FOGO DE CHAO
235 Old Country Rd., Carle Place
SERVICE: A cheerful corps tag teams your table, with a backup chorus of almost wordless "gauchos" bearing skewers and swords
AMBIENCE: Vast and aggressviely neutral, with hundreds of seats, an ornate central salad bar and a giant bas relief overseeing the entire proceeding
ESSENTIALS: Open for lunch and dinner daily. Lot parking. Reservations essential (this is a busy place) and major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair-accessible. Full bar.
Inside Fogo de Chao, the multimillion-dollar Brazilian steakhouse whose facade now juts above the Meadowbrook Parkway like a suburban castle, men with skewers will shower you with all of the grilled meat you can handle — for a price. Yet the direction you choose upon arrival, left or right, can have a deep bearing on the experience.
Past the flickering gas fire in the foyer, most everyone lets the corps of hosts lead them left, into a vast dining room presided over by a stern bas-relief of a gaucho. This terrain is steeped in the musky smells of roasted meat and patrolled by the sword-bearing men, who hold curls and trapezoids of barbecued meat. They are the stewards of Fogo de Chao’s “churrasco experience,” (aka churrascaria), a style of dining which has operated around Mineola for decades, though on a smaller scale.
Industrial-scale churrascaria arrived on Long Island last year when Texas de Brazil opened at the Smith Haven Mall. That chain is an archrival to Fogo de Chao, which was founded in the late '70s by the Coser and the Ongaratto brothers and crossed the border in 1997, arriving in Dallas. It is now owned by a private equity firm and counts over 50 locations across the world.
Unlike the wild hues of Texas de Brazil, Fogo de Chao is aggressively neutral, with slate-grey walls, black leather booths, soaring ceilings and plenty of backlighting, a sort of Vegas-scale space that is pretty and grandiose but still somehow impersonal.
Once seated, diners are given tiny cheese rolls called pão de queijo, buttery mashed potatoes, fried bananas, very delicious polenta fries (these might grow cold fast, so eat ‘em early) and a small printed card. They are also encouraged to have their way with the market table (aka salad bar), a tropical cornucopia piled with things such as kiwi, pomegranate, smoked salmon, cheeses, overly creamy salads and greens. Though pristine, circling it feels akin to channel surfing on a Saturday afternoon — dozens of channels to choose from, but nothing you really want to watch. Some highlights were triangles of manchego, refreshing kale-and-orange salad and earthy feijoada, a Brazilian black-bean stew kept on a nearby hot bar.
Back at the table, the steak cannonade begins the minute you flip your card from red to green. The skewer-wielding men (they’re all men) appear like magic. “Picanha?” they might ask (sliced, almost teardrop-shaped sirloin cap), or “fraldinha?” (flank steak). Depending on the cut, you pick up tongs to grip the slice as it falls away.
Remnants of half-eaten food can pile up quickly, for while much of the meat glistens, it is often dry inside — whether picanha, filet mignon, alcatra (top sirloin), leg of lamb or tiny barbecued chicken legs. The bacon-wrapped steak and chicken are the worst offenders, but the supposedly cheaper cuts such as linguica (a spicy sausage), flank steak and short ribs fare best — the latter fall-apart tender.
Those partial to their own full-sized steak can go for a $120 Wagyu strip steak or a $85 tomahawk rib-eye, which was muted in baseline form but gained character from a tableside sear on a hot salt block. Puzzlingly, though, neither of these come with access to the market table, one of a few convoluted pricing structures that make dining here more complex than it needs to be.
Pescetarians, vegetarians and their ilk can go for the market table on its own, sans churrasco, but a few meatless entrees include a peppery, superb cauliflower steak seared until crispy, a rare case of the vegan option trumping carnivorous ones.
But back to the beginning: When you arrive, instead of being led left, go right instead, to a table in the bar. The seats here are just as comfortable (possibly even more so) and come with a bonus menu of small bites, such as empanadas, as well as access to the excellent house picanha burger, draped in melted provolone. The servers here know much more about the array of citrusy caipirinhas, cachaça cocktails that match well to this salty, oily food; the wine list is robust, too, and heavy on bold reds such as malbec and cabernet sauvignon.
But therein lies the trade-off: In the bar, you are in Siberia as far as gauchos go, and you’ll need to be proactive in luring them to your side. Although dinner brings datelike ambience, hitting Fogo de Chao at lunch — when it’s $20 cheaper for churrasco — will yield a more mellow, lilting meal, because everyone is less rushed and less stressed. The trade-off here is dessert — specifically, indulging in a milk-drenched tres leches cake may mean you don’t get much done for the rest of the day.