You don't have to be on the Atkins Diet to love Fogo de Chao, the impressive new churrascaria, or Brazilian steakhouse, in River North.
The gimmick: all-you-can-eat cuts of meat carved tableside off of giant spits by waiter/chefs dressed as gauchos, South American cowboys. The 250-seat Chicago location, which opened in late August, is the fourth Fogo de Chao (pronounced Fogo de SHOWN) to open in the United States.
Arriving early for our reservation, we headed to the bar for a caipirinha. The house specialty and the national drink of Brazil, it's a potent combination of crushed limes, sugar and cachaca, a rum-like spirit made from sugarcane. The taste is something like a cross between a margarita and a mojito made with Everclear. Take it easy -- my guess is that a caipirinha hangover is murder.
Dinner starts with the extensive salad bar. By the time we made one trip around, some dishes had been removed and others had appeared. Among the impressive offerings: cured salmon, prosciutto, crisp marinated veggies and a slew of top-notch prepared salads.
When you're done grazing, it's time to get down to business. The main attraction here is meat. The menu promises 15 different cuts -- we didn't see quite that many, but we hardly missed them. Among those we tried were lamb chops, top and bottom sirloin, filet mignon wrapped with bacon, a fantastic pork loin, smokey chicken breast and legs, fragrant pork sausages and slightly fatty prime rib.
If you see a gaucho go by with something you want to try, you can signal him by turning over the two-sided coaster next to your placesetting. The green side reads "Sim por favor" ("Yes, please"); the red side says "Nao obrigado" ("No, thanks," or by the end of our meal, "Please, for the love of God, no more!"). Just remember to flip it back to red once your plate is full -- we forgot and were startled to look up and find our table surrounded by knife-wielding gauchos.
Along with the meat, waiters bring a variety of starchy sides to the table, including fried bananas, mashed potatoes, fried yucca and polenta. Most were unimpressive. The polenta was promising, with a crispy exterior, but it was ruined by a generous sprinkle of cheap, powdery parmesan cheese. Our advice: Skip the sides and beat a path back to the salad bar instead.
Fogo de Chao's fixed-price approach ($38.50 per person for dinner, $24.50 for lunch) may be a little off-putting for light eaters, but for those ready to strap on the feedbag, it's a bona fide bargain that puts other steakhouses to shame. Another option is the salad bar-only lunch for $19.50.
The extensive wine list offers a ton of interesting reds (what else), including some affordable South American options. Many are available by the glass for around $9.
On our visit, service was outstanding. The gauchos know their cuts of meat, deftly delivering ample portions cooked to whatever temperature diners request. Waiters are ever-present, ready with clean plates and advice when it comes to ordering wine.
Desserts, we're told, include flan, creme brulee and a few cheese cakes. We were too stuffed to investigate.
Chad Schlegel is the Dining Producer for Metromix.com.
Originally published Sept. 5, 2002.