Many New Mexico born Hispanics of my generation grew up watching not only American “shoot ’em up” Westerns featuring rugged cowboys, rowdy rustlers, round-ups and home on the range, but the Mexican equivalent–movies featuring the exploits of charros, the traditional cowboys of central and northern Mexico. My friends and I could only dream about overcoming marauding Indians, desperate rustlers and flooding rivers as we drove our cattle to the stockyards in Abilene just like our white hat wearing heroes.
It’s conceivable that in Brazil, cinematic exploits glamorized the equivalent to America’s cowboy–the gaucho, a South American cattle herder who tended his herds on the rich, verdant pampas. For generations the pampas is where the very best cattle herds in Brazil have been raised. Like American cowboys, gauchos had their version of the chuckwagon of the old West in which horses pulled a mobile kitchen from which they were fed during roundups…and similar to cowboys, gauchos became adept at preparing meals over an open fire. Gaucho rotisseries are renown for the delicious preparation of beef.
The gaucho style of grilling, called churrasco (roughly the Portuguese equivalent of “barbecue”), is today celebrated from Rio de Janeiro to Albuquerque in Brazilian steakhouses called churrascarias. In modern churrascarias, an entertaining and filling “rodizio” style buffet and service are provided. Servers come to your table with a skewer on which are speared several kinds of meat. Almost all rodizio courses are served sizzling right off that skewer and are sliced and plated right onto your table. Tucanos imports its grills from Caxias do Sul, Brazil. Skewers of meat rotate in the grills and are cooked from the top down.
Accommodating servers bring one meat after another until you say “nao obrigado“–no, thank you. Not literally. Each table includes a wooden “cue” which tells your servers where you stand. The green side indicates you want more selections brought to your table while the red side of the cue indicates you’re done. It’s a well-practiced process though it’s a real challenge to stop eating when you haven’t tried every available item. Seriously, this is a trencherman’s paradise, an all-you-can eat buffet that lives up to that designation.
When it comes to diplomatic coups, one of the least known for which President George Herbert Walker Bush is credited is the introduction to the United States of the popular Brazilian churrascaria (steakhouse) Fogo de Chão (literally Fire of the Ground). During a visit to São Paulo, Brazil, the 41st President of the United States was so impressed by the unique dining concept that he told the owners a restaurant like theirs would go over big in his home state of Texas where as in Brazil, beef is king. As one of the first churrascarias to open in the United States, the Dallas Fogo de Chao helped blaze the way for other churrascarias throughout the country.
In 2000, Albuquerque matriculated to the churrascaria dining craze when Tucanos opened its spacious restaurant on the corner of Central and First. Since that fateful day, Tucanos has launched its Brazilian grill concept in seven locations. Tucanos churrasco includes assorted breads, fried bananas, an unlimited salad festival and all churrasco offerings. The salad festival is fresh and abundant with hot and cold items that include stroganoff, mashed potatoes, black beans and rice and various fruits.
Just as the buffet is replete with fresh items, in 2023 Tucanos closed the restaurant for two months to undertake a $1.5 million remake..a refresh so to speak. The already sprawling restaurant is even more commodious with the removal of columns, giving the illusion of even more spaciousness than before. Grandeur and splendor were added in the form of art inspired by Rio De Janeiro on the ceiling and along the bar. The Dude-friendly patio is comfortable year-round with an overhead shelter, new air conditioning and heaters. It’s a transformation that places Tucanos in the top tier of Albuquerque restaurants in terms of ambiance.
Tucanos churrasco features an assortment of beef, poultry and pork selections sure to please any carnivore. Other selections include a daily seafood (Frutos do Mar) offering; legumes, seasonal grilled vegetables and grilled pineapple (abacaxi) which is used as a palate cleanser in between portions. For the dinner version of the churrasco, additional items are brought to your table. Not every selection will have you singing the praises of this restaurant. There are some selections that have absolutely captivated us–the linguica (a lightly spiced Brazilian sausage), the fresh ham served with pineapple and some of the barbecue and teriyaki flavored meats are absolutely delicious.
