Pig in a poke

Disturbing news hit the papers the day after Thanksgiving. The hog market collapsed. "Hog Market Collapses on Glut of Animals," read one headline. "Swine prices at the farm are at their lowest level in 27 years," said one report. Farmers are shipping a record 2.2 million hogs weekly, stretching slaughterhouses to the limit, "and there is no way to stop the flow," warned one newspaper.

"This is a bloodbath," said a University of Illinois swine specialist.
The sentence following the bloodbath quote stated that the price of hogs in Omaha was 16.5 cents per pound the day before Thanksgiving, "down 63 percent from a similar date in 1997." The report went on to say that some desperate farmers are taking out newspaper ads offering free pigs.

This is unfortunate timing for Universal Pictures Chairman Casey Silver. Silver was forced to resign the Monday after Thanksgiving following the dismal holiday weekend performance of Babe: Pig in the City. The piglet pic, which reportedly cost over $90 million to make, took in just a little over $8 million through the long Thanksgiving holiday stretch. It's on track to rake in less than $25 million in domestic ticket sales.

Those free pigs from the rising swine bloodbath might have kept Universal's production costs down--and Silver's head off Universal's executive service platter--had the hog market collapsed around that similar date in 1997 instead of the day before Thanksgiving in 1998.

The plight of the nation's 122,000 hog farmers, whose number will reportedly drop by one-fifth before summer, made me think this might be a time to be a turkey farmer--this despite the fact that pigs are more or less the Rhodes scholars of the livestock world while turkeys pretty much occupy the Kato Kaelin slot.

But then I read that President Clinton pardoned a turkey on the White House lawn the same day the hog market collapsed. This not only delayed the inevitable day when the bird would have its organs transplanted with seasoned bread cubes, but it stirred up turkey sympathies among the electorate. This act of presidential compassion made me wonder why the commander in chief pardoned a turkey instead of all of the indicted and convicted felons cluttering his executive orbit.

News reports say the big winners in the pig price plunge are meat packers, supermarkets, and restaurants. Another swine expert from another Midwestern university estimated this troika will reap roughly $4 billion extra from hogs this year than they did at a similar time in 1997--all at the expense of farmers and consumers.

And I believed this as I entered Texas de Brazil in Addison. This new Brazilian espeto corrido churrascaria, or continuous-service grill house, located in the space that was previously a Coco Pazzo, was inspired by gauchos, South American cowboys who cook meat over a campfire while herding livestock on the open South American plains. Espeto corrido churrascaria means that men in jeans and blue vested shirts wander the dining room toting skewers the size of picks from one of King Kong's cocktails upon which a hunk of meat is impaled. (No authentic gauchos wearing baggy pantaloons, scarves, and hand-tooled leather belts and boots here, as there is at Dallas' other Brazilian restaurant, Fogo de Ch‹o. But then again, Texas de Brazil's propaganda claims that the restaurant is Brazilian-inspired, not necessarily Brazilian).

Pieces of meat, slow-roasted over an open flame on a special grill, are offered and sliced from the skewered slabs right at your table. You help the servers by gripping the meat with little tongs provided at your table. When finished, the men in jeans and vests pinch the black handles of their wicked-looking slicing blades to the top of the skewer with clenched middle fingers. The knifepoint aims downward. Their other hand grips a wooden drip pan at the bottom of the skewer, leading me to wonder how often those middle fingers surrender their clutch, sending that blade careening toward the heads of guests.

What has all this got to do with the price of hogs in Illinois? Plenty. Texas de Brazil has a bounty of pig offerings: pork ribs, pork loin, pork with Parmesan, pork sausage. That's four pork offerings out of a selection of maybe 10 grilled meat items--or 40 percent. By my calculations, a 67 percent price plunge in 40 percent of this menu's offerings should equal a pretty healthy dent in menu prices.

Yet those at Texas de Brazil--$29.95 per person for dinner, $19.95 per person at lunch--haven't dipped a bit since it opened around the beginning of October. And other than the pork loin, which was moist, tender and well-seasoned, everything was parched. Pork sausage was hard, coarse, and dry. Pork ribs were like thickly barked sticks aged in a kindling pile. Parmesan pork was little more than burlap-textured meat disks with edges gilded by grated Parmesan.

