Fogo de Chao leading pack of Brazilian churrascarias

Fogo de Chao, a Brazilian churrascaria, is nothing if not a restaurant for 21st-century America.

There's the international flavor (literally), not just from its churrascaria mission but also from its roots, which reach to 1979 in Brazil, where it still has seven locations.

There's the all-meat-all-the-time theme. We may, as a nation, say we want to consume more healthful foods, but vegetarianism hasn't exactly found overwhelming popularity in this country.

There's the easy-on-the-eyes aspect, the team staffing that means you'll never hear "that's not my station," and the efficient delivery of food that means you can get in and out as quickly as modern life demands.

And, OK, the gluttony aspect. What could be more American than that?

If you're not familiar with churrascarias, which have been multiplying in Las Vegas as across the country, they're restaurants that serve meat - primarily beef - cooked on a Brazilian-style rodizio grill, then brought to the table by servers bearing the big swordlike contraptions on which the meat was grilled ($48.50 per person, $24.50 for salad bar only, $26.50 and $19.50 at lunch). They approach, ask if you want rare, medium or what, then slice off a piece or two, maybe asking you to assist with the little tongs at your place setting. And they keep coming until you beg them to stop.

Along with this goes a salad bar, which tends to vary greatly from churrascaria to churrascaria, and a few side dishes brought to the table. And you can eat as much of it as you want, although the overall feeling is much more genteel than the average buffet.

So how does Fogo de Chao stack up as part of the pack? Pretty close to alpha, I'd say.

We'll start with the salad bar. It's not overwhelmingly huge - which no doubt soothes the cynics among us who suspect management of wanting people to fill up on vegetables - but it has a nice, well-varied selection. I found a big bowl of fresh, delicate butter lettuce and heaped on a few leaves, which I topped simply with some shaved aged Parmesan, plus a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and one of extra-virgin olive oil. I tucked an artichoke bottom on the side, added a slice of prosciutto (standing in for serrano, I guess) and a wedge of manchego and I was a happy camper. I was even happier upon returning to the table and tucking into the linen-lined basket of warm pao de queijo, delicate little rolls with a light cheese filling.

And then we finished our salads, turned over the green side of the green-and-red discs at our place settings, and the race was on.

At least it felt like that. We've been to some churrascarias where we've found ourselves craning our necks in search of the next meat-bearing gaucho, but at Fogo de Chao they're so numerous and move so speedily that we had to turn our discs over within the first few minutes. The restaurant offers 16 cuts of beef, chicken, pork and sausage, and we couldn't possibly try all of them. We did, however, greatly enjoy each one that we did try, which included flank steak, the signature picanha, bacon-wrapped filet mignon, unwrapped filet mignon, bacon-wrapped chicken breasts, chicken legs and some linguica sausage.

And then there were the side dishes. We weren't surprised when our basket of pao de queijo was replenished, in part because we'd finished its contents but also because what was left had grown cold and lost some of its charm. We were quite surprised when a server appeared with a fresh plate of crispy polenta sticks and one of fried bananas.

Through it all, service was extremely efficient, though we never felt rushed. The discs don't escape notice; we'd no sooner turned them green after a break than a parade of gauchos appeared, only to immediately stop again when they showed red. (Oh, and we loved the authentic-looking gaucho uniforms, boots with jodphur-style pants and wide leather belts.)

And then there was the team approach. A server told us early on that anyone could help us. That's a wonderful thing on the surface, but when we were asked, "Are you finished with this wine list?" (NO!) four times within about five minutes, it got a little old. Still, that's a quibble. Who complains when service is too good?

It finally came time for a server to ask if we wanted dessert. Stifling a groan, I asked if anyone ever really ordered it.

"No," he said, "but I have to ask," which brought to mind not only restaurants where a check had been delivered early when we'd really wanted dessert, but also an image of some poor Fogo de Chao employee dashing out on the rare occasion one was requested.

Fogo de Chao offers a lot of food, but there are plenty of places in Las Vegas that do that. The difference is that it offers a lot of excellent food, served in a serene atmosphere by employees who really know their jobs.

Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or