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Fogo de Chao sticks it to the steakhouse concept

On my first visit to Fogo de Chão, I was like Augustus Gloop in the chocolate factory — set loose in Wonka's main room, eyes like saucers, jittery with excitement and trying desperately to shove everything into my mouth that would fit. And each time I half-cleaned a plate, some Brazilian Oompa Loompa in tall gaucho boots, with slicked-back hair and a colorful belt, was at my side offering more. I wasn't going to say no. I couldn't. And the funny thing was, I hadn't even felt like eating when I'd first stepped out of the cold and in through the massive front doors. This was a chore. Was work. At least for the first five minutes or so. After that, it was something else entirely.

Fogo de Chão is not a place that any mortal man could visit with any regularity while actually remaining mortal, without ending up just flat dead from a meat overdose. Zeus, perhaps, could eat here three times in a week. James Beard or Escoffier could've probably managed four in their portly heydays. Me? I'd be a headline, baby. All caps: NOT TERRIBLY FAMOUS FOOD WRITER FOUND DEAD ON WYNKOOP STREET. Details would include the blood and flan on my chin, the lamb chops found stuffed in my pockets, the odor of caipirinhas on my breath, and the smile that couldn't be removed but by the intervention of a team of internationally famous embalmers.

A Brazilian churrascaria with fine-dining aspirations and service that's a marked change from the standard "Hey, you still hungry, dude?" rap of the Denver service professional, Fogo de Chão is that good. Stunningly good. All the little details — gleaming, branded cutlery with serious weight, artfully designed glassware, an OCD sense of freshness and cleanliness that borders on clinical — are given their proper attention, handled by a system that is both comfortably engaging and almost military in its precision, then obscured behind a screen of smiles and booze and meat so that, to the regular diner (meaning someone who's not timing the change-outs on the salad bar or checking the color of the napkins — someone who's not me, in other words), it all seems effortless, genuine and flawless. That's an amazing trick. The machinery involved in keeping any restaurant running smoothly is formidable. Making it invisible is the goal of every smart operator, a goal only a few achieve. But the folks behind Fogo de Chão have the whole smoke-and-mirrors aspect of the business nailed — blinding everyone on the floor with skewered meat and liquor and excess, then charming them with staffers that either honestly care about every single customer who walks through the doors (and care to the point of memorizing their names and preferences and almost telepathically anticipating any and every fleeting want) or are all the best actors and actresses to come out of Denver since Don Cheadle.

The staff at Fogo de Chão is pleased to meat you. (See more photos on the slideshow page).
The staff at Fogo de Chão is pleased to meat you. (See more photos on the slideshow page).

Denver's Fogo de Chão is part of an intercontinental chain owned by two brothers, Jair and Arri Coser, who started out with a Brazilian concept — the cowboy churrasco meal, which involves big hunks of meat on skewers, all washed down with cachaca-heavy cocktails or gallons of cold beer — and put it in a fine-dining framework with the addition of liveried servers, salad bars, bottles of wine and, you know, plates and stuff. They expanded the concept from Brazil to the United States in 1996, when an outpost opened in Dallas. Denver's Fogo de Chão debuted in July, in a brand-new structure on the tail end of Wynkoop Street with a beautiful and understated buildout that's somewhat steakhouse-generic (lots of polished, dark wood, widely spaced tables and a nicely appointed bar up front flanked by a comfortable lounge and fireplace) but keeps the attention focused on the mountains of meat on the table. Before the economy went in the tank, the company was reporting revenues in the $100 million range with just twenty or so locations, including sixteen in this country, an amazing number despite — or perhaps because of — the somewhat counterintuitive all-you-can-eat concept.

Under the rules of the house, they will keep bringing you (read: me, again) hunks of costela de porco, filet mignon and linguica sausage for as long as you can remain upright and breathing at your table. They will allow you to eat as much dry-cured pork and hearts of palm and balls of herbed mozzarella and potato salad from the salad bar as you can without even once sending some burly Brazilian out onto the floor to submarine-tackle your waddling, overstuffed ass and hustle you out the back. And while the price of all this luxurious intemperance isn't cheap, it isn't precisely expensive, either — at least not by steakhouse standards. Dinner for two will probably set you back a hundred bucks, but I've dropped twice that at steakhouses in this town and left disappointed. At Fogo, I left wanting only a larger pair of pants and maybe some kind of dolly service where an employee could just strap me down and wheel my bloated, meat-stuffed carcass back to my car.

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