Surprisingly, Tucanos charges almost exactly half what you would pay for a similar meal in Las Vegas, Nevada. There’s a ten dollar difference between the lunch special (11AM – 3PM) and the full churrasco when additional selection are available. The meat carvers are typically Johnny-on-the-spot, however, when the restaurant is crowded (typically for the evening service), you might have to wait a bit for drink refills. Among the most popular libations for those of us who don’t imbibe adult beverages is a Brazilian lemonade–made with Brazilian lemons and prepared with condensed milk to give you a liquefied “key lime pie” sensation. This festive lemonade can be added onto with any of Tucanos pure fruit purees: mango, passion fruit, pineapple, guava raspberry, strawberry. It’s also bottomless.
By itself, the unlimited salad festival is worth the cost of the churrasco. Only in Las Vegas, Nevada will you find a salad bar with such assortment–and sprawl. Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world didn’t take as long as a trip around the salad bar. Of course, Magellan didn’t stop to gawk at the vast expanse of Albuquerque’s most varied and generous salad bar while trying to figure out how much “salad” you can eat while still gorging yourself on meat. Not that you can’t find meat on the salad bar. You can find beef stroganoff, lobster bisque, sushi, fruits and a dizzying array of items not usually categorized as salad ingredients. For a turophile like me, a trayful of blue cheese crumbles meant having a more traditional salad in addition to the unconventional items on display.
Vegetarians can probably have a go at the unlimited churrasco and still find plenty to enjoy. In addition to the non-meat items on the salad festival, a server will likely ferry skewers of legumes (grilled vegetables) to your table. While some carnivores seemed to eschew the legumes with the same facial expression they might have for a roach crawling up their arm, I found the legumes (zucchini, tomato, green pepper, onion) prepared very well. Just slightly caramelized, the onion was sweet, savory and delicious. It baffles me how so many diners dislike onions. It was my favorite of the garden bounty.
First to our table was a fusillade of meats: frango com parmesão (parmesan chicken). Parmesan is applied conservatively to give the chicken hints of light sharpness and nutty flavor. More assertive was the fringe picante (sweet and spicy chicken thigh) whose heat is discernible even to a volcano-eater like me. My favorite of the three (this won’t surprise you) is the coração de frango (Brazilian chicken hearts), bite-sized dark meat hearts with a slightly metallic, gamey flavor. Not pictured (probably because I devoured it quickly) is the Picanha (top sirloin). It’s the most popular cut of meat on the Churrasco and as good a steak as you’ll find at some chophouses.
The fraldinha (beef tender) is a cut of beef made up of part flank, part short loin, and part bottom sirloin. This beef cut is long and thin and is full of connective tissue and replete with marbling. That’s the reason meat is traditionally cut against the grain before it’s grilled. The caramelized edges were my favorite. The asado (marinated beef brisket) is presented as tendrils of beef with plenty of “bark.” You can’t beat abacaxi (grilled pineapple) as a palate cleanser in between all those meats. Grilling pineapple seems to bring out the complex sugars and flavors of pineapple.
There were two items on the salad festival I couldn’t resist trying: lobster bisque and sushi. I wasn’t necessarily craving either, but was curious as to whether they could possibly be good. The lobster bisque was a bit of a surprise. Expecting a salt bomb as you’d get from a can of Campbell’s soup, the lobster bisque is better than some I’ve had–even in New England (remember, I lived in the Boston area for two years). It was creamy and quite good though I didn’t discern any of the characteristic bits of lobster that make a good lobster bisque. The sushi was better than grocery store sushi, but not nearly as good as restaurant quality sushi.
One of my long-time Tucanos favorites is the mango cod, planks of cod laquered with a syrupy mango sauce. It’s long been debated whether or not sweets (or cheese) pairs well with fish. It’s been my experience that both sweet sauces and cheeses can work well with fish. The trick may be balance–not overdoing sweet ingredients or cheese. There’s a nice balance between sweet and tangy notes and the “not too fishy” cod with its flaky texture.
If there’s one sour note to a meal at Tucanos Brazilian Grill, it’s that the downtown area seems to be a magnet for the most downtrodden of Albuquerque’s citizenry. A walk from the parking structure to the restaurant is an attack on your olfactory senses (reminiscent of New Orleans). Tucanos is a respite.
Tucanos Brazilian Grill
110 Central, S.W.
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 27 September 2023
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Sausage, Chicken, Cod With Mango Sauce, Unlimited Salad Festival, Churrasco