Fogo de Chao, Portland, Oregon.

September 2018.

We were searching for a good steak house in this famously-foodie town for our second night after a lovely meal at Ava Jean’s, a highly-recommended Italiano place. This was the one that still had reservations available at a dinnertime hour and we were excited because we’re going to Argentina soon and this place advertises itself as South American. It’s a nightmare. If you’re going to Portland stop reading right now and cross it off your list. If you’re going to South America after the end of 2018, read our reviews and see what you think.

This restaurant is rated approximately fourth among Portland steakhouses. But don’t be fooled: you won’t be bellying up to a clean linen tablecloth and a wonderful piece of meat on your plate. This is a whole different arrangement.

We arrived exactly at 630 which was our reservation, and the entry area was packed with people milling around, waiting. The manager told us that they were “already seating the 6:30 people”, and apparently and eventually that meant they were front-end loading the half-hour and whoever got there first got to sit down next. We were finally canvassed out of the crowd by a teenager and sat down at about 6:50.

Our server was a young guy who turned out to be from Argentina where we are planning to go in about six weeks, and who explained to us the very strange restaurant system we had committed to. See below, we got the picture. Our problem had relatively little to do with the dull food and more to do with what we are now afraid is the Argentinian system of serving their famous beef: chaotic grab-what-you-can.

The room is large and geometrically irregular, with junky various-era interior architectural features. Like most places these days the noise is just deafening: screaming children running out of control and fat aggressive people with huge plates of food pushing their way in the thoroughfares. It’s the kind of grabby hungry behavior I imagine competitive restaurant owners encourage because come on, the more noise and greedy animal emotion you can generate the more money you make.

If you are an ordinary diner there is only one dinner arrangement available for about US$55: you go to what amounts to a salad bar with some cold meats and fill your plate as you like. Then, you either flip over a card on your table one way meaning “no thanks”, or the other way (green) meaning “I’m open to what you have available”, and waiters come around to offer you cooked meat. What nobody tells you is that you can ask for the premium stuff like filet mignon and ribeye steaks, but if you don’t you’ll never see them. So you get to graze the salad bar which includes some perfectly nice marinated olives and smoked salmon and cervelat but which is what you would expect approximately from an ordinary institutional first-swipe smorgasbord, and then you flip over your card and the guys with the lower-end sliced meat start showing up.

We had brought a a wonderful super-Tuscan sourced at a local retailer for about $100 Canadian and they happily poured it for a $25 corkage fee. It was deep with cabernet persistence. After we sat down I slipped my card over to the green side and quickly the sausage, chicken, lamb, and beef of four or five different varieties hot-cut off a metal grill skewer started showing up. I was hungry but Robin wasn’t so she filled up on the protein-enhanced salad bar, but I kept saying yes if the meat looked appetizing.

As the meat items paraded by I faced the big disappointment: everything was overdone and everything was tough.  Not that the sausages weren’t tasty, or the beef wasn’t flavorful, or it didn’t all come quickly enough, but that all the beef was chewy low-end cuts. I set up a plate on my left to shift the rejected chunks of meat over onto and nobody clearing away the waste seemed to mind. So here we were 100 something American dollars into a dinner that made neither of us happy, enjoying our way through a bottle of red wine much classier than the food, and looking for a way to get out the door.

This whole show may be the big South American crazy-house restaurant scene landed in North America, but sorry there is nothing positively fun-crazy about inviting people for a big dinner, attacking them with all-you-can-eat excitement and offering an endless amount of very ordinary food, and then charging them as if they’d been looked after in a reasonable-class American restaurant (where if they don’t like what they get they can complain).

You can always choose the wrong place to eat as we clearly did. But it’s a bit more of a big deal if you choose the wrong part of the world to travel to. That was our concern after this dinner: we are going to Argentina in the fall and maybe this is the kind of thing we’ll be facing. Jesus protect us. It isn’t even about the food, but about the reservation system, responsibility for what you get on your plate, and just plain value. I sure hope I’m wrong and as usual worrying stupidly about what will be completely fine.

Anyway for this particular place: steer clear. Food: 7.0, service 8.2, ambience 4.9, value 6.0, peace and quiet 4.9.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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