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Eat: Fogo de Chão 

Wednesday, Feb 10 2016
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When traveling abroad, it's a crime against humanity to eat at American restaurants — until it isn't. Sometimes, you can learn a life-hack, such as how McDonald's in Britain still have the deep-fried apple pies, or gain a new appreciation for standardization. A Filipino-American friend once told me that without Starbucks' iced coffee — which she never patronizes stateside — she wouldn't be able to handle visiting Manila in the summer. And Munchies ran a great story a couple years ago about the cultural cross-contaminations that resulted from importing American-style Chinese food to mainland China. (Unsuspecting people sometimes ate the fortunes right out of their fortune cookies.)

Rarely do those countries import their chains to us, though. Sure, you can eat more niche foreign foods than ever in the Bay Area, but most of the new stuff is street food or peasant fare, at least originally. It's unusual to be presented with the kind of packaged experiences that the aspirational classes would go out for. Enter Fogo de Chão, a churrasco that's arguably the most upscale chain in Brazil, which has taken over the spot in South of Market once occupied by San Francisco's last Chevy's. It's big, it's across the street from the Moscone Center's endlessly refreshed hordes of business travelers, and it's begging to be expensed.

It is also in the upper echelon for meatiness. Eight or 10 cuts move around Fogo's dining room at any given moment — a solid variety, although not as many as at the inferior Espetus in Hayes Valley. The buttery, salty New York strip is impossible to pass up, as is the bacon-wrapped chicken, but if I had to choose one meat to subsist upon for the rest of my life, it would be leg of lamb. Three cuts of sirloin — top, bottom, and "house," which is above the top sirloin — circulate, and the bottom is indeed tops. It was the rarest on both visits, curlicuing off as the server sliced it expertly against the grain. There's also rib-eye (ancho), chicken legs, and a superb pork sausage, each brought to you speared on tridents by gaucho servers in white coats and red neckerchiefs brandishing carving knives.

Fogo also has a supersized, trendier-than-average salad bar with Brazilian kale and arugula salad, sun-dried tomatoes, hearts of palm, quinoa tabbouleh, asparagus, prosciutto, and the like. It's hard to address this without sounding like the snottiest First World human of all, but while I don't want to dismiss a salad bar altogether, asparagus in February isn't necessarily the most important thing to Northern California foodies, however artfully plated. What makes up for that unnecessary gesture are the little things, like the plates of garlic mashed potatoes, polenta fries, and fried bananas that appear while you're up getting your fill of smoked salmon and manchego. Fogo de Chão does a great job of providing all the semiotics of "Brazilianicity" without feeling like some Rio de Janeiro Pavilion at EPCOT. The meats might be heavy, but the overall touch is light — with respect to food.

At the same time, Fogo de Chão feels very Vegas-y. The footprint is large; the entrance has a bas-relief copper sculpture of O Laçador, a famous Brazilian statue (he's as majestic as a Roman senator but also reminiscent of Han Solo encased in carbonite); and the effect of multiple front-of-house staff coming over to the table is dizzying. It's casino-corporate, too: Walk to the bathroom and you'll pass a glassed-in chamber of branded cachaça bottles. (The cocktail stirrers are similarly branded.) As when you're crossing over Flamingo Road from the Bellagio to Caesars Palace in search of Snackus Maximus, it's difficult to grasp the entirety of what's going on. It's also best to restrict conversation to the level of amiable chatter, because on both visits I kept forgetting what we were talking about once another skewer of sirloin swam into view. I don't mean to complain about the interruptions per se; that's what you're there for. But I wouldn't sit down hoping to have a serious conversation, because by the second drink, staying on topic is a lost cause. And watch what you're drinking: Two people could really run up a tab gulping down $15 caipirinhas.

The trickier issue is strategic overeating. Maybe this is just my innate vulgarity, but when confronted with an all-you-can-eat situation, I want to leave confident that the restaurant has lost money on me. (If I don't get at least three plates at an Indian buffet, I feel as though I have failed.) Fogo's $59.95 price tag ($39.95 for lunch) magnifies the issue, because all you're really there for is the meat, and the meat is inescapable. You have to know when to turn your chip to red (indicating a pause), when to flip it back to green (turning on the meat spigot), and when to say no to the gauchos who come over offering delicious-looking meats even when your chip is red (which they do, especially when a table's chips are out of sync). When the meat is piling up — and the gauchos are, too — it can start to feel like air traffic control with some auxiliary eating duties.

Ultimately, though, Fogo de Chão assigns itself one fundamental task and performs it well. Very little about this restaurant jives with the rest of the S.F. dining scene, and that's great, because we're probably full up on small plates and shared Brussels sprouts for the time being. If you want to be full of rib-eye for a change, come here.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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