Brazilian barbecue in Pasadena goes upscale at Fogo de Chão

The rise of Fogo de Chão – the meat-mad Brazilian churrascaria chain – incinerates the contention that our diets have shifted from animal protein to plant-based everything.

That’s certainly true for some folks, perhaps even many. But considering the crowds that pack the several branches of Fogo, meat-eating is far from extinct. We like our beef, served in portions that stagger the digestion.

Fogo de Chão is a monument to meat, with an entire kitchen dedicated to massive cuts, dripping juices and cooked in a fashion that dates back 300 years or more.

The original branches of Fogo de Chão are in Brazil – three locations in São Paulo, one in Porto Alegre. In 1997, the first North American Fogo opened in Dallas, followed by branches in Houston, Atlanta, Chicago and throughout Southern California – first in Beverly Hills, followed by Downtown Los Angeles, El Segundo, Irvine, San Diego and now Pasadena, with another branch coming soon to Woodland Hills.

All the Fogos are dramatic structures, and the Pasadena operation does not disappoint. It’s dominated by a wall of meat that sizzles from morning till night – a beacon for carnivores, serving an estimated 30,000 pounds of meat a month at every branch. In this case, Fogo sits in a bank building dating back to 1929, on the edge of The Paseo, in a space that in the past has been home to Lawry’s and BJ’s.

There’s something about the culinary karma of this location that demands Big Food.

The meat is treated like a culinary object of desire – obsessively marinated, elegantly skewered, cooked to the point of perfection with juices dripping, and a crust to die for! And then, it’s served at the tables in a style known as espeto corrido – “continuous service,” which is Portuguese for “all-you-can-eat” – by a team of what I’ve been told are actual gauchos, in from the Pampas.

The gauchos are meat mavens, who have to know how to do everything: How to butcher the meat, how to flavor the meat, and where to place the meat on the grill. They watch the meat as it turns like mothers tending their babies.

They move the skewers constantly, so they’re always at the best temperature. It’s like playing a piano, or leading an orchestra – their hands never stop moving. They understand sinew, muscle and flesh. And they appreciate how much of the flavor comes from the mesquite, from the smoke. They are masters of meat!

And to become masters, they’re trained with the eye for details of a sushi chef. A classically trained itamae doesn’t touch a knife or a piece of fish for years; a Fogo-trained gaucho doesn’t touch a knife or a slab of beef for years as well. They begin in the kitchen washing dishes. After perhaps a year, they become busboys. Two years, and they become buffet servers.

It’s not until they’re comfortable with the subtleties of the well-sharpened knife, that they go out on the floor. Two years more, and you can approach the public with a knife in hand. And even then, they begin with knives that aren’t very sharp. It’s only as they gain more skill, that the knives get scalpel-sharp.

What they’re slicing are 17 cuts of meat, each served on a skewer, each carved not just table-side, but over your plate on the table.

The gauchos, who have been tending the meat spinning on the skewers, carry them into the dining room, where they carve them to order for every dinner – filet mignon and beef ribs, three different cuts of sirloin (picanha, alcatra and fraldinha), leg of lamb (cordeiro), pork loin (lombo, flavored with parmesan or not, as you wish), pork ribs (costela del porco), pork sausage (linguica) and frango, an assortment of chicken pieces.

The gauchos march about the dining room like a platoon of protein pushers, dressed in soft black leather boots, loose-fitting black pleated pantaloons with a wide leather belt about their middles, a blousy shirt and a red neckerchief. And they don’t just slice the meat – they finesse every cut. The first slice is medium or well, the second is medium rare, the third is rare. It’s all in the skill of the gaucho.

In Brazil, I’m told, they like their meat rarer than in the U.S. They also like their meat saltier. If there’s more salt, there’s less blood; it changes the texture, so the meat is juicier in the States. And some people just want the crust, the crunch. The cooking makes for very crusty meat.

Fogo de Chão in Pasadena is open for lunch, Monday through Friday, for brunch on Saturday and Sunday, and dinner every night. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

Several roasted items – artichoke hearts, baby peppers, eggplant and zucchini – join kiwifruit on ice at Fogo de Chão in Pasadena. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

Fogo de Chão in Pasadena is definitely a “special occasion” restaurant, says Merrill Shindler – even if the special occasion is simply getting out to enjoy delicious Brazilian barbecue for lunch, brunch or dinner. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)



And then, there’s the buffet in the center of the restaurant, a custom-built ice bath covered with more than 30 items – bowls of roasted red and yellow peppers, platters of sun-dried tomatoes, hearts of palm, marinated shiitake mushrooms, tabouli salad, baby mozzarella, sliced mozzarella – a fine meal in and of itself. (The buffet can be ordered separately for $32.95; the whole meal with meat is $66.95.)

The buffet is prepared constantly, and endlessly freshened. For those who are going meatless in the hopes of fitting into something less than a tent at the beach, it’s a great alternative. But at heart, Fogo de Chão is about the meat.

I’m told by well-traveled friends that in Brazil, some churrascarias serve chicken hearts and gizzards. I’d like that. But then, I’m peculiar. Fogo is built around beef, lamb, pork and chicken. There’s no quail, no rabbit, no venison, no frog.

The concept boils down to fire and ice – what must be served hot, is served very hot; what must be served cold, is served over ice. That’s the Brazilian way. They’re in Pasadena, but they haven’t really left Brazil.

Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email

Fogo de Chão

Rating: 3 stars
Address: The Paseo, 234 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
Information: 626-556-9222;
Cuisine: Upscale Brazilian Barbecue
When: Lunch, Monday through Friday; brunch, Saturday and Sunday; dinner, every night
Details: Wildly popular, beef-intensive all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecue chain that’s especially popular with larger groups of seriously hungry locals.
Atmosphere: Sprawling space of several large rooms on the western edge of The Paseo with a massive buffet in the center, and gauchos constantly circling the room to slice meat from skewers that are still smoking from the barbecue. Very much a special occasion.
Information: Full bar; reservations essential
Prices: About $85 per person
On the menu: 3 “Indulgent Appetizers” ($25-$108), 14 Meat “Churrasco Experience” ($66.95), 3 “Indulgent Cut” Add-Ons ($110-$160), 3 Entrees ($19-$45.95), Market Table & Feijoada Bar Alone ($32.95)
Credit cards: MC, V
What the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth a trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, even exceptional. Worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A good place to go for a meal. Worth a trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry, and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic going.) 0 (Honestly, not worth writing about.)

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