Epicurious Eating: Brazil by the Bay
Beware of the malaguetas
Published Thursday, 18-Feb-2010 in issue 1156
There are no bay views at Brazil by the Bay. No allusion of grassy lawns or sandy shorelines either — just generic low-rise industrial structures on each side as the Sports Arena aims it bland posterior at the front windows from across the street.
Aesthetically charm-less inside and out, the small backstreet eatery nonetheless sticks out of this non-commercial precinct like a desert oasis calling to deprived nomads with its promise of food, drink and greenery. Bright-blue awnings impart a rare dot of color, serving as a draw to both the restaurant and a modest adjoining market selling groceries and wares from Brazil. An interior doorway connects the two.
In 2006, the family-owned operation expanded to snazzier digs in Hillcrest with Brazil on the Hill, which operated on the corner of University and Third avenues. But high rent and mixed reviews caused the venture to fizzle within a year. So the proprietors retreated to their now seven-year-old Brazil by the Bay, into the bowels of whatever this hidden Twilight Zone in Loma Portal is technically called.
Nearly all of the dishes are authentically Brazilian, with the exception of Caesar salad, burgers and tri-tip sandwiches. Adhere to the menu’s appetizer and lunch sections, and they are especially inexpensive.
Visiting with a friend after dropping off his car for a brake job at a nearby private mechanic, we kicked off with a “unit” of kibe (or quibe) for only $2.25. The darkly fried log of ground beef, wheat and onions is as popular a snack in Rio de Janeiro as street tacos are in Tijuana — only they’re not as pretty. Beneath its craggy exterior, the meat was dry and finely minced; its flavor similar to herby falafel due to the fact that Arab countries also claim the recipe. I couldn’t tell for sure, but there might have been cinnamon at play, too.
Risoles are traditional Brazilian appetizers of soft dough normally encasing chicken and cheese, and then deep fried. Here, they’re filled with hearts of palm, onions and negligible tomatoes. Sadly the dairy is omitted, as we learned from the lone waitress on duty that their bland creamy centers are achieved from corn starch interplaying with water exuded by the fillers.
Flakier and escaping the deep fryers was another dough-based appetizer called pastel, which is similar to a lightly baked phyllo dessert except that it’s filled with mozzarella, tomatoes and flecks of fresh oregano. But like everything else we had ordered up to this point, the dish lacked edge – that is until my friend discovered a condiment bowl of miniature cherry-red malagueta peppers sitting idly at the bar. The dramatic flavor revolution we craved had begun.
Packed in vinegar, the chilies are about the size of an adult’s baby fingernail, offering a fantastic near-fruity essence that turns wildly dangerous if you eat more than a speck. They rank as the most widely used hot peppers in Brazil and quite possibly rival the capsicum levels of Thai chilies. We applied fractional pieces to every bite of our remaining appetizers, and then to our ensuing sandwiches. If you want to lessen the burn while still capturing their addicting and lingering flavor, just dribble some of the vinegar onto your food a few drops at a time and ease right into nirvana.
We continued with two hearty sandwiches for less than $7 apiece: Grilled portabella and a slightly untraditional bauru that swaps the traditional roast beef and pickled cucumbers for ham and fried egg. It did, however, contain the customary additions of mozzarella, tomato and lettuce on a decent French bun. But without the malagueta bowl in our possession, I’m not sure if either sandwich would have tasted particularly exceptional.
Farofa is a side dish that costs 75 cents – coarse manioc flour that looks and tastes like dried, seasoned breadcrumbs. The Brazilians dip pieces of cooked meat and fish into it as a sort of last-minute breading. We didn’t have any suitable dippers, so we basically ended up playing in it with our spoons instead.
If you come for dinner, prices inch up several dollars but stay below the $15 mark. Entrees include steak Rechaud served on a flaming grill with farofa and roasted garlic; Brazilian-style chicken pot pie; and feijoada, a slow simmer of pork, beef and black beans considered the national dish of Brazil.
The restaurant lacks frill. Everything (during lunch at least) is served in paper and plastic baskets. The napkins are chintzy and sharing “plates” weren’t automatically provided. But then again, it would seem extraordinarily strange if linens, chinaware and so much as semi-formal wait service were held up to such an utter lack of scenery that fails to depict a bay, a culture or anything remotely stylish for that matter.