A churrascaria dining experience

I knocked one more item off my bucket list Saturday night – splurging to dine at a churrascaria.

I ate about a month’s allocation of red meat and still managed to not sample about half the products offered at Fogo de Chao, a rodisio-style, fixed-price Brazilian steak house in Denver.

If you haven’t tried a churrascaria, here’s the drill: Gaucho-attired waiters called passadores stroll among tables offering about a dozen varieties of Portuguese-style skewered barbecue that is sliced table-side and served with traditional palate-cleansing sides, such as fried banana and polenta.

It’s a sensory-rich experience watching these intense waiters buzz quickly through crowded tables, carrying long-handled carving knives and proudly displaying their selections.

A salad bar that is more of an antipasto buffet offers about three dozen selections of salad ingredients, very few of which typically land in the types of salads we know. Wonderful savory cheeses, prosciutto, olives, pineapple and fermented delicacies were well represented among the greens and many tomato-based salads.

Chicken, beef, sausage and lamb are offered, but it’s the beef that gets the thumbs-up from most. A red or green disk is placed on the table to signal whether or not you want the waiter to stop at your table. Red means stop and green means go. Duh.

We were a little slow on the uptake on this practice. Instead we periodically said “no thanks” rather than using the red side of the disc to signal our desires. That must have been frustrating to the passadores who were intent on stuffing us to the gills.

So we overate. Blame it on the passadores doing too good a job. Like many, we’ve cut down on our red meat consumption; we could not handle the typical size portions most had on their plates. We were constantly saying, “Just a little, please. Not too much.”

Maybe churrascarias need a very pale green disc for old farts like us who can only say poco about a hundred times before we fall to the floor.

Some of the meat is marinated. If you prefer your meat rare, as we do, it can be delivered that way. There were some less tender cuts of beef that were amazingly flavorful, plus traditional bacon-wrapped filets, top and bottom sirloin and what appeared to be a skirt steak, wrapped in a circular pattern and cut against the grain. My favorite was the picanha top sirloin.

Chicken was mostly dark meat skewered into highly-seasoned chunks. I skipped the sausage, but sampled the lamb and found it too salty.

The history of how churrascarias became popular fascinates me and takes me as close to Rio de Janiero as I’m likely to get.

In the early 1800s, European immigrants, mostly from Spain and Portugal, settled in Chile, Uruguay and southern Brazil in the Pampas region – a grassy area where cattle thrived and cowboys, known as gauchos, herded cows while living off the land.

Because there was no refrigeration or easy way to preserve meat, it was slow-cooked daily, over open wood fires, where it could baste in its own juices.

There are many versions of churrasco-style dining. Some say it has evolved into fire-pit slow-cooking. Some meat is now cooked over heated stones in fireplaces. But the defining difference has to do with the roaming waiters slicing meat from a skewer.

I have a nephew who lives in Mendoza, Argentina. He’s told me tales of the wonderfully tender beef served in the churrascarias of South America.

One of these days I’ll have to ask him how churrascarias in the United States compare.