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  • 16 Sep 2014

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Head to Fogo for heaping helpings of meat

Bread & Brew


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: LACEY JACOBY - Alceu Pressi, the general manager (left), and Yuri Teixeira, a gaucho chef, show off two of the many meats for which Fogo de Chao, a Brazilian steakhouse, is most well-known.I should have stopped at six servings.

But the meat sweats got the better of me, and just as I was digesting the last of my buttery smooth cuts of two types of top sirloin, filet mignon, lamb, pork loin and bottom sirloin, they walked by with the pork sausage and chicken.

I couldn’t resist.

Welcome to Fogo de Chao, the international phenomenon that could be any carnivore’s perfect last supper.

An international phenomenon since 1979, this meat-centric empire opened downtown in the old NikeTown space in May, making the Rose City their 24th and latest location.

It was a big gamble, considering Portland doesn’t have many 8,500-square-foot, 250-seat establishments, and history shows we have a love-hate relationship with white-tablecloth chain

restaurants.

Whether it’s elitism or just local pride, there’s a part of our foodie culture that frowns on some restaurants or concepts that are imported, rather than homegrown.

Three months in, however,

Fogo de Chao (pronounced fo-go de shoun), a South American-style steakhouse and rotisserie restaurant, has charmed its way into the hearts of a certain breed of Portland diner.

On a recent Saturday night, Fogo de Chao (which means fire on the mountain) was filled with date-night couples, special-occasion family celebrations, business parties, out-of-towners and suburbanites looking for a dining adventure — in a guaranteed-to-please menu and price point kind of way.

Unlike other Brazilian steakhouses in Portland, where an 8-ounce filet mignon alone fetches $45, Fogo’s prix-fixe dinner is $50 and lunch is $30. That includes as much grilled meat as you can possibly stomach, their gourmet salad bar, bottomless s ide dishes like mashed potatoes, polenta fries and caramelized bananas, and a basket of pao de queijo, the light and pillowy Brazilian cheese bread that must be what clouds taste like. Dessert and drinks are extra, but highly recommended.

Four Northwest beers are on tap; more than 250 wines are available (on display in the cellar behind glass in the dining room), and a dozen Brazilian cocktails are priced at $13-$14.

A sure bet is the caipirinha, the Brazilian version of the mojito, with muddled lime, sugar and cachaca, a sugarcane spirit. Since it’s the national drink of Brazil, you have time to start perfecting your recipe before the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016.

Starters like shrimp cocktail and a seafood entree are offered at additional cost. Skip these and keep your eyes on the prize.

Head to the salad bar ($26 on its own for any lost vegetarians who wander in), where you’ll want to load up on the olives, cheeses, greens and Brazilian hearts of palm so you’ll have something to cleanse your palate between meats.

When you’re ready for the main event, flip the disk on your table to the green side. In about four seconds flat the nearest gaucho — their name for their cook/servers, after the 19th-century Brazilian cowboy — will appear at your side with a large knife and slab of juicy meat.

He’ll tell you what cut it is and ask what doneness you prefer, but you might not hear him with all those endorphins rushing.

The gauchos are used to this. He’ll put the mini tongs in your hand and show you how to grab the chunk of meat he carves for you in one expert slice.

Do not, under any circumstances, let more than two types of meat pile up on your plate. It will get cold, and you will forget what cut you’re eating (those meat sweats again). Simply flip your disk to red to let the gauchos know you don’t want more for now.

Yes, it’s a paleo dream, but for others the experience can be hard to swallow.

Our growing food ethos in Portland is to eat smaller quantities of meat, appreciatively. We trace it back to the local farm and, if we can afford it, choose organic, grass-fed, sustainably and humanely raised beef from a rancher we might even know by name.

At Fogo, that information isn’t readily available — maybe it should be. A call reveals that the beef and chicken are sourced from U.S. farms and the lamb is imported from New Zealand. A whopping 11 types of meat are on the menu at Portland, but the gauchos have just seven or eight on the floor at once.

Some will find the interactive experience fun; some will find it too distracting. Either way, it’s easy to get used to being spoiled here. The side dishes keep coming, and that’s a good thing. The polenta fries are crispy and addictive; the garlic mashed potatoes have the unnatural smoothness of instant potatoes, but are so perfect with the meat, you can accidentally eat quite a few plates of those as well.

Portland diners will appreciate the authenticity and the effort to bridge Brazilian tradition with Portland aesthetics.

Head gaucho Alceu Pressi, Portland Fogo’s general manager, grew up in Southern Brazil where his family used the churrascaria (fireside roast) style of cooking meat for backyard barbecues. After working as a butcher in Brazil for seven years, he joined Fogo in Brazil in 1998, and came to the United States two years later.

Portland’s gauchos are trained in the same methods, and some are actually Brazilian.

Portland’s location is large and airy, with windows open to the downtown streets and wood, stone and metal throughout, including two wood-carved araucaria trees in the middle of the space. There’s no waiting to be seated since they accept reservations, unlike most other Portland restaurants nowadays.

While the food and service are exquisite, it’s still an unproven concept for the Pacific Northwest. Time will tell if this out-of-town chain can become a Portland institution, like Ruth’s Chris or McCormick & Schmick’s.

If gluttony’s not your thing, and you can’t push your carbon footprint conscience out of the way for the night, this place isn’t for you.

Did I mention the flan? The smooth, creamy custard and not-too-sweet caramel sauce helped my digestion; I’m told the papaya cream is also a top-seller.

Follow me on Twitter: @jenmomanderson