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CHOW Tour: North America: Follow along with Chowhound cofounder Jim Leff as he crisscrosses North America on a monumental road trip in search of hyperdeliciousness. You never know where he might turn up...

Follow along with Chowhound cofounder Jim Leff as he crisscrosses North America on a monumental road trip in search of hyperdeliciousness. You never know where he might turn up...

North America Dispatch #44: Brazilian Buffetification (but Great Bacon)

Framingham, Massachusetts

Back to the center of the universe, Magic Oven. I need to explain that Brazilian bakeries don’t just make sweets. They do plenty of pastries, cakes, breads, and puddings, but also salgadinhos (little salty hors d’oeuvres), sandwiches, and juices.

First, here are some dramatic photos of a pao de queijo (cheese roll), as promised in report 42:

It’s important to arrive early, when things are fresh. I wish you could taste this crisp risole de frango, filled with gobs of cheesy creamy chickeny goodness:

Nice discovery: a bright yellow pudding called mingau de milho verde, made from green corn. It’s irresistible, but that’s true of most Brazilian puddings.

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I had such a great experience in the Cheese Shop of Wellesley (61 Central Street, Wellesley, Massachusetts; 781-237-0916), a.k.a. Wasik’s Cheese Shop, a short ride from Framingham. Stupendous selection; true-believing, generous-taste-offering, raucously funny counter people; and lots of cool non-cheese food items.

They gave me, as a virgin customer, a jar of their luxurious, cheese-friendly Yankee Chutney, which contains sugar, peaches, vinegar, raisins, red pepper, apples, lemon juice, spices, onion, and salt.

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I had to return to Sichuan Gourmet (see last report) and try more things. This time I brought along a friend who’s a native Mandarin speaker. Hear his patient but futile attempts to improve my pronunciation as we await our dishes: MP3.

Here’s what we had:

Chengdu spicy dumpling.

Steamed bacon with fresh garlic spicy sauce.

Bacon detail.

Cold spicy diced rabbit (on the bone).

Gangou dry fish fillet (a special).

The dumpling was primo, and the bacon was beyond primo, showing exquisite knifework.

The deal here is that there is one master chef (also co-owner, I believe) dividing his time between two locations (the other one is at (502 Boston Road, Billerica, Massachusetts; 978-670-7339). His touch is unmistakable—he did the knifework on the bacon, he preps the Szechuan made-ahead cold items, like beef tendon. His touch is also palpable in simple items produced according to formula, like dan dan noodles. But if you order dishes made in the moment with lots of on-the-fly decision making, you are at the mercy of a busy kitchen full of chefs of varying quality. The rabbit was a bit dull, and the fish fillet was downright icky. I ordered the cumin lamb a second time tonight, and it lacked je ne sais quoi.

So the thing to do is stick with cold Szechuan items and simpler prepared stuff, and work to develop enough of a relationship with the restaurant that you can find out where the top chef is at any given time … and try to persuade him to cook your meal. This is a difficult thing to achieve, but possible. It’s the work one does to get the best from any good Chinese restaurant, where each order can be like a round of wok roulette.

I’ve looked up the place on Chowhound, and see that opinions vary wildly. It’s clearly a result of chef roulette (plus some folks who are unaccustomed to the wildly oily/spicy nature of real Szechuan food).

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Meanwhile, nothing but disappointment on the Brazil front. In previous visits, just about every Brazilian eatery in town looked, smelled, and/or tasted really good. This time, it’s all changed. There are no more little homey places. Everything’s turning to shiny buffets. Which, come to think of it, is a progression I’ve noticed before in Brazilian immigrant communities. Talented, caring chefs struggle to make a living putting out quality, but the average Brazilian immigrant seems most interested in filling up cheaply. Sadly, this seems the case in Framingham, which is all of a sudden rife with buffets churning out flairless food.

I kept asking around, walking around, driving around, trying to uncover a holdout or two. But really, this is all it’s about now: a bunch of very similar buffets. Typical was the last one I hit, Casa Brasil:

As usual with buffets, eating here was a highly impersonal experience, with diners moping slowly from tray to tray, drab worker bees replenishing, and a gruff counterman taking the money. There’s little warmth, and the Brazilians (both customers and workers) seem withered like old hothouse flowers. Disconnected from their beautiful home, they file, zombielike, through plastic buffets, which are quite busy three meals per day.

Preparing to leave town, I rail against the downturn in Brazilian food quality in this podcast: MP3.