In a beautiful high-ceilinged space in Carle Place, at a softly lit bar against a soundtrack of bossa nova lite, the servers and bartenders waited nervously. The first Long Island location of Fogo de Chão, a national chain of Brazilian steakhouses, had just opened the previous day, and on this night cold rain pelted the large tinted windows. It was 5 p.m. and the large main dining area was still mostly empty, as were the private and semi-private dining rooms on the periphery. And so, it seemed like a good time to reflect on the sun-dappled journey of the Coser brothers, who in 1975, says the Fogo website, “left the quaint, mountainous countryside of Rio Grande do Sul to Rio and Sao Paulo for formal churrasqueiro training.” The pair began opening restaurants in Brazil in 1979, expanded to America in 1997, eventually selling the chain to a private equity firm, which has since expanded aggressively. There are now more than 50 Fogos in four countries.
The bar afforded a perfect view of the restaurant’s “market table,” which has variously been described as a salad bar on steroids and as the once and future savior of the all-you-can-eat experience. Tons of raw fruits and vegetables were there, but also a pot of the bean stew known as feijoada. Numerous cheeses, charcuterie meats, grains — there are supermarkets smaller. A common sight was of diners endlessly circling the buffet area, unsure how to attack a bounty of such magnitude, trying to remember that it’s only part of the all-inclusive “full churrasco experience,” ($59.95 at dinnertime, $39.95 for lunch on weekdays). I’ll let the brothers explain.
“The full Churrasco experience is our prix-fixe menu which includes continual service of our fire-roasted meats carved tableside by Brazilian trained gaucho chefs, including house specialties like Picanha (signature sirloin), Filet Mignon, Ribeye, Fraldinha (Brazilian sirloin) Cordeiro (lamb) and more.”
Continual is the operative term. Throughout the dining room, servers clad in someone’s idea of traditional dress and wielding knives and long skewers of glistening meat, were on hair-trigger alert, ready to pounce whenever diners gave the slightest signal. Indeed, from a distance, the gaggle of gauchos swarmed tables so immediately and determinedly, it was sometimes hard to tell who was eating and who was serving.
Fogo was smart to start its American expansion in Texas, which loves its meat as much as Brazil, and the chain's success of late may well have something to do with the resurgent popularity of high-protein diets. But Fogo can also offer good value — it’s not difficult to eat 60 bucks worth of meat in one sitting, especially when it’s prepared simply and well, grilled with just a dusting of sea salt.
For my part, I was content with what seemed to me the best bargain of all. During happy hour, Fogo offers a fine and substantial picanha burger for 8 bucks, and a very good caipirinha bursting with fresh lime juice for the same price. Gratis and not to be overlooked under any circumstances is a basket of Fogo’s superb pão de queijo, cheese-flavored mini dinner rolls that dissolve almost before you bite into them. They are legendary, and justifiably so.
Fogo de Chao is at 235 Old Country Rd. in Carle Place, 516-588-7100, fogodechao.com. Opening hours for lunch are Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner menu is served Monday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday from 2 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.; brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; happy hour at the bar is Monday through Friday from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.