakhouse phenomenon, Texas de Brazil first arrived on the scene in Addison in 1998, before expanding to Dallas and Fort Worth. The company added locations throughout the 2000s -- there are now 16 locations nationwide and one in Aruba, with at least five more in the works.
The scene: Three of us arrived just before 7 p.m. on a Saturday night. Our table was on the second floor, overlooking the courtyard that also serves as a showplace for the 60-item salad bar. Goucho chefs roamed the dining room brandishing swords filled with garlic-crusted sirloins and bacon-wrapped filets. We felt like kids in the proverbial candy shop (butcher shop?) or a golfer who is playing Pebble Beach for the first time. That also meant we didn't have much of a strategy, and Brazilian steakhouse vets will tell you need one. "Don't eat during the day," one friend suggested. "Don't fill up on the salad bar," another warned. Our waiter said that he had seen his share of big guys who come in and eat meat and nothing else for hours on end.
The salad bar: We grabbed our plates and headed downstairs to the salad bar, determined not to pile things too high. Easier said than done, because this is no average salad bar. Joining the greens and fresh veggies is everything from marinated portobellos to shrimp and salmon to prosciutto and potatoes au gratin. The goat cheese and buffalo mozzarella looked too good to pass up, and by the time we headed back upstairs, we had already violated one of the cardinal rules of churrascaria. We also couldn't resist trying the lobster bisque, which was rich and creamy. Everything tasted fresh but not so fabulous that we weren't willing to just whet our appetites with a few tastes and then clear the decks for meat-apalooza.
The booze: Our waiter suggested that to get into the spirit we might want to try a traditional Brazilian cocktail, but the Caipirinha sounded better than it tasted. Made with cachaca rum, lime juice, sugar and crushed ice, it was pricey for something that tasted like a run-of-the-mill mojito.
The meats: Once the first few slabs of sirloin hit our plates, all of our focus was on the salty, juicy flavor of the seemingly endless cuts of meat. The prime rib and bacon-wrapped filet mignon got us off to a great start, and after the first few bites, my son declared: "This is awesome. Can we come here tomorrow night?" (Um, at 42 bucks a head, probably not.) The lamb chops also stood out among the sizzling swords. Juicy and full of flavor. But the lamb sliced off the bone was a bit tough, a fact that the mint jelly couldn't camouflage.
As the galloping gauchos kept stopping by, I began to lose track of what I'd tried. Bacon-wrapped filet? Yep. Parmesan-crusted pork loin? Nope. Barbecued rib? Sure. Chicken breast wrapped in bacon? Not so much. Somewhere around the hour mark of meat eating, we began to feel full. And a little remorseful. My wife and son put out their red chips of surrender while I pushed forward, determined to try as many cuts as my gut would hold. The Brazilian picanha and garlic-marinated picanha were two of my favorites. The Parmesan-crusted chicken and pork were not. I know I probably shouldn't have eaten all that I did, but I got caught up in the carnival. Temptation had gotten the better of me.
The dessert: Foolishly, we let our waiter talk us into dessert: a massive slice of chocolate mousse cake, and a papaya creme concoction he swore would be light but really wasn't. We added an after-dinner Chambord and port to complement the desserts at his suggestion, but were a little shocked when we got the bill and saw that dessert and after-dinner drinks totaled nearly $40. Live and learn, right?
The service: Our waiter was friendly and efficient, despite his penchant for upselling. And the gauchos didn't let us go too long without trying another new piece of beef, pork or chicken.
The guilt factor: Really, who could eat and drink like this more than a couple times a year? Ultimately, that was our conclusion as we waddled back to our car. We were glad to have popped our Brazilian steakhouse cherry, but it would be a while before we'd be back. My son, having declared the experience awesome a few hours earlier, said: "I don't want to eat meat for about a month."
The cost: $178 for three of us, including tax and tip. But our son's food was free (under 6 free; 6-12 half price).