Gonzalez’s grill is something of an olfactory magnet. The Brazilian native tells me that sometimes drivers will be idling near the intersection and suddenly find themselves getting hungry. “A lot of people come and say, ‘Man, I was stopped at the traffic light and I could smell it. I saw the smoke, and I had to come try it.’”
My introduction to Fire Pit came not from smoke signals along the Pike, but from a text from Rudy Zamora-Herrera, the chef and owner of El Papi Real Street Tacos in Camp Springs, Md. For those without a solid grasp of Maryland geography, Camp Springs is a long way from Rockville. I would later learn that Zamora-Herrera was working on a second location in Pike Kitchen and making runs to Rockville on the regular, occasionally catching glimpses of the Fire Pit truck during his drives. He, like others before him, finally couldn’t resist.
Zamora-Herrera sent me photos of his visit, including a shot of Gonzalez at the grill, the wood smoke so thick I could barely see the gaucho’s face. Zamora-Herrera then sent me a picture of his spread: containers of beef ribs, black beans, white rice and these morsels of sirloin cap, called picanha, with an outer layer of semi-rendered fat that helps keep the meat moist and flavorful. If I could have transported myself to Rockville that instant, I would have.
My first visit to Fire Pit, however, wouldn’t occur until nearly two months later, on a scorchingly hot day in July, when the mercury was just a few degrees short of the century mark. It was the kind of day when no one should be standing over glowing coals, let alone surrounded by the urban heat islands of Rockville Pike, which reduce all living creatures to puddles of water. But there Gonzalez was, tending meats and relying on a single fan in the outdoor corner of his truck to keep him cool — and to keep the flies at bay. The guy knows how to suffer for his craft.
His particular craft is southern Brazilian churrasco, a style of barbecue that specializes in picanha, a cut more common to Brazil than to the United States. The cut’s very name tells you something: Translated into English, picanha means “rump steak” or “rump cap,” carved from the hind end of the steer. Picanha boasts a thick fat cap, which Gonzalez trims before searing the whole cut on the grill to give it a good crust. He’ll slice the picanha, then throw the bite-size portions into a grill basket. If you don’t tell him what temperature you desire, you’ll get your picanha medium.
I got my picanha medium, if only because I didn’t realize I had the option to request the meat a shade or two pinker. No matter. Seasoned with only coarse sea salt — and I do mean coarse — the Black Angus beef relies on its own meatiness, supplemented with smoke, to seduce you. Crusty, juicy and chewy in all the right ways, the picanha can be dipped into a mayo-based pit sauce, but I rarely took advantage of the condiment. The meat, like Texas barbecue, doesn’t need it. The sauce, in fact, detracts from the elemental nature of picanha. Every ingredient and every technique matters here: the meat, the trimming, the salt, the charcoal, the grill method. Gonzalez nails it all.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn Gonzalez hails from Porto Alegre, capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and the same city where Fogo de Chão opened its first restaurant. This is no coincidence. Rio Grande do Sul is where the hardscrabble gaucho traditions of previous centuries have been 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 mom, Gladis Leorato, moved to the D.C. area about 20 years ago, after she went through a difficult divorce. Gonzalez was just 14 years old, and he quickly found work in lawn care. He eventually opened his own landscaping business.
But he never stopped thinking about Brazilian barbecue, or opening a shop of his own. Finally, last year, he set about fulfilling this dream, with the help of his mom and his wife, Fabiana Redondo Gonzalez. He had a rig custom-built in Texas; secured the permits; and found an ideal spot in the Golden Arcade Shopping Center, 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 proteins. The two businesses have something of a complementary relationship, Gonzalez says. Sometimes when a car pulls up, half the passengers will head to Yuan Fu, the other half to Fire Pit.
You’ll usually find Leorato working the front window at the truck. She’ll take your order; her son will prepare it. The menu at Fire Pit is short, sweet and straightforward. There are four meat options: pork ribs, short ribs, chicken and picanha, all of which you can order fresh from the grill or have slipped into an eight-inch Italian sub roll with melted mozzarella, arugula, pit sauce and chopped vegetables drizzled with vinaigrette. The smokiness of the meat is forceful enough to cut through the fat and acid of the sandwich’s condiments and garnishes, which do what they’re supposed to do: add depth and contrast to the main ingredient, not detract from it.
But truth be told, I prefer the barbecue straight. Like the picanha, the beef short ribs are seasoned only with coarse sea salt, but unlike the sirloin cap, the bones are first cooked for hours in a commissary smoker, which Gonzalez built himself, before they’re finished over charcoal on the truck. The short ribs are designed for those who appreciate the pleasures of the flesh: With the bones removed, the beef pulls apart in thick, gooey strands, as the meat, salt, fat and smoke meld into something greater than the component parts.
The chicken and pork ribs are marinated before hitting the grill, and as such, they land with more force and refinement than the grilled beef. The chicken and I, in particular, have become fast friends. I love the way its two-bite pieces, the dry spices still clinging to the flesh, supplement the smoke with more assertive notes, including garlic and onion powders. I could eat that chicken daily with Gonzalez’s sides of white jasmine rice or black beans, each scented with the gentle pungency of garlic. I have even developed a taste for that Brazilian favorite farofa, a dish of toasted cassava flour whose sandy consistency needs every last molecule of rendered bacon fat.
Less than a year into his new venture, Gonzalez is already planning a second location at the forthcoming Solaire Social food hall in downtown Silver Spring. And why not? His version of churrasco aligns better with modern life than those pricey Brazilian steakhouses and their endless parades of all-you-can-eat meat. Fire Pit is casual. It’s affordable. It doesn’t dare you to eat like a 16th-century royal.
Fire Pit Brazilian Barbecue
804 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md.; 301-789-8709. Order online at toasttab.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Prices: $1 to $16.90 for all items on the menu. Meats can also be ordered by the pound.