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Fogo de Chao Brings the Empty Joy of Overeating Chain Restaurant Meat to Scottsdale

If you're playing part-time vegetarian, beware of Fogo de Chao. When you set foot in this traditional Brazilian steakhouse, don't be surprised to fall off the wagon right into the middle of a meat parade.

Abandon your diet, if only for the night. Forget about moderation, too. To truly make the most of your dining experience here, you really have to unleash your hungriest inner carnivore.

Literally. Eat all the meat you can handle. Because beyond the steaks, Fogo de Chao quickly loses its sizzle.


Fogo de Chao

Fogo de Chao, 6300 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale

Dinner: $46.50
Salad bar only: $19.50
Caipirinha: $11.50
Crme brle: $ 8.75
480-609-8866, Web link
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday; 4:30to 10:30 p.m., Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m., Sunday

Grilled meats are undoubtedly the main attraction at this upscale churrascaria, inspired by the gauchos (that is, cowboys) of southern Brazil.

Open since December, it's the first Arizona location (on Scottsdale Road, just south of Lincoln) for the international chain, which was founded 30 years ago in Brazil and includes numerous outposts across the United States.

The all-you-can-eat price of dining here includes a salad bar, side dishes, and up to 15 different cuts of meat served tableside by "gaucho chefs," who roam from table to table wielding sword-like skewers of flame-grilled flesh cooked to varying degrees of doneness. Each diner gets tongs to grab a slice, plus a two-sided red-and-green disc to stop and start the steak service as often as desired. Flip to green for the onslaught and red for a breather.

It's simple, really, but for some reason the introductory spiel from my server wasn't to the point. What would've been much more useful than his drawn-out explanation of the stop-and-go concept would have been some details about the grilled items being served that night.

Halfway through the meal, my dining companion noticed a colorful guide to the various meats, tucked behind the condiments on our table. Oh, well. Had we known what to expect, maybe dinner would have felt more relaxed. Instead, we'd flip our discs to green and wind up with the same choices over and over, hoping for a taste of something that hadn't passed by yet.

Thankfully, one of the managers took notice and asked if we had a specific request. When it came to attentiveness — from refilling drinks to bringing clean plates — the folks at Fogo de Chao did not skip a beat.

I also found it odd that there was no cocktail menu. Not in the mood to listen to a verbal rundown of drink descriptions, I went with the obvious choice — a caipirinha, a classic Brazilian cocktail made with lots of fresh lime and cachaça, a liquor made from sugar cane juice. In theory, I can drink a lot of caipirinhas, but the relentless pace of the dining experience here threw me off.

Dinner commenced with a trip to the salad bar, which didn't really impress me. Nothing wrong with it, per se — everything was fresh and beautifully arranged — I just expected more variety, more exotica, given the price of dinner. There were several kinds of dressing alongside the salad greens; humdrum mayo-based salads like tuna salad and apple salad; tabbouleh; soft, milky mozzarella balls, as well as Manchego and Parmesan cheeses; platters of prosciutto and salami; and heaping dishes of shiitake mushrooms, roasted peppers, asparagus, and artichoke bottoms. The only thing I could've filled up on was silky, thick slices of smoked salmon.

Side dishes were hit and miss, which was surprising. You'd assume that the restaurant wants you to eat as much starchy stuff as possible, right? Cheap carbs instead of fancy beef? They'll certainly deliver seconds, or even thirds, if you want it.

But I couldn't bring myself to eat more than a couple of bites of the dreadful mashed potatoes, which were so mealy and bland that I felt ripped off — and even a little pissed off. What good is meat without some tasty potatoes? Give me rich, creamy mashed potatoes with my sirloin, and I'm in heaven. It should be a no-brainer.

Pão de queijo reminded me of hot little cheese popovers, only more doughy — these were fantastic. I ate double my share of them instead of wasting precious stomach space on the crispy polenta, which was greasy and super-salty. Caramelized bananas provided a sweet contrast.

Overall, the grilled meats were great — perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, and piping hot, wafting a mouthwatering, beefy aroma as servers carefully carved off chunks onto the plate.

Picanha, a house specialty, was a highlight, a flavorful cut of top sirloin that came in regular and garlic-seasoned versions. It was remarkably juicy, capped with a buttery layer of crispy fat. Wow. Beef ancho (rib eye) and alcatra (top sirloin) were also dripping with juices, while filet mignon was sublimely tender. In the beef department, everything was a hit.

Succulent, rare leg of lamb was another good pick, as were hot, plump linguica, pork sausages that burst in my mouth as I bit into the crispy casings. Marinated chicken legs were moist underneath a savory bit of charring, but somehow bacon-wrapped chunks of chicken breast were not. (No surprise, bacon-wrapped filet mignon blew them away.)

And then there was the pork tenderloin, pretty much a throwaway. Dry meat was bad enough, but an off-putting Parmesan crust only exaggerated the dryness. If the pork had any redeeming flavor, I couldn't tell because of that crust. Incredibly, this was another house specialty.

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Inevitably, meat fatigue set in, and a server stopped by to offer dessert — again, there was no printed menu, so we had to listen to a boring rundown of desserts like molten chocolate cake (yawn) and key lime pie (zzzzz).

What the server didn't mention, and what customers wouldn't know — because there's no menu — is that Fogo de Chao charges you extra for sweets at the end of the meal. Perhaps it wouldn't have bugged me if those mashed potatoes had been any good, but it struck me as yet another rip-off.

I went with crème brûlée, and almost predictably, there was a disappointing thud instead of a satisfying crack when I smacked its golden surface with my spoon.

What else do I need to say?

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