Editor's note: Here's the closing chapter of our series exploring the Portuguese and Brazilian Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, thanks to a loaner ride in a Buick Verano. Our destinations, and these articles, come purely from Serious Eats editorial.
In New York, some of my favorite restaurants are the postage-stamp sized sort, those whose cramped tables and low ceilings help foster (or even force) the sensation of intimacy. But in Newark, where real estate doesn't come at such a premium and the city seems to tick at slightly less breakneck pace, there's room to spread out. And there are few places that take the idea of a spread as far as Fernandes Steakhouse.
Housed in a massive freestanding building that once held a bank off the Ironbound's main drag, Fernandes is basically the exact opposite of the cramped, dimly-lit haunts I frequent in the city. A cavernous vaulted foyer with Capulet balconies and wooden barrels gives way to a sprawling two-story restaurant, lavished with plants, Spanish tiles, and faux stone walls. It's tastefully, completely unironically over-the-top, which is only a contradiction in terms until you've been there.
Pinning down the restaurant's exact heritage is tricky; the manager I spoke to describes Fernandes as a "Portuguese/Spanish steakhouse with Brazilian rodizio." Despite an almost comically expansive menu of meat and seafood dishes (including some interesting combinations like sauteed pork cubes with clams, potato cubes, pickles, wine, cilantro, and "Spanish sauce"), most people come to Fernandes for the Rodizio ($29.75, "!!! No Sharing/No Doggy Bags !!!"), in which men wielding large skewers of grilled meats wander from table to table, slicing off fresh portions of meat until the diner is physically unable to consume another calorie.
Nearly everything at Fernandes is large, from the tables to the multi-generational groups that hunker down for loud, leisurely dinners. The rodizio menu follows suit, offering close to 20 meats, including filet mignon wrapped in bacon, turkey with bacon, chunky Brazilian sausages, short ribs, prime rib, ribeye, beef shish kebabs, pork loin, ham, skirt steak, garlic steak, cheese steak, chicken wings, legs, hearts, and picanha, the prized top sirloin cap (or, more literally, "rump cap").
Everything gets the same treatment: impaled on giant skewers, seasoned with salt and garlic, then grilled over charcoal in a long open kitchen. Every order of rodizio comes with french fries, white rice, black beans, yucca, vinaigrette, and fried bananas as sides. Completing the "we're-not-in-New-York-City-anymore" motif is the complimentary salad bar, with vague mayo-based salads and grilled vegetables, none of which are worth the valuable stomach real estate.
Once you order the rodizio, things move quickly: skewer after skewer arrives, and if you don't eat quickly, you may end up with a pile of unidentifiable meat scraps on your plate. Some of the selections were better than others: the picanha, which comes capped with a layer of fat that melts into the meat while it cooks, was indeed the star, with a craggy, salty exterior and juicy beef within.
While the waiter asked how I preferred my meat cooked before the parade started, the reality was that everything came out to a nearly identical medium, which worked better for some cuts (skirt steak) than others (prime rib). Surprise hits included the deeply flavorful chicken hearts and the turkey, whose smoky-salty bacon cocoon stood out from the procession of red meat.
It's a feast of excess, performed ritually across both floors by the grave-mannered waitstaff, who proffer and slice with a minimum of fuss. Their demeanor, combined with the gaudy décor and the stupefying physical effect of surfeit animal fat, renders (no pun intended) the entire meal slightly absurd.
Was it the best meat I've ever had? No—with hundreds of covers to attend to daily, the restaurant doesn't lavish individual attention on every slice off those skewers, and some simply fall flat. But it was one of the best dining out adventures I've had in some time—the kind of delightfully ridiculous shared experience that created a totally organic intimacy across the table. And in the shadows of a city sometimes too cruel, that's worth the trip alone.