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"Come to Tucanos Brazilian Grill, where a dining experience rich in flavor and heritage awaits you. The Brazilian tradition of grilling, or CHURRASCO (shoe-HAS-ko), is a fusion of South American and European cultures. From its birth in the Pampas or grasslands of Brazil, to the sparkling beaches of Rio de Janeiro, Tucanos now extends this festive tradition to you." That's what it says right there on the menu: $16.95 for a Big Mall voyage to Rio, no passport required, no body-cavity search at customs.
But at least Oldham's a qualified tour guide who knew something about Brazil (and restaurants) before he launched this concept. After doing missionary work in that country, he became a businessman, then moved on to the exact opposite of squeezing the world into American shopping malls: He offered America to the world a slice at a time, opening Pizza Hut franchises from those festive Pampas to South America's sparkling shores. Returning to the States, he worked for the company that owns the Rodizio Grill chain of churrascariasbefore he decided to go it on his own with Tucanos. After the launch of the brand in Provo (at a mall) and a followup in Albuquerque (in the heart of the city's "downtown entertainment complex" -- essentially a mall without walls), Oldham opened his Colorado outpost last year, planting it right on The Street, where it stands analogy-to-analogy with Jillian's, Genghis Grill, Chili's, California Pizza Kitchen, a movie theater, the ESPN skate park and, of course, Cinnabon.
Onion Tropical: $4.25
Churrasco $10.25 (lunch), $16.95 (dinner)
Tucanos' setup is simple. You step into a brightly colored, spotlessly clean, open-plan dining room done up in pure ceramic-parrot chic. At the door, you're met by a smiling host or hostess who shows you to your table and hands you off to a server who brings a menu, takes a drink order and ostensibly will oversee your dining experience -- but then hands you off again to the meat server, who will actually be bringing food to you for the rest of the night, all of it impaled on giant skewers, all of it dripping with good old-fashioned Brazilian fun.
You can ignore most of Tucanos' menu, because the meat is all that matters. Forget the appetizers -- the "Onion Tropical" that's just another riff on the onion-blossom/bloomin'-onion/onion-flower archetype served at chain restaurants everywhere, the cheese-stuffed chipotle poppers, the nachos. They all come off like absent-minded additions to a board of fare that truly focuses on only one thing: churrasco. The meat is spit-roasted, with long racks of rolling skewers stacked over an open-flame grill that's attended by a single, tranquil line cook whose only responsibility is to babysit those racks and roll those skewers. Granted, this was a slow night at the churrascaria. Maybe the kid could really rock and roll when the house was packed, but I was willing to bet that if I hung out long enough, he'd just fall asleep.
One by one, my meat server -- who was significantly more active than the cook, knew his cuts by rote memorization and called them by their Braz names with an accent that sounded convincing to someone who'd never been within 500 miles of São Paulo -- brought the skewers to my table, carving slices of garlic-marinated lombo (pork loin), mild linguiça (Brazilian sausage) knotty with fat, and assado (brisket) roasted mid-rare and still juicy. He dropped thick slabs of fantastic brown-sugar-roasted pineapple right onto my plate; knocked whole chicken thighs off the spike with the back of his knife, offering first the crisp-skinned contra coxa in a spicy barbecue sauce, then a second round rubbed with garlic and rosemary. There was a maminha (sirloin tip) that came burnt, tough and flavored like salty charcoal, an offering of limp battered fish with a lame mango sauce, and a spooned-out portion of fried pork in a tomato-onion salsa that was nothing more than a poor attempt to get some mileage out of the previous night's leftovers.
Each table held a wooden peg painted green on one end, red on the other -- a "cue," according to Tucanos. If you wanted your server to lay on more meat, you kept the green side up; to stop him, you turned it to red. And while churrasco may not be the quickest or most efficient way to eat your meat, it's fun. Spending a couple of hours playing red light/green light with a man armed with three feet of pointy steel can really make the time fly, and no matter how long you sit, he's going to keep trotting out the meat as long as that peg is green side up. But for the impatient, there's always the bread plate that accompanies every churrasco entree -- including two quarters of crispy, sweet fried banana, a garden-variety dinner roll and a few cold, mealy Brazilian cheese puffs -- and endless trips to the "salad festival." The beautiful, curved salad bar is the centerpiece of the restaurant, an elegant spread of seventy, maybe eighty different objets de food, kept full and fresh but representing nothing more than what you'd expect to find at any giant shopping-mall salad bar. There's pasta salad, crab salad, fruit salad, pasta salad (again), some hot sides like out-of-the-bag mashed potatoes, black beans and rice, more pasta salad, some greens, a little pasta salad, and then a couple of international touches like marinated mozzarella, hearts of palm and quail eggs that just look silly and sad next to the garbanzo beans, pasta salad and bacon bits.
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