There's no excuse for barely edible, arid pork. There's a hog glut, for God's sake. Nervous farmers are taking out newspaper ads offering free pigs. And just as those free pigs could have saved Silver's Hollywood job, they could also have saved TDB's menu by providing the kitchen with opportunities for endless pork-grilling trial and error.

Still, given that desiccated meat seems to be a hallmark of Brazilian churrascaria (virtually every cut was dry at Fogo de Chao), TDB did have its share of juicy, tasty meat slices. It fact, some of it was so flooded with moisture, a bloodbath ensued on the plate. Flank steak was red rare, richly seasoned and drooling pink.

The sirloin was of two minds. A slice from the south side of the slab was juicy and rich, while a shaving from the northeast quadrant was dry with a livery taste. Leg of lamb was potently seasoned with salt, pepper, and rosemary that drew out and smoothed its sweet, rich flavor into silk.

But desiccation attacked again. Filet mignon was a leathery knot. Picanha, a cut of beef from the top butt of the loin region that is a favorite among Brazilians, was tough, though the garlic seasoning pulled it through a bit. Chicken legs were moist, but the coating of bread crumbs, chives, sage, mint, basil, rosemary, soy sauce, paprika, onions, and garlic seemed like it was trying hard to spell Shake 'n Bake.

Texas de Brazil offers lots more than just meat, however. Its well-done wine list--perhaps too heavy in Chards and Cabs--includes coded taste and body indicators for each wine. There's also a short history of wine and descriptions of the wine-producing countries and states represented. A single Brazilian wine is plugged into the list--Marcus James Cabernet Sauvignon and it's...well, let's just say it's better than the pork.

Plus, the proffered foods here can be compacted into your body cavity "until you beg for mercy" as the TDB brochure says. So maybe the lack of hog-glut price cuts is justified. There's a salad bar with lots of fresh salad bar doodads such as tender hearts of palm and those marinated runt corn-on-the-cob things that look like straightened sea horses. Begging for mercy by overstuffing with TDB's articulately firm and lively fresh tabbouleh would not be a bad way to self-inflict pain.

And it's a real treat to find black olives in a restaurant that don't taste like a lick on the bottom of a soap dish. These were lightly marinated and seasoned and had rich, ripe olive flavors. There was even a cooked black bean substance that didn't make you think of wallpapering the half-bath on first taste. Resiliently tender beans weren't pasty, and chunks of beef and sausage gave it rich heartiness and a little smoke. Skip the rubbery mozzarella globules though.

The place even has seafood. A man pushes a marble-topped wooden cart around and offers smoked salmon. The salmon itself is fine: clean and moist with a heady, but not overbearing, wisp of smoke.

But it's the artistic compositions rendered on the plate that are the real attraction. A single, narrow roll of fleshy red fish with wavering folds was placed in the center of the plate. Capers and chopped red onions were billowed on either side. Above this two thin slices of hard-boiled egg were scrunched together like a pair of crossing eyes--or a stretched navel. A dollop of mayonnaise sauce with olives was placed on one side of this rendering, while a halved lemon occupied the other.

On another visit, two narrow rolls of salmon were arranged in a "V" with a hard-boiled egg slice poked by the point. Pearl onions were clustered in the interior of the letter, while the lemon and the sauce again filled the space near the rim of the plate.

Abstractions fill the walls too. Thickly paint-layered canvases (done by managing partner Salim Asrawi's aunt) are rich in smears of cobalt blue, as is the TDB logo. The shade also invests the tables, which hold large cobalt-blue water glasses, and the bar is lit with cobalt-blue chandeliers. On the bar television during one visit, a welterweight boxing match played out with one fighter sporting headgear and shorts in cobalt blue.

Asrawi says the color cools and brightens the dining room, which is rich in warm yellows and browns. Marble tile, hardwood floors, and simple wooden tables and chairs compose its rustic chic. Torches and a fountain gussy up the entrance. It's rich and attractive, though not lavished with a Babe: Pig in the City-type budget--which is good, because living high on the hog during a pig glut would irrevocably baffle those Midwestern swine specialists.

Texas de Brazil Grill House.
15101 Addison Road, Addison, (972) 385-1000. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Open for dinner Sunday-Thursday 5-10:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 5-11 p.m. $$$$

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