Photo: Tyllie Barbosa

A gaúcho at Brazzaz brandishes skewers of juicy roasted shrimp.

“Head ’em up. Move ’em out.” If Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates were taking their Rawhide cattle drive all the way north to Chicago in 2005, they’d be wearing gaúcho garb. And, instead of saloons and cheap whiskey at the end of the trail, they might find their steers served on spits along with a lavish salad bar and caipirinhas. About the only thing they would recognize: a cowboy style of roasting meat almost identical to their own trailside efforts.

It was only a matter of time before downtown Chicago’s meat-driven restaurant scene would be invaded by a herd of Brazilian-style churrascarias-essentially glorified barbecue restaurants where the meats are slow-roasted over an open fire. Three of these fleshfests-Fogo de Chão, Sal & Carvão, and Brazzaz-are now within six blocks of one another in River North, trumping upscale steak houses with their $48.50 all-you-can-gobble dinner prices. Each one welcomes diners with massive slabs of beef ribs sizzling  on big spits near the entrance, and each offers a mind-numbingly large salad buffet. The spreads are so fresh and lavish, I could stick with the salad bar and forget the meat-and some do, for $20.50 at Fogo, $25 at S & C, and $30 at Brazzaz.

Those prices also include never-ending baskets of pão de queijo, addictive little cheese puffs made of yucca flour, likely served as appetite dampeners. (But I can’t resist a few-or more-of them.) So are the family-style sides of mashed potatoes, fried bananas, and polenta: it takes a determined carnivore to resist all the salads and starches. I got a lesson in priorities when I corralled a couple of ravenous teenage boys to tag along with me. They practically shut down the place.

All three restaurants play by the same rules: when you are ready, turn the poker chip next to your dinner plate from the red side to the green (black to orange at Brazzaz), and the show begins. Gaúchos parading through the handsome, cavernous dining rooms with more than a dozen cuts of beef, lamb, pork, and chicken will keep the meat coming at a relentless pace as long as you are green side up. (Yes, you can flip back and forth as many times as you like.) You’d be wise to make nice with the gaúchos: they’re the key to your experience. Plus, these guys are armed with long steel skewers and very sharp carving knives.

Your only task is to use the metal tongs beside your plate to catch the meat as it is carved. (Don’t fret if you don’t get the cut you want the first time it comes around; like a dim sum cart, it’ll be back.) Some diners fall in love with the idea of unlimited filet mignon, carved from a whole tenderloin or served as medallions wrapped in bacon-both are always good, and you can choose your favored level of doneness. But give me the picanha (called coulette at Brazzaz), curved fat-crusted hunks of rump meat with terrific chewy texture and beefy-to-the-max taste. Other beef choices worth a go are the top sirloin (alcatra), the bottom sirloin (fraldinha), and slow-roasted beef ribs-not served on skewers but carved from big slabs on a platter. Linguiça (peppery Portuguese pork sausages), lamb, pork, and chicken also beckon.

Fogo de ChÃo (Portuguese for “fire on the ground”) is the pioneer of these churrascarias in Chicago, and it alone has roots in Brazil-the original branches are in São Paulo and Porto Alegre, and there are outposts from Atlanta to Beverly Hills. The huge crowds it quickly attracted here (and still does) paved the way for the newer competitors. It’s a noisy room, but on some evenings, you can hear the voices of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking diners bouncing off the dramatic gaúcho-theme mural on the back wall-a good sign.

The greens on the salad bar are very fresh and well tended by servers. With this crush of customers, nothing lasts more than about five minutes, anyway: not the lettuce, nor the marinated vegetables, the fresh mozzarella, the smoked salmon, the cured meats, or the hard grana padano cheese.

From the meat lineup I especially relished Fogo’s picanha-the “noble part of the sirloin,” says the menu card-flavored with a heady dose of garlic or simply with sea salt. But beef ribs always snap my appetite to attention: the carved slices exude a terrific fire-roasted beefy taste. I didn’t care for the dry pork loin coated in grated Parmesan cheese, but on my latest visit, I was happy to find the chicken breast wrapped in bacon much juicier than on earlier visits. Maybe it’s all in the timing from fire to plate.

