By Dave Zuchowski, ‘Burgh Vivant
The things you learn on an evening out! I always thought that gauchos were found in the pampas of Argentina, which they are. But the gaucho culture spills over national boundaries into Uruguay, Chile and Southern Brazil, especially in the state of Rio Grande do Sol.
South American cowboys, gauchos are famous for barbecue, like their American cousins. They like to build fires in trenches, then place large chunks of meat on skewers, position them on poles and slowly rotate them for an amazing result.
A bit of Southern Brazilian gaucho has arrived in Downtown Pittsburgh this week with the opening of a Brazilian churrasqueira in the building that once housed Sax Fifth Avenue. Named Fogo de Chao (Portuguese for fire on the ground) the stylish restaurant is one of 53 locations worldwide including 12 in Brazil and two in the Middle East (Dubai and Saudi Arabia).
Abuzz with activity the evening of my dining experience, the restaurant is spacious with the bar to the right of the entrance followed by a wall of wines behind glass panels. Further back, the open kitchen sports three vertical rotisserie grills, each capable of fire roasting 36 rotating skewers of meat.
In the middle of the room, the Marketplace, really a huge salad bar with (would you believe it?) over 60 different items and a make-it-yourself feijoada bar where you can build your own version of Brazil’s national dish. Grab a cup, spoon in some rice, ladle onto some black bean/ beef/sausage soup and finish it with a dusting of yucca flour (farofa) and hot sauce made with the malagueta chile.
Under the watchful eye of Paixao Cortes peering down from a 15-foot plaque in the center of the room replicating the statue in Porto Alegre, Brazil, of the man prominent in gaucho culture, I filled my salad plate with tidbits like smoked salmon, hearts of palm, slices of cheeses from around the world, charcuterie, lentil and quinoa salad, and quinoa tabouli – everything labeled for easy identification.
Once the salad course was over the real nitty-gritty begins. Simply by turning over the coaster given every diner at Fogo from the red side to green, you summon the parade of waiters who come by singly dressed in white shirts with red kerchiefs and gaucho pants that balloon from the knee up. They arrive with a long skewer of meat placed on a silver boat to catch the drippings and cut off slices you’re supposed to grab onto with a pair of silver tongs.
What makes the experience extraordinary is that you’ll be able to sample to your hearts content 17 different meats. These include three lambs (ribs, steak and leg of), several chicken, drumsticks marinated for 24 hours in brandy and beer, linguica sausage, pork ribs and Parmesan coated loin and more than a half dozen different cuts and styles of beef.
To accompany the carnivorous feast, servers put down a plate of cheesy bread puffs, some caramelized plantain, polenta logs and creamy mashed potatoes. With all the red meat to consider, I opted for a glass of Fogo de Chao Malbec, a label made specially for the restaurant. Interestingly enough, there are several selections of Brazilian wines from the Serra Gauche region sold only by the bottle.
General manager, Nick Croge, says the parade of skewered meat is a show within a show or what he also calls “organized chaos.” Actually, I was quite amazed at how smoothly and synchronized everything went on preview night, three days before the official opening on April 23.
You might want to start or end your meal with a caipirinha, Brazil’s answer to the mojito, made with cachaca (a potent sugar-based whiskey), sugar cane and lime wedges. There’s also a Brazilian Gentleman, made with Knob Creek rye, passion fruit puree, gum syrup, Ramos Tawny Port, Amazon Chancho bitters and honey elixir.
And yes, there are desserts, nine of them in fact, but my tip is to try the Tres Leches Cake.
Croge said about 90% of the beef is Angus from Texas with the remaining 10% Angus from Wisconsin. The lamb hails from New Zealand. The salad bar is also said to be 90% gluten free (so watch out for the Italian bread) and the entire menu is 90% gluten free as well.
For pescatarians, there are several fish and seafood options (the seafood tower sounds wonderful and is served with mango malagueta relish). Vegetarians can comfortably and adventurously graze through the copious salad bar and even order special grilled vegetables.
Fogo de Chao, located on the corner of Smithfield and Oliver in Downtown Pittsburgh, is open for lunch and dinner 7 days a week. Brunch on weekends.. Phone 412-312-5001 or visit website.