Thursday, January 29, 2009

What a Difference a Week Makes…

Our dear friend Tom told us that when we arrived in Albuquerque we needed to go to the Brazilian grill (whose name he could not remember) that was across from the bus station.In particular, Tom told us that this restaurant had one of the best salad bars he’d seen. We later learned that the name of the restaurant is Tucanos and this is one of the Churrasco (shoe-HAS-ko) steakhouses that have become popular in the United States. You may have seen these on the Food or Travel channels. Men dressed in faux gaucho costumes come to your table with skewers/swords of meat which they slice or serve at your table.

We had planned to have lunch at Tucanos. When having dinner with Chuck’s cousin Jack and his wife Linda, we learned that Jack would like to go back to Tuscanos someday. Without further ado, we made plans to meet them one day for lunch. Few photos exist for that lunch, although two are included in this blog. Chuck doesn’t hesitate to let me feel foolish while he photographs every plate of food. But he did hesitate about subjecting Jack and Linda to that experience. We enjoyed the food so much that Chuck and I decided that a repeat visit was in order. And so to paraphrase Dinah Washington: “What a Difference a Week Makes.”

First for the good. The salad bar is indeed extraordinary. At least fifteen feet long and laden on both sides. This could be – and is for some – a meal in itself. One side contains the regular green salad items: a large bowl of mixed lettuce, a plate of romaine hearts, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, green peppers, green sweet peas, kidney beans, sprouts, cheese, raw broccoli, green and black olives, marinated mozzarella balls, quail eggs, sundried tomatoes, Jalapeno peppers, pickles, pico de gallo, and other items.

Next to the salad items was a plate with salami, Swiss cheese, and a dry cured ham. At the end of the bar were the chafing dishes containing black beans, rice, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, roasted rosemary potatoes, mashed potatoes, a dish containing gravy with mushrooms and beef cubes, and a large tureen of soup (I think this was a vegetable beef, but I didn’t have any).

Continuing around, we find: a dish of Caesar salad, Brazilian Cole slaw, watermelon, mandarin oranges, cottage cheese, broccoli salad, marinated mixed salad (tomato, celery, red onion and cucumber), roasted red peppers, marinated cucumbers, Waldorf salad, hearts of palm, along with other items. Next came a station with marinated tomatoes and red onions, marinated mushrooms, pesto pasta salad, herb pasta salad, shrimp pasta salad, and a crab pasta salad. (Regarding the latter – this was made with fake crabmeat. Why bother?)

Now I approached the salad bar with two mental guidelines. First, I can fix lettuce salad at home so don’t bother with the greens and veggies. Second, food in chafing dishes usually suffers from steam fatigue. So, on both visits, I concentrated on the pasta salads with some additional items. The photo (left) illustrates a portion of my meal during the initial visit. Clockwise from the top are: sliced sirloin (we’ll revisit the meat later), sautĂ©ed greens, the roasted potatoes, and, in the center, marinated tomatoes and red onions.

Chuck’s plate shows: sliced sirloin, grilled pineapple, mixed vegetables, roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes (only Chuck), a sweet and spicy chicken thigh (not very spicy), fried cod with a mango syrup, a hot wing, and black beans.

Now Chuck and I have not eaten much beef – other than ground beef – since leaving the Midwest. Having been raised on corn fed beef, we thought the grass-grazed beef of the East Coast didn’t taste “right.” To both of our surprise, the beef on our first visit to Tucanos was wonderful. Served medium rare, it was juicy, tender, and full of good beef flavor. Not shown, but equally good, were the sirloin tips coated with garlic and parmesan cheese. So good that I devoured three servings. The cod with mango syrup was crisp fried and moist and flakey. The mango syrup gave an oriental taste to this offering.

Realizing that we didn’t have enough photos to illustrate the food (this was our excuse for a return visit), we decided to return this week. Hence, the title of this blog – what a difference a week makes. The salad bar foods were still excellent, and had we stopped there, we still would have had a satisfying meal.

But did we stop? No – we went on to the meat and fish, all of which were dry, chewy, and overcooked. And I mean all of them. The fish was dry, the sirloin tips were served well done, and the sirloin bordered on medium well. Chuck tried a piece of the turkey wrapped in bacon and, while it had a good smoky flavor from the bacon, it, too, was dry. So were my carnitas – fried bits of pork – as was the piece of fresh ham. On both visits we passed on the chicken hearts and on the dish of brisket which strongly resembled my mother’s pot roast.

This photo from top clockwise, shows my lunch today: heart of palm, herb pasta, shrimp pasta, fried banana, marinated tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, green and black olives, quail eggs, and, in the center, marinated mushrooms.

Chuck’s salad plate includes baby greens, dry cured ham, Swiss cheese, mashed potatoes (?), and, tucked under the corner of the greens, the herb pasta salad.

His lunch plate shows: mashed potatoes (again!), roasted potatoes, turkey wrapped in bacon, fried fish, sliced sirloin, a fried banana, and, under the potatoes, more fish.

A nice touch was that my order of iced tea included an extra carafe of tea and with Chuck’s order of water, an extra carafe of water. A small touch – but nice. Not nice was how they calculate the tip for you on the bottom of the bill with a dollar amount for tipping 18%, 20%, and 22%. Just tacky.

I can’t rate Tucanos because I don’t know which the true restaurant is. Is it the restaurant of our first visit or the restaurant of our second?

I’m not ready to try a third visit to find out.

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