Make My Day
WHO HAS ROOM FOR DESSERT?
by Erik Deckers
American Reporter Humor Writer
SYRACUSE, Ind. -- In previous columns, I have waxed rhapsodical about certain restaurants and cooking styles I've encountered during my travels, and given my readers the literary "neener neener neener" when I describe some of the places I've enjoyed over the years. But recently I ate at a restaurant that deserves the king of all "neener neeners," and since I'm hoping for a reprint of this column to hang on their walls, I'll tell you about it here.
Until this past week, one of my favorite restaurants in the whole world was a steakhouse in Bloomington, Illinois called Alexander's, a restaurant that lets you choose your own steak, and then cook it on grills bigger than most apartments. Although Alexander's is a small steakhouse chain, and there are other restaurants like it, Alexander's of Bloomington holds a special place in my heart.
However, during my latest trip to Atlanta, Ga., I had the chance to eat at a restaurant that can only be described as a carnivore's dream. And as much as I love Alexander's -- they're still one of my favorites -- after eating at Fogo de Chao, Alexander's can only be compared to grilling burgers on a rickety old wire-racked Weber in the backyard.
Essentially Fogo de Chao (pronounced "foe-go duh shown," it means "fire in the ground") is a meat buffet. A great big meat buffet. Probably the biggest and best meat buffet you've seen since the Ancient Romans roasted entire cattle for a snack. This type of buffet is achurrascaria ("chu-ros-kuh-ree-uh") which is very popular in Brazil("Bruh-zill"). It's the Atkins-dieter's Shangri-la, and is a veritable"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" to vegetarians ("weer-doze").
A churrascaria is not your typical buffet. After you sample asalad bar never before seen by mere mortals, waiters dressed intraditional Brazilian gaucho outfits bring huge slabs of meat to your table -- 15 different types and cuts in all.
There's bacon-wrapped filet and chicken, regular filet, leg of lamb, rack of lamb, sausages,pork loin, pork with Parmesan cheese, garlic beef, bottom beef sirloin,top beef sirloin, and the House Special, which I never found out what itwas. There are also pork ribs, barbecued chicken wings, and beef ribs,which I did not try. I mean, come on, I'm not a pig!
Here's how it works. As you're seated at your table, you're already overcome by the heavenly aroma of meat cooking over an open flame, and you can't tell if the roaring in your ears is the blood rushing to your head or the murmur of approval from the roomful of other diners experiencing the same sensation. You become giddy at the thought that you are about to partake in an orgiastic delight of meats that until now were only whispered tales told to frighten vegetarian children.
A waiter explains that everything is done in teams. Ask anyonefor a drink, more side dishes, or even a specific cut of meat, andyou'll get it. But here's the important part. He gives you a littleround disk. When you turn the green side up, waiters will flock to yourtable one at a time, like worker bees to the queen and serve the meat.When you need a rest, turn the red side up, and they will skip yourtable.
Before you start, eat your vegetables like your mother said, andvisit the salad bar. Now if you're the kind of person who thinks findinga salad bar with both green and black olives is a sign of quality, thenyou're in for a special treat, because the salad bar at Fogo de Chao isnot your father's salad bar.
This salad bar is laden with vegetablesusually only found in twelve dollar jars at expensive gourmet shops.Huge bowls of marinated artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes, puffedmozzarella cheese, and a potato salad that I've only dreamed of are justa few of the items available. Oh sure, there's also the traditionallettuce-and-croutons section, but if that's all you're there for, thenjust pay your bill and head for the nearest Ponderosa, because there'sno helping you. Be sure to visit the salad bar at least once, but don't make therookie mistake of filling up there, because the party of meat is aboutto begin.
Now don't get me wrong. A night at Fogo de Chao is not aboutgorging on beef, chicken, and pork, although it's very easy to do ifyou're not careful. And the waiters don't bring an entire slab of meatfor each person to eat. Instead, each waiter brings his special cut ofthe night, and a knife sharp enough to carve through granite.
He tells you what he's brought, and you can accept or refuse. He doesn't cut the meat so much as just sets the knife on the slab and gently glides it through like, well, like a hot knife through butter. You get a two or three-ounce piece to sample. The idea is to try the different meats while working on your salad, and then have seconds of the kinds you really enjoyed.
But with this Brazilian steakhouse, it's hard to choose afavorite. Just do the best you can, and keep telling yourself thatyou'll skip dessert and run ten miles tomorrow to pay for all yourindulging tonight. Of course you soon realize that doing anythingtomorrow, let alone running, is going to be impossible, since you'll beriding around in a wheelbarrow for the next three days. So as you pay your bill and totter out to your car, you brieflythink that it's too bad your vegetarian friends couldn't enjoy a placelike this, especially the salad bar. Don't them a favor and don't tellthem about it. I'm not even sure if they allow vegetarians inside, orwhat they do with any of the vegetarians they catch.
Let's just say I never did find out what the house special was.