By Jamie Swinnerton
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I have yet to become acclimated to the vastness of the American West. It's been almost five years since I left New York (the state), longer since I spent any significant amount of time in New York (the city), and still, my internal cartography remains keyed to East Coast measures of size and scale. To me, the Chrysler Building is big, its giant iron spike reaching almost incomprehensible heights, tickling cloud bellies, piercing the envelope of sky. People tell me the mountains out here are taller -- 14,000 feet, some of them. But I see those mountains all the time as I drive into Denver, and they don't seem that big. Some days I'm not so sure they weren't just painted on the horizon by Colorado tourism officials so that we'd all have something nice to look at.
Distance works the same way. I still measure my world in blocks, long and short. In Rochester, where I did most of my growing up, my neighborhood was the street I lived on and a block in either direction. In New York City, local was anything within ten long blocks' walking distance, which generally encompassed everything a fella needed to get by. You had your bodega for groceries and your other bodega for whatever stuff wasn't carried at the first. You had your local bar, your local coffee shop, your half-dozen local restaurants and delis, your local working girls, your local weed guy and your local Ukrainian-immigrant cable installer who could get you free porn channels for a hundred bucks cash. Having to travel outside the ten-block comfort zone meant going on a trip. And for someone living in, say, Bensonhurst, hauling it up to Manhattan was like visiting a foreign country. Like you should need a passport. And special shots.
But out here, everything is different. In the southeast 'burbs, my neighborhood is something like a thousand square blocks of mixed tract housing, strip malls and highway. "Local" is the entire metro area -- south to Littleton, east to Aurora, west to Lakewood and north for-friggin'-ever. Taking a jump up to Boulder is nothing: 45 minutes, give or take, depending on traffic. That's roughly the same time it takes to get from Rochester to Buffalo, a trip my parents have made maybe a dozen times total, even though their prodigal son lived there for years.
Onion Tropical: $4.25
Churrasco $10.25 (lunch), $16.95 (dinner)
So this vastness is still strange to me. And it was on my mind as I made my merry way out to Colorado Mills last week to eat at Tucanos Brazilian Grill, one of three links in the micro-chain owned and operated by Steve Oldham and his Lakewood-based International Restaurant Concepts Inc. I was thinking how five years ago, traveling this far would have felt like I was really going somewhere. How ten years ago, I would have packed an overnight bag. And even now, it seemed like a pretty goddamn long way to go for dinner -- like driving to Jersey City for sushi.
But as the mall lurched into view from the highway, as I took my exit and rolled into the massive commercial megalopolis, all that size and distance suddenly condensed. Like magic, I was again in a neighborhood (into which the massiveness of Colorado Mills is broken up), back on The Street (what the strip of restaurants and entertainment complexes where Tucanos sits is called).
Malls are black holes -- points of near- infinite commercial density in the consumer landscape that, by nature of their size and metaphoric weight, warp the fabric of their surrounding space. They exert an inescapable, attractive force, businesses and customers tumbling in, drawn by the gravitational pull of concentrated money. That's their evil, but it's also what makes them cozy and familiar. Walk into any shopping mall anywhere in America and you feel like you've seen it all before. You know right where the Cinnabon will be. No matter where you are, it's a little like coming home.
And the shopping is efficient, just as it was in the old neighborhood. Start at one end, down by Mad About Magnets and Spatula City, begin walking, and by the time you've passed Nothing But Nuts, stopped in at Widget World and made your way down to Let's Talk About Sox at the other end, you'll have found something to meet every human need. There's food, shelter, clothing, entertainment and expensive home electronics -- everything the modern consuming animal needs, without the old worries of what kind of warranty you're going to get buying a color TV out of the back of a van on 42nd Street.
What's more, the mall's black-hole effect can even compress time and space, folding nations and history together, drawing the world down into one hot, dense point. Visit a mall that's big enough (and if Colorado Mills is anything, it's big enough), and you can travel between countries in minutes -- breakfast at Wholly Crepe!, a pair of khakis at Dengue Fever Outfitters, a new pair of shoes at Mukluks R Us. I can easily imagine a future where the Big Mall is all there is. When Jillian's has stretched itself to encompass an entire universe of eatertainment thrills, when all memories of the mighty Mongol empire have been reduced in the popular consciousness to a blurb on the back of the menu at Genghis Grill and Brazil is no longer a nation, just an idea as translated by Tucanos.
"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.
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.
Chain restaurants -- especially those that are part of small, tightly controlled chains -- don't have to be bad, but they often are, just because they can be. Because nothing more than convenience, big portions and a bit of safe, sterile, escapist fun is required to put butts in the seats and keep the cash register ringing. With its appetizers, its desserts, its salad bar -- with everything but the churrasco -- Tucanos had the chance to rise above its location, above the expectation of getting exactly $16.95 worth of Rio de Janeiro in Lakewood, Colorado. But it never took that chance. In the end, it did only as much as the neighborhood demanded.