As at all these Brazilian beef bonanzas, Fogo’s wine list is up there with those of the nearby steak houses, and here I found a delightful spicy Argentine 2003 Terrezas Reserve Mendoza Malbec ($53). Tradition has it that papaya helps digest all that meat. Besides papaya crème, if you truly have a speck of room left, there is good Key lime cheesecake and passion fruit sorbet garnished with pieces of waffle cone.

Sal & CarvÃo (Portuguese for “salt and charcoal”) is a beautiful restaurant that opened in River North after locations in Schaumburg and Downers Grove proved successful. It’s even spiffier than Fogo de Chão; stop for a drink in the sleek lounge upstairs and enjoy the dramatic balcony view of the dining room. The handsome central salad bar encircles rustic-but-glossy bamboo in clay pots and an elegant modern fountain. In addition to zillions of salads, you’ll find the usual marinated vegetables as well as fresh mozzarella balls and chunks of grana padano from a big wheel, cured meats, and smoked salmon. There are also chafing dishes holding rice and beans-along with a bowl of farofa (toasted cassava meal) to sprinkle on top. But who wants to fill up on rice and beans when the gaúchos are roaming?

I liked most of the meats here, especially-surprise-the picanha, which I got just off the fire, with its layer of surface fat still sizzling. I was less enthused by the leg of lamb and the lamb chops, both coated with a lemon-pepper sauce that almost overpowered the lamb. On the other hand, I loved the assertive pepperiness of the linguiça and had trouble stopping at just one so that I could save room for other meats. I tried a 2001 Miolo Reserve pinot noir ($38), which was simple, but still fitting for such carnivoraciousness. The S & C spin on crème de papaya is a blend of fresh papaya and vanilla ice cream topped with crème de cassis, plus a crème made with fresh strawberries and strawberry ice cream.

Brazzaz, the newest of the three downtown churrascarias, is my favorite. It, too, is a gorgeous restaurant, showing off bright blue and red lamps and swirls of colorful Lucite above the salad bar. For me, given how similar in variety and quality the meats are to the competition’s, the seafood bar at Brazzaz is the tiebreaker, full of terrific stuff like crab salad, calamari salad, shrimp seviche, all the oysters on the half shell you’d want, and an array of decent maki sushi. When you add all this to the fresh vegetable combos, cheeses, smoked salmon, and cured meats offered, you’ve got a world-class feast without the gaúchos’ help.

Brazzaz has other features that set it apart. For one, waiters bring bowls of house-made sauces for the meat. Barbecue, horseradish, and tamarind–red wine with garlic sauces enhance many of the meats-beef and pork ribs, beef sirloin and filet, lamb leg and chops, even the chicken-which were juicier and more tender than at the rivals. Two: medallions of filet mignon come not only wrapped in bacon but also coated with cracked black pepper. And three: skewers of juicy roasted shrimp and skewers of roasted pineapple provide a refreshing interlude. I just wish that the pork loin, terrific early on one meal, hadn’t been so dry the second time around.

From a solid list featuring many South American bottles, a complex and rich 2002 Miolo Lotte 43, half merlot and half cabernet sauvignon ($61), from southern Brazil was another new adventure. Brazzaz offers refreshing papaya cream, too-optionally topped with crème de cassis-plus a good dense flan and fine homemade sorbets. (In truth, since desserts are à la carte and underwhelming at these places, my advice is to skip them.)

None of this churrascaria meat can quite equal the sublime experience of a prime aged porterhouse. But it’s fine meat nonetheless, and Lord knows, the prices are more than competitive-because there’s just no end to it until you give up and finally rest your chip with the red side up.  

BRAZZAZ539 North Dearborn Street. Complete dinner $48.50; salad bar only, $30; desserts $7 to $9.50. Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner nightly. Reservations: 312-595-9000.

FOGO DE CHÃO661 North LaSalle Street. Complete dinner $48.50; salad bar only, $20.50; desserts $6.75 to $8. Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner nightly. Reservations: 312-932-9330.

SAL & CARVÃO739 North Clark Street (also in Downers Grove, 630-512-0900, and Schaumburg, 847-925-0061). Complete dinner $48.50; salad bar only, $25; desserts $6 to $7.75. Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner nightly. Reservations: 312-932-1100.