(Originally posted at http://mangelorange.wordpress.com/200... -- soon I will start with pictures, if they come out any good.)
Sinuous melodies of bossa nova, guitar and voice, battling with the scent of palm oil and coconut.
She delivered a powerful note; I stared; I couldn’t help it. She got embarrassed and headed for the kitchen; I called out, “Don’t stop!”
Welcome to Friday evening at Rio Brasil Café, a tiny, hidden storefront in an anonymous strip mall in Palms. People wander in and out, affectionate, informal greetings pour out in Portuguese and English, there’s none of the “hello my name is Jane and I will be your server tonight” nonsense.
We walk in with three bottles of cachaça, the white spirit of Brazil that is like rum’s older brother. Glasses appear and one of the bottles disappears to the back, where we hear a blender whirring, turning the middle-of-the-road stuff into alcoholic batidas with frozen grapes, or with strawberry and banana and cherry. Salgadinhos — fried snacks — come out: deep-fried cheese balls, baked pies with cheese baked in, shrimp croquettes, chicken croquettes. A beaker of malagueta chile sauce comes out — fiery but rich and naturally sweet.
As the cachaça worked its magic, I discovered that I could actually understand just about all of the Portuguese being spoken and could translate the foods. This, in retrospect, should not have been surprising, since I can count Spanish, French, some Catalan and some Italian amongst my lingustic conquests, but it did make me feel more at home.
Food came out. First out was moqueca de palmitas, hearts of palm cooked in a sauce of dendê (palm) oil, coconut milk, peppers, onions, peppers. I love hearts of palm and despite being cooked, these still had some snap. The sauce was powerfully flavoured, so not much was needed. It was served with buttery rice.
Next up was feijoada, the national dish of Brazil. Smoky black beans with sausage and various pork and beef parts (trotters, knees, dried meat, etc.). I have eaten my share of feijoada in Newark’s Ironbound and I have to say this was, to borrow a phrase from our brethren Down East, finestkind. Were I to go alone to Rio Brazil, I would have feijoada. It was served traditionally, which is to say with more of that delicious rice, farofa (toasted yuca flour, very nutty-tasting), couve (collard greens) and orange slices.
Third was bobó de camarão, or “silliness with shrimp”, a brightly-coloured dish of very fresh, springy large prawns coated in a velvety sauce made of yuca and coconut milk, with chopped cilantro brightening the dish and the flavour. Keep the rice to the last and then use it to soak up the sauce, which is very rich. (Miles Clement, in the L.A. Times, said it looks like coconut curry and he is right on, but the sauce is thicker than a Thai curry.)
We also had escondidinho (”something hidden”). The thing hidden in this case was some of the house-made carne seca, or dried beef, hidden in a casserole of mashed yuca and topped with cheese. (”What kind of cheese?” “Monterey Jack. We can’t get the Brazilian cheese here.”) I loved the carne seca; I was not so sure about the mashed yuca, because it was ringing my poi bell pretty hard and, well. It was very flavourful though (unlike most poi); my objections were really textural, so take my complaint with a grain of salt. I did, however, appreciate the salad that came with it, because I felt a little under-vegetabled and the vinaigrette dressing really punched right through the starchiness of the yuca.
Four of us split two desserts; a pudim de coco and a mousse de maracujá, which look exactly like what they are: coconut pudding (topped with summer berry compote) and passion-fruit mousse. The coconut pudding was delicious, rich like everyone’s dream flan, but it was the mousse that stole my heart. Surprisingly elegantly-plated (in a small, bias-cut glass, on a decorative paper), with fresh passion fruit pulp in the centre, I am ashamed to say I ate most of it. I couldn’t help it. I love passion fruit (except for things that say they’re passion fruit and are not, like iced tea in every restaurant in the state).
Décor is pretty sparse. A few tables, some bikinis (for sale) on mannequins on the wall, a few pictures, a plant or two. It doesn’t matter, or it won’t matter after a drink or two. Prices are good — $12-$15 on the main courses, which are pretty large portions.
Service is friendly and slow. We showed up a little after 8 and didn’t leave until 11.30. By the time we were done, I was drawing maps to Beverage Warehouse in Culver City for another guy who had to know where the Germana cachaça came from and listening to a happy memory of “the best cachaça” from Minas Gerais. Don’t go here when you’re in a rush. Every Brazilian I’ve ever met has been a master at the art of living and having a good time, and why rush through a good time? Luciene and her friends and relatives will treat you like family, so act like family, go with the flow and eat what she’s got ready. It’ll be good.
This little slice of Rio, with its amazingly good home-cooking, its bright flavours, its welcoming atmosphere, deserves to be hopping… but it isn’t. Go enjoy this before it’s gone. The painfully trendy bars full of hipsters will be around forever; the see-and-be-seen restaurants will endure, because this is L.A., and we love to see and be seen — but you can do that any night. Take a night off from networking and go on a relaxing evening vacation in your own town. Bring a bottle of cachaça, share it, hang out for a few hours, watch some soccer, listen to some soulful music.
Thanks to Street Gourmet LA for the introductions and the cachaça.
Rio Brasil Café
3300 Overland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(Note: The sign doesn’t say “Rio Brasil Café”. It’s in the minimall on the corner of Overland and Rose. If you see Rice Chinese Restaurant, a cleaner’s, a liquor store and a barbershop you know you’re in the right plaza.)