1101 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20004
Web: Fogo de Chao
Rating: [learn more]
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Brazilian Buffet Churrascaria Salads Steak Vegetarian
"Fogo is a steakhouse that will expand the palates of carnivores and please even discerning vegetarians - a true benchmark for both churrascarias and restaurants in general."
What differentiates a four-star restaurant from the rest? In short, a dining experience good enough from start to finish to define or re-define expectations for others of its kind. Fogo de Chao, a Brazilian all-you-can-eat steakhouse with 14 U.S. locations, has been one such benchmark since we first visited its Chicago venue many years ago, continuing with its newer Beverly Hills and Washington, D.C. locations. Individually or collectively, they impress so thoroughly on food quality, quantity, service, ambiance and pricing that we'd cite them as must-sees for foodies and field trip-worthy for restauranteurs, the sort of places that people should learn from. We had the opportunity to visit the Washington shop this week, and were delighted to find that it is as excellent as its predecessors.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Brazilian steakhouse concept, Fogo de Chao (pronounced Fo-go deh Shown) is a churrascaria - a place specializing in the barbecue of meats, permitting customers to sample or fill themselves on multiple types and cuts for a fixed price that changes from lunch ($32.50) to dinner ($49.50); people spend as much or more than this to have a single steak at many restaurants. In addition to diversity of options, churrascarias pride themselves on unusually attentive, friendly service: well-dressed men called Gauchos - essentially, Brazilian cowboys - circle the dining area with skewers and knives, stopping at tables to offer slices of the meats they've just pulled from the kitchen. Restaurants of this sort differ in pricing, the number, diversity, and quality of meats offered, and in various dimensions of service; CopaCabana in Niagara Falls, Canada is the closest churrascaria to Buffalo, and offers meals at roughly the same prices. It rated 2.5 stars overall.
Fogo is on a different level entirely: the highly personal, attentive service, mature ambience, and varied food options are designed to so thoroughly impress that you'll want for nothing by meal's end. Imagine sitting down at a white cloth-covered table, flipping a coaster-sized card from its red side to green, and then watching as a steady stream of sword-carrying men approach your table with massive hunks of meat. You need only say yes or no to slices of each one, and they keep coming back every minute or three until you flip the card to red, indicating "stop." Every sword of meat has been cooked such that its parts range from rare to well done, enabling you to request a cut that's done to your liking, without any waiting. Beverages are refilled instantly, crumbs and plates are cleared promptly, and you're always offered access to anything that might make your meal more pleasant. When you finish all the meat you can possibly eat, you'll be offered dessert - creamy Papaya Cream, cakes, and the like, all legitimately very good - but you most likely won't have room for them. You'll actively want to tip generously. And then there's the surprise.
We are unashamedly carnivores: we love meat, and expect to eat a lot of it at a place like this. And we do, as we'll explain in a moment. But what if an all-you-can-eat meat restaurant could tempt you with something else - not just fillers, but quite possibly the most impressive fruits and vegetables you've ever seen? Asparagus stalks as thick as fingers, delicious full sun-dried tomato slices, sweet red, orange, and yellow peppers, hunks of fresh mozzarella cheese, and all of the fresh items needed to make a Caesar or other salad - everything in pristine form? Even given the prices and the choice to either gorge on meat or enjoy the sides, the quality of the vegetable offerings always inspires us to partake in them, too; they're routinely outstanding. Notably, vegetarians can go purely with salad bar access for $22.50 to $24.50.
There are also four filler items - dishes that are placed on your table as a courtesy, should you want them. The highlights are a dish with two full fried bananas, served soft, naturally sweet, and without breading, and baskets with golden balls of cheese bread, each made with sweet and sour tapioca flour and dotted in the center with parmesan. Both are invariably enjoyable, but two more might as well be ignored under the circumstances. Bowls of white mashed potatoes and yellow sliced blocks of polenta are good enough, but not worth filling up on; the polenta becomes bland after sitting out for a bit.
Obviously, the star attraction at Fogo de Chao is the meat, and the skewers just keep on coming at a rapid-fire pace as long as your card's in the green position. Unlike numerous other churrascarias we've visited - ones that try to fill you with cheap meats, or draw out the meal - Fogo starts bringing out the great stuff right away. You'll recognize most of the options immediately: filet mignon, top sirloin, prime rib, garlic steak, beef ribs, leg of lamb, lamb chops, chicken legs, pork ribs, pork sausages, and parmesan pork. But then there are the special Brazilian cuts, such as the Picanha - a special fatty portion of the top sirloin - and the Ancho, prime rib eye, plus bacon-wrapped filet mignon, bottom sirloin, and bacon-wrapped chicken breast chunks.
Individual paragraphs could be written about each of these items, but they're unnecessary: the experience of eating them is very close to meat nirvana. Some cuts - the Picanha, the filet, and the Ancho - are as succulent, moist, and tender as can be; others, like the beef ribs and bottom sirloin, offer crispy, almost jerky-like salty exteriors and bodies, while still others such as the bacon-wrapped filet and chicken look and feel like wonderfully sinful little treats. Even the fatty meats are worth eating when served this well. Meanwhile, Fogo's lamb chops and pork sausages remain amongst the very best we've ever had, and even its preparations of low-end items such as chicken legs, garlic steak, and parmesan pork are good enough to try, if not special.
Of course, you needn't try anything that doesn't interest you. Make a request of one of your many servers and you can have anything you want, virtually as much as you want, within a couple of minutes - the kitchen has more meat ready, for sure. But the fun of Fogo in our experience is in taking the tongs you're given and pulling slices off all the different skewered meats as your servers are cutting them. There's no risk in trying something new here, and you'll likely be surprised to discover how excellent the Picanha cut is relative to the filet, as just one example. Meat fanatics can quickly become something close to meat experts at a place like this.
Authentic Brazilian drinks are also draws. A dark, rich, and fun beer called Xingu is one of a handful of available options, as are Caipirinhas, Brazil's national cocktail. We'd describe the latter as Mojitos on steroids due to their higher concentration of limes and stronger alcohol, a Brazilian sugar cane liquor called Cacacha. This liquor ranges from 38% to 80% alcohol by volume, and consequently produces drinks that are either enjoyable or somewhat like consuming pure gasoline, depending on where you get them. Having tried Caipirinhas elsewhere, and found them almost invariably to be made with bad, overpowering Cacacha - there's a lot out there - we tried Fogo's premium version ($12); both of us loved it. A $10 version is also available, as is a selection of wines that would boggle most minds: wine bottles literally line the walls of the D.C. location, and are in abundance at the chain's other locations, as well.
Of course, Fogo isn't perfect. A no carryout policy is so strictly enforced that we couldn't even take along a small bowl of rice at the end of our meal, and there are small - arguably irrelevant - differences from location to location in seating capacity, salad bar size, and menu options. Yet the chain's considerable similarities guarantee such overall excellence from location to location that we'd recommend this place to literally any of our readers. Fogo de Chao is a steakhouse that will expand the palates of carnivores and please even discerning vegetarians - a true benchmark for both Brazilian churrascarias and restaurants in general. It's deserving of our highest recommendation.