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Tough love

Disappointing meat from friendly staff at Gauchos
By BRIAN DUFF  |  May 21, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars
MEAT UPON MEAT: Also with sides.

Gauchos Churrascaria | 100 Commercial St, Portland | Mon-Sat 4-10 pm; Sun 11:30 am-9 pm | | Visa/MC/Amex/Disc | 207.774.9460
What would you pay to have a handsome young man wearing a sash around his hips anticipate your every need for about an hour? At Gauchos Churrascaria it goes for $30, and it comes with meat. Drinks are extra. A lot extra, actually. And drinks help.

If only that meat were better. But no one could complain about the staff at Gauchos. They are the key to the experience and the best part of the meal. We loved their Obama-rally multiculturality. Senior citizens and young people; white and mixed-race Americans; immigrants from Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America — they all worked together seamlessly. To envision the experience they orchestrate, imagine walking out the front door of an Old Country Buffet and heading due south until you arrive at a Hong Kong dim-sum parlor. About halfway, somewhere near Uruguay, you would pass a steakhouse. Gauchos, with its salad buffet, its team pacing the room with ever more food, and its meat upon meat, somehow manages to blend them all.

I suppose Brazil has a Midwest-equivalent somewhere north of Brasilia and south of the Amazon where people are a bit rounder and a lot more passive-aggressive. This must be their salad bar — bland, but oddly satisfying, with abundant mayonnaise and pineapple in weird places. These salads looked browner at the bar than they did back at our harbor-view table. The tomatoes were passably crisp, the potatoes were not grainy, and the dense cheese puff was genuinely good. The salad came with some grilled salmon served with a mustardy caper sauce that had nothing to be ashamed of.

Inevitably the meat came. Actually, you control it with a little coaster you turn from red to green and back. It comes skewered on long rods, carried by “gauchos” who cut from different sections depending on how well done you want it. Occasionally you must assist them with a little set of tongs. There were many varieties, and two were pretty good. The prime rib was pink, juicy, and enjoyable in the way casino prime rib always is. The lamb was cooked medium, but still tender and juicy with a nice char.

Other meat options disappointed. The sirloin was sort of tough and flavorless. The short ribs had been cooked too quickly and the fat had not been sufficiently rendered. The sausage was dry and salty. Both the ribs and the chicken legs were fatty but at least were properly cooked and had some flavor to them. Little chicken hearts seem like an interesting idea, but in reality are chewy and sort of tasteless. They were like a cross between a raisin and a football. The Brazilian steak sauce — sort of an herby oil more than anything else — did little to salvage these options.

The meal also came with sides that were not bad. The fried taro were more fry than taro, not that there is anything wrong with that. The sautéed plantain had an interesting salty-sweetness. Black beans had a pleasant spice and avoided sliminess. Desserts, which cost extra, were still a touch frozen when they arrived.

But I felt genuinely cared for when, in my meat-induced dizziness, I forgot what I had yet to try. My gaucho remembered immediately: it was the prime rib, which of course became my favorite. In embracing the theme of Gauchos, and performing their role so pleasantly, the staff nearly redeems the concept.

Still, in the end, when the surprisingly large bill came due, I had the same thought you might have when you go seeking a new "friend" wearing a sash: “I will never do that again.” But you always do. In fact, the whole experience inspired me to book a quick trip to Argentina, where such things are cheaper and generally higher quality. I am talking about the meat — what did you think I meant?

Brian Duff can be reached

  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Culture and Lifestyle , Food and Cooking , Foods ,  More more >
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