The meat of the matter

Two new churrascarias cross swords, dueling for Brazilian steak house supremacy.

By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published July 26, 2007

Boizao Steakhouse

4606 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa
(813) 286-7100
Cuisine: Brazilian churrascaria
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Details: AE, MC, V; reservations accepted; full bar
Prices: $41.90 per person (dinner) or $19.90 per person (lunch); a special light lunch service is available for $12.90, and salad bar only at dinner is $25. Children ages 7 to 10 eat for half-price, while children 6 and under eat free.

La Fogata
2832-2838 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport
(727) 327-4200
Cuisine: Brazilian churrascaria
Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Details: AE, MC, V; reservations accepted; full bar
Prices: Buffet $35, full dinner $45


GULFPORT AND TAMPA - Eating at a classic Brazilian churrascaria is a little like fielding a series of telemarketing calls during dinner. Every minute or two you have to stop what you're doing - eating, talking, whatever. Only in this case, it's because someone is repeatedly offering you meat on a long skewer: Oh, yes, please. No, none of that, thanks.

Each diner gets a tabletop card: green side means go, red side means stop. But nothing is quite that straightforward. Even if your card is on green, you might say yes to the picanha flavorful rump steak, Brazil's most popular cut, but you may say no to the fattier costela de boi (beef rib meat) every time a waiter zips it around to your table. These meat-wielding men in gaucho costumes keep circling like car salesmen with prospective buyers.

That's why La Fogata in Gulfport gets the nod over Boizao Steakhouse in Tampa. The staff at La Fogata is all about the soft sell and the offerings span a broader palate of Brazilian and New American dishes. Also, it's hipper.

That's not to say Boizao (pronounced "boy-zoun") is a slouch. It opened in March along Boy Scout Boulevard to capture some of the Tampa International Airport/Westshore business crowd. It's a vast, slick space (they served 1,000 diners on Mother's Day) with a festive, all-you-can-eat party vibe. The waft of rotisseried meats greets you at the door; a huge salad bar buffet anchors the airy room; the lavish glassed-in wine cellar holds enticing heavy-hitters and oversized bottles.

La Fogata, on the other hand, is also fairly new but clubby and dark, with a wine wall of riveted, distressed copper sheeting and an architectural arrangement of bottles; booths are gorgeous faux ostrich. Bellini, its sister property, attached at the back, is a New York City-cool lounge with its own short tapas menu.

At both restaurants, you pay one price (either for the full meal or just the salad buffet) - drinks, dessert and tip are additional. Boizao has the much larger buffet (45 items), but La Fogata's offerings are more nuanced and carefully thought out. Seared tuna with wasabi and a tangle of seaweed salad; lovely Thai shrimp salad with cilantro and red onion; cured Serrano ham to wrap around sweet medjool dates; lobster bisque - it easily adds up to a meal on its own.

At Boizao, the buffet leans a little more heavily to salads: mixed greens, a simple caprese, hearts of palm, roasted pepper salads, cold asparagus and green beans. At both restaurants, before the meat dance begins, waiters whisk over a couple of side dishes: La Fogata has an elegant potato gratin whereas Boizao offers delicious buttery mashed potatoes; Boizao's version of fried bananas beats out the perilously-close-to-bananas-Foster side dish that La Fogata sends out.

Then, the meat. At both restaurants, meats are simply prepared over hardwood mesquite, crusted generously with sea salt and not much else (all right, at Boizao, the lamb is marinated, one of the pork dishes is coated in Parmesan, chicken gets wrapped in bacon; at La Fogata, turkey gets the bacon wrap and one beef dish gets a heavy rub of garlic).

I've been trying to figure out why these Brazilian meat emporiums are popping up all over. Some attribute it to the aftermath of Atkins: Meat is our friend. But I had a dawning suspicion as I partook at both restaurants. Maybe this phenomenon reflects our need to find new uses for ice tongs. No one since the Thin Man movies has used ice tongs day to day. At most churrascarias, each place setting is equipped with a pair, with which you grasp the meat slice being cut for you.

Here are the ones to grab: At both restaurants, the blue ribbon goes to the picanha, folded into a tight U of meat, crisp fat on the exterior, the center rosy pink and flavorful. Besides this one, most meats at La Fogata are cooked more well-done than I prefer. Flank steak, top sirloin and linguica pork sausage are laudable efforts at both locations, juicy and tender. Chicken (and at La Fogata, duck and turkey) was somewhat dry at both places, as was lombo, or pork tenderloin. I will overlook La Fogata's transgressions in this area in light of the four wonderful sauces it offers on the buffet to accompany the meat: a workhorse garlic aioli, an Argentine chimichurri, Greek tzatziki sauce and - only for the truly brave - a blisteringly hot Thai green chile sauce.

At both locations, the house Caipirinha is the cocktail of choice, a mojito made with Brazilian cachaca (rum that thinks it's tequila), and after dinner at Boizao opt for a teeny glass of Cuarenta y Tres, like a Brazilian spin on Baileys.

After such a caloric siege, only the most intrepid will have thoughts turn to dessert. At Boizao, the papaya-vanilla ice cream is a fine meal ender, while at La Fogata a chocolate cube pairs layers of vanilla and chocolate gelato inside a hard ganache shell. Neither dish is probably native to Nova Brescia, the barbecue capital of Brazil, but then ice tongs probably aren't, either.

Laura Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment. Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or lreiley@sptimes.com.