The white, mission-style exterior of Atlanta's latest churrascaria struggles to evoke Brazil in the midst of Buckhead's muddled chaos. If the church across the street were Catholic instead of Presbyterian, you might have believed you were in Sao Paolo.
But as soon as you step into the restaurant, you know immediately what these folks are up to. The Nixon-era banquet hall trappings; the tinkly Muzak wafting "You Are So Beautiful to Me" softly through the room; the gargantuan salad bar with every bowl of lettuce, every slice of tomato staged just so; the burly gauchos in voluminous pants wielding their staves of meat; the disarmingly attentive service from the non-gauchos.
Dining deja vu? More like corporate competition. Boi na Braza clearly wants Fogo de Chao's business.
It isn't the first time. Fogo de Chao opened its original U.S. location in Dallas (a wise test market) in 1997. Locals swooned for the Brazilian all-the-meat-you-can-eat concept, and several other churrascarias soon set up shop, paving the way for what would become a countrywide trend. Boi na Braza opened its doors in Grapevine, Texas, in 2000, some 20 miles away from Fogo. And though Dallas' Fogo does undeniably well, Boi na Braza has reaped more accolades from the city's dining critics.
If Texans have developed a fondness for Brazilian steakhouses, Atlantans have adopted them as an intrinsic part of urban life. Our city's chowhounds first stumbled out of Fogo de Chao in early 2001, clutching their overly full stomachs but praising the salty, fire-licked meat and the retro cool of the something-for-everyone salad bar. Three short years and seven additional churrascarias later, the ATL is approaching gaucho glut.
Boi na Braza may be the newest, but it's also got the most chutzpah. The owners custom-built their restaurant on the former site of Kudzu Cafe, a scant two blocks away from Fogo. In sprawling Atlanta, that's more than enterprising -- that's hostile.
I don't foresee many loyalties shifting, however. Boi na Braza garners strong marks in both food and service, but it doesn't outflank Fogo's consistency and showmanship.
Not that the newcomer's servers won't try to convince you otherwise. "Have you been to a Brazilian steakhouse before?" asks our seductive server. When we all nod yes, she responds with a purr, "Well, ours is the best. You'll see."
While she's retrieving our first round of requisite caipirinha cocktails, we're off to the salad bar. It's arranged around an enormous, iron-wrought mushroom cloud of an awning that looks like something Hannibal Lecter would find himself tied to.
We fill our plates with olives and hearts of palms; Caesar salad with leaves already dressed but still crisp, and plenty of straight-from-the-box croutons; thin strips of prosciutto and identically cut hunks of decent-quality cheese. Why are their tomatoes discouragingly pale and mealy in the flush of summer? I go for an extra ladle of saucy black beans with plump chunks of sausage instead. We stop to peruse the plethora of oils and vinegars neatly lined on shelves all around the bar.
Back at the table, our limey, gently sweet caipirinhas await. The servers have brought a basket of steaming pao de quiejo, the snacky Brazilian cheese puffs that are my preferred starch at churrascarias. The gauchos circle, eyeing our "meats, ahoy!" discs still flipped to the red side. Patience, fellas.
The servers here have developed an admirably keen sense of when diners need new salad plates; you neither feel pushed nor neglected.
Spin that disc to green and the race is on: Here come the gauchos. Your first round will almost always include picanha, the pinwheel-shaped rump steak that is the signature cut of every stateside churrascaria. It has the delicate yet robust texture of shaved roast beef, though it's kept juicy by its thin flap of fat.
Fifteen variations of beef, pork, lamb and chicken are paraded through the dining room for your carnivorous pleasure. My fave is the fraldinha, nubbly bottom sirloin that the galloping gauchos shave off in rhombus-shaped chunks tender enough to cut with a fork. Other highlights include pernil de cordiero -- leg of lamb served with a house-made mint sauce -- and picanha rubbed with soft, roasted garlic that imparts a sweetness to the meat.
The pig doesn't get the same respect as the cow in this kitchen: Most of the pork offerings I try are dry, particularly the gristly ribs. But when the cart comes around proffering beef ribs, flag it down even if you've flipped your disc back to red. Speckles of salt crunch in your teeth and contrast against the supple, gloriously murky meat. It makes for a soaring crescendo to your feed fest.
Besides the pork issue, my other complaint is that the gauchos don't seem to keep any mental tabs on what you've already had. They'll bring the same cut to you over and over again, even if a slab of the same selection is sitting on your plate, half eaten.
And the servers can be pushy with their sales pitch. "A second drink? No? Are you sure? C'mon!" cajoles one server, until my friend gives in. And polite refusals of dessert or after-dinner drinks are met with frowns and curt exits.
Perhaps they'd get more favorable responses if they offered more enticing sweets. It's one of the enigmas of most churrascarias: If, after all that food, you're dead set on plying diners with desserts, come up with something other than store-bought cheesecakes and fruits mixed with ice cream and crowned with liqueur.
I do have to report, though, that one guy talked us into the Grand Marnier Cuvee de Centenaire aged 25 years (three of us split one: more frowns). Grand Marnier is typically something I cook with, but dang, that special blend is smoooooth. And it settled our stomachs in a way a slice of chocolate torte never could.
Boi na Braza may not pack 'em in the same way Fogo de Chao does, but it is by no means empty. Where Fogo attracts the expense account suits, Boi na Braza's initial flush of customers are younger, jeans-clad folks looking to stuff themselves. You sense the tanned, gray-haired managers would prefer to see their clientele in finer attire.
The ultimate problem, I think, is in the psychology of competition. In Atlanta's mind, Fogo was the first and remains the best. To really snag customers, Boi na Braza should differentiate itself more to stand out. Perhaps, like Sal Grosso in Marietta, they should have adopted a more modern design scheme.
Or how about this: I read that in South America's churrascarias, a gaucho dancer gussied up in red chaps and high-heeled boots will perform a wild folk dance in the dining room, whipping around a bolo like Indiana Jones with his whip. A Brazilian drag show? Could be just the thing to draw those coveted crowds.
The only thing getting me to ClusterFuckhead is Umi.
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