New Brazilian Steak House: Same as it ever was

Slicing up beef furls: I want you to know (credit: Becky Stein)

Slicing up beef furls: I want you to know (credit: Becky Stein)

Here is the thing about Brazilian steakhouses: They are all the same. Not similar, but die-cast replicas. They have precisely the same pretty-as-plastic vegetables in their salad bars, the same hunks of seared meat being shuffled through the dining room by dudes in amusing/dashing gaucho costumes, the same blandly fancy decor that brings to mind the hotel banquet hall you went to for your boss’ daughter’s wedding.

I always like them, I never love them, and I am forever fascinated by their utter predictability.

Fogo de Chao brought the first churrascaria to Atlanta in 2001, and a spate of openings soon followed. I think most of them have closed, though I’ve kind of lost track. I stopped reviewing them because there is nothing — nothing — I can say about a meal I’ve eaten over and over and over. It’s like trying to write a review of a Chipotle burrito bowl.

But here comes Chama Gaucha! Located just up the street from Fogo de Chao in Buckhead, it is the first splashy new churrascaria in years. I decide to visit because a) it’s always fun to stuff my face with hot-off-the-brazier meat, and b) I want to understand the enduring appeal of these restaurants and why they are so totally lockstep.

I guess I should get the reviewy part out of the way. Is it good? Yes. Is it as good as Fogo? Yes. It’s EXACTLY THE SAME. Maybe there are a couple of tiny differences, but you’ll have to keep reading before I parse those out.

Before that, let’s retell the churrascaria creation myth. Centuries ago, European settlers brought their bodacious bovines to Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost Brazilian state largely covered by the vast and fertile plain of the pampas. These gauchos (Portuguese for “baggy-pantsed cowboys”) spent their days roaming over the pampas as the cattle grazed on grasses. At the end of the day, pooped from their meanderings, the gauchos would dig a fire pit and set various cuts and haunches on spits over the fire. I’m not sure whether they culled the herd by one in a killing frenzy or brought a cooler of meat, but somehow a cow met the flame.

Now, imagine if you will a hazy montage sequence spanning centuries. First we are at a gaucho party with cuts of meat twirling on spits and a resplendent table filled with stews, salads and side dishes. It becomes an open-air buffet restaurant that people drive from miles around to visit, the gauchos replaced with extended families. Soon we move to a city, where an enterprising restaurateur has kept this agrarian fantasy alive with a replica of a country fazenda and waiters dressed as gauchos.

There is soon competition and one-upsmanship. You have eight cuts of meat? We have 16! The salad bars grow more ostentatious. Hearts of palm. The fattest asparagus. Platters of prosciutto and salami. Fresh mozzarella. A whole wheel of parmesan cheese.

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Among the offerings at Chama Gaucha: Brazilian cheese bread, garlic golden Yukon mashed potatoes, fried Italian polenta, fresh fried bananas.

Now, we’re talking money. Churrascarias became places to flaunt (or at least imply) your growing wealth, and so they started to look the part. Tablecloths, dark wood veneers, oil paintings with ostentatious frames, expensive wines on display. They got bigger. They got fancier.

They offered as much prestige food as they could until … bam. That was it. Nothing else to be done to improve the format. So, the grandest churrascarias took the show on the road, to cities in the United States like Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, where people love steaks and displays of wealth equally.

And now we have Chama Gaucha, a clonal offspring of the great herd of Brazilian steakhouses that roam our land and graze off our overactive appetites.

I did enjoy my visits because, like at every Brazilian steakhouse, the service is so, so wonderful. Where else do you and your dining companion return from the salad bar to find two waiters standing and smiling at your table, holding your chairs and your napkins? Where else do you complain about the overeager air conditioning and have the manager return to your table twice to make sure the adjusted temperature was more acceptable?

I always enjoy a sweet, strong caipirinha cocktail and a basket of hot-from-the-oven pāo de queijo, those steamy cheese rolls. Are they a little better — gooier, crisper? — than at Fogo de Chao? Maybe.

I do love the king-making power of that table card. You just flip it to the green side and people bring you meat. Flip it to red, and they back off. The fat-capped furls of sirloin called picanha, the chewy, flavorful bottom round called fraldinha. It’s always good, never great, and salty enough that you’ll regret not drinking as much water as you can.

Who’s that coming our way? A shrimp-bearing gaucho? There is shrimp on the pampas? Best not to be too literal, because the shrimp are fat, springy, tasting of grill smoke and seasoning salt. I want another, and then another.

A meal here costs $41.50 for all you can eat at dinner, and $26.50 at lunch. That is enough to qualify as a splurge, but perhaps not so much that you need a trust fund to consider it for an occasional impromptu meal.

That’s the thing — the reason Brazilian steakhouses always appeal and never, ever change. They are perfect the way they are.

Look at it this way: Dining, more than any of the other activities we pursue to amuse ourselves, is an expression of middle-class desires. We of the urban-dwelling, mortgage-paying professional class go to restaurants for an escape. Sometimes, we want to feel closer to the land, and sometimes we want to feel like the ruling class for a night. At a Brazilian steakhouse, we can do both: Cowboys roam the carpeted plain, and the buffet brims with imported cheese.

What more do you need? Anything? Then flip your card to green, cowboy, and keep on keeping on.
Chama Gaucha

  • Overall rating: 1 star [good]
  • Food: classic Brazilian steakhouse menu
  • Service: Impeccable
  • Best dishes: meat, meat, meat, meat …
  • Vegetarian selections: Yes, the salad bar could keep a vegetarian occupied.
  • Price range: $$$-$$$$
  • Credit cards: all major
  • Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays, 4-11 p.m. Saturdays, 1-9 p.m. Sundays.
  • Children: Yes. They will love you forever.
  • Parking: valet
  • Reservations: accepted
  • Wheelchair access: yes
  • Smoking: no
  • Noise level: moderate
  • Patio: yes
  • Takeout: no
  • Address, telephone: 3365 Piedmont Road, Atlanta. 404-842-0011
  • Website:chamagaucha.com

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