Gonzalez’s grill is something of an olfactory magnet. The Brazil native tells me that sometimes drivers idle near the intersection and suddenly find themselves hungry. “A lot of people come up and say, ‘Man, I was stopped at a red light and I could smell it.’ I saw the smoke and had to come and try it.’
My introduction to Fire Pit came not from smoke signals along the Pike, but from a text by Rudy Zamora-Herrera, chef and owner of El Papi Real Street Tacos in Camp Springs, Maryland. For those who do not have a solid understanding of Maryland geography, Camp Springs is a long far from Rockville. I would later learn that Zamora-Herrera worked out of a second location in Pike Kitchen and traveled regularly to Rockville, occasionally spotting the Fire Pit truck during his trips. He, like others before him, ultimately could not resist.
Zamora-Herrera sent me photos of his visit, including a photo of Gonzalez at the grill, the wood smoke so thick I could barely see the gaucho’s face. Zamora-Herrera then sent me a photo of her spread: containers of prime rib, black beans, white rice and these pieces of sirloin, called picanha, with an outer layer of semi-melted fat that helps keep the meat moist and tasty. If I could have transported myself to Rockville at that moment, I would have.
However, my first visit to the Fire Pit didn’t come until almost two months later, on a scorching July day, when the mercury was just a few degrees shy of the century mark. It was the kind of day when no one should be standing in front of hot coals, much less surrounded by the urban heat islands of Rockville Pike, which reduce all living creatures to puddles. But Gonzalez was there, tending to the meat and relying on a single fan in the outside corner of his truck to keep it cool — and to keep the flies away. The guy knows how to suffer for his job.
His particular trade is southern Brazilian churrasco, a style of barbecue specializing in picanha, a cut more common in Brazil than in the United States. The very name of the cut rings a bell: translated into English, picanha means “rump” or “rum steak,” carved from the rear of the beef. Picanha has a thick fatty cap, which Gonzalez trims before searing the entire cut on the grill to give it a nice crust. He’ll slice the picanha, then toss the bites into a grill basket. If you don’t tell it what temperature you want, you will get your medium picanha.
I got my picanha medium, if only because I didn’t know I had the option of requesting the meat a shade or two pinker. Never mind. Seasoned only with coarse sea salt – and I mean rude — Black Angus beef relies on its meaty side, complemented by smoke, to seduce you. Crispy, juicy and soft in every way, picanha can be dipped in a mayonnaise-based pit sauce, but I rarely took advantage of the condiment. Meat, like Texas barbecue, doesn’t need it. In fact, the sauce detracts from the elemental nature of the picanha. Every ingredient and every technique counts here: the meat, the trimmings, the salt, the charcoal, the grilling method. Gonzalez succeeds in everything.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Gonzalez is originally from Porto Alegre, capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and the same city where Fogo de Chão opened his first restaurant. It is not a coincidence. It was in Rio Grande do Sul that the gaucho traditions of previous centuries were transformed and elevated into an identity. Gonzalez grew up with gaucho culture and churrasco. They are, as he tells me, part of his DNA. He and his mother, Gladis Leorato, moved to the Washington, D.C., area about 20 years ago, after a difficult divorce. Gonzalez was only 14 years old and he quickly found work doing lawn care. He eventually opened his own landscaping business.
But he never stopped thinking about Brazilian barbecue or opening his own shop. Finally, last year, he set about making that dream come true, with the help of his mother and his wife, Fabiana Redondo Gonzalez. It had a custom-built rig in Texas; obtained permits; and found a great spot in the Golden Arcade mall, where the only other restaurant is Yuan Fu Vegetarian, which apparently doesn’t view Fire Pit as a mortal enemy disfigured by its own lust for animal protein. The two companies have a somewhat complementary relationship, Gonzalez says. Sometimes when a car stops, half of the passengers head towards Yuan Fu, the other half towards Fire Pit.
You will usually find Leorato working on the front window of the truck. She will take your order; his son will prepare it. The Fire Pit menu is short, sweet and simple. There are four meat options: pork ribs, spare ribs, chicken and picanha, all of which you can order fresh off the grill or slide into an eight-inch Italian sub roll with melted mozzarella, arugula, stone sauce and chopped vegetables drizzled with vinaigrette. The smokiness of the meat is powerful enough to cut through the fat and acid of the sandwich’s condiments and toppings, which do what they’re supposed to do: add depth and contrast to the main ingredient, without the harm.
But truth be told, I prefer pure barbecue. Like picanha, prime rib is seasoned only with coarse sea salt, but unlike sirloin cap, the bones are first cooked for hours in a smokehouse, which Gonzalez built himself, before be finished on charcoal in the truck. Short ribs are designed for those who enjoy the pleasures of the flesh: once the bones are removed, the beef separates into thick, gooey strands, while the meat, salt, fat and smoke meld into something larger than the components.
Chicken and pork ribs are marinated before being grilled, and as such they land with more force and refinement than grilled beef. The chicken and I, in particular, became fast friends. I like the way its two-bite pieces, the dry spices still clinging to the flesh, complement the smokiness with bolder notes, including garlic and onion powders. I could eat this chicken every day with sides of white jasmine rice or Gonzalez’s black beans, each flavored with the sweet tang of garlic. I even developed a taste for Brazil’s favorite farofa, a toasted cassava flour dish whose sandy consistency requires every last molecule of melted bacon fat.
Less than a year into his new venture, Gonzalez is already planning a second location at the upcoming Solaire Social food hall in downtown Silver Spring. And why not? His version of churrasco fits modern life better than those expensive Brazilian steakhouses and their endless parades of all-you-can-eat meat. Fire Pit is laid back. It’s affordable. It doesn’t challenge you to eat like a 16th century royal.
Brazilian barbecue with fire pit
804 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Maryland; 301-789-8709. Order online at toasttab.com.
Hours: from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.
Prices: From $1 to $16.90 for all menu items. Meats can also be ordered by the pound.