Ethnic restaurant cultures spring up in the cracks and along the margins, in places almost no one notices. They sprout from home-based catering companies and doughnut franchises, where, if you know what to ask for, you can score a bowl of pho or arroz caldo.
In Richmond a nascent Brazilian food scene is just beginning to surface, thanks to the steady trickle of new Brazilian immigrants to West Contra Costa. Thays Bell of the Brazilian Consulate in San Francisco says there may be twelve thousand Brazilians in Northern California, mostly from the central state of Goiás. Recent posts on the food message board Chowhound have pinpointed some authentic dishes seeping out of West County, and the recent arrival of a Brazilian priest to lead Portuguese Masses at St. John the Baptist Church in El Cerrito may be some kind of watershed: With God on board, can a churrascaria be far behind?
A place like Sabor Brazil in Richmond seems to serve as an antidote for homesickness. It's a combination store, snack shop, and hang space that feels like somebody's den, with a squashy, thick-armed sofa angled in front of a big-screen TV and a couple of idle karaoke mics. Brazilians hang out, watching videos cranked to carnaval volume, absorbed in their cell phones or trolling the little market, which is stocked with feijoada beans, cans of guaraná soda, and frozen blocks of fruit puree.
None of the pastries in Sabor Brazil's food case is labeled. You have to ask the counter girl, who's helpful in a lackadaisical way: "Chicken," she says, pointing to one. "Eggs. Beef with bread." But it's worth working through the language barrier to explore the daily assortment of ten or so salgadinhos, savory little pastries baked at home by a person the counter girl calls "some lady."
The stand-up cafeterias and snack shops known as lanchonetes are one of the great things about a Brazilian city like Rio. They're intensely social and democratic, places where customers in bikinis or business suits elbow up to cop a snack or a quick, cheap lunch. Many are open to the street: long glass cases filled with dozens of salgadinhos, everything from salt-cod puffs to pigs-in-blankets. Sabor Brazil offers a little of that flavor not bad, considering this bland block on the Richmond-El Cerrito border definitely isn't Rio, and these salgadinhos are sturdier than any street food likely to gloss your fingers in Brazil.
Sabor Brazil's coxinhas ("drumsticks" in Portuguese) are deep-fried, fig-shaped pastries packed with tomatoey shredded chicken, corn kernels, and pieces of green olive. The pastry itself was a different matter a bit too thick and doughy. Good, if you ignore the doughy casing. Same with turnover-shaped rizolis, which are filled with corn and damp Catupiry, the Brazilian cheese that falls somewhere between ricotta and Philly. Esfirras had a filling of finely shredded beef, tomato, and a wicked hint of spice. Americanos were like sausage rolls stuffed with smoky ham slices and gooey cheese. Muffin-shaped empadinhas revealed a delicious, warm, achiote-washed chicken filling.
Moist shredded chicken was at the heart of torta de frango, a slab of double-crust pie cut from a big foil baking pan and nuked. It was the tastiest and most satisfying of the empadinhas here, its chicken filling studded with vinegary hearts of palm and the ubiquitous corn, green olive, and tomato. A single piece made a satisfying lunch, especially when followed by a blended fruit drink.
Fortified with super-ripe bananas and condensed milk, the smoothie-like cremes seemed too sweet and rich, overpowering their fruit pulps like a snow cone buried under whipped cream. A fruit-only drink such as maracujá, frozen passionfruit pulp blended with sugar and orange juice, actually tasted like fruit: refreshing and a little tart.
Offerings change, but Sabor Brazil's sweets might include velvety, yolk-rich bolo a tasty yellow cake smeared with thin, Nutella-like chocolate icing. Keep your fingers crossed that the case will contain olhos de sogra, which look like dark eyes oozing creamy-colored goo (the name means "mother-in-law's eyes"). They look a tad grisly, though in fact they're nothing scarier than prunes stuffed with a meringue of coconut and sweetened condensed milk. The filling had the texture of macaroon batter: sticky, shockingly sweet, and way delicious.
If Sabor Brazil offers something resembling a lanchonete, Richmond's Mr. Pizza Man gives you the flavor of stick-to-the-ribs Brazilian home eats in a straight-up pizzeria atmosphere.
Located on a broad, quiet block near City Hall, it's the kind of delivery-driven pizza dive that wouldn't seem to offer any surprises; a place generating an endless stream of glossy clip-art fliers that end up dangling from your porch handrail, in the lurid colors and dripping fonts of the Monster Special and the Double Deal.
Look closer and you notice an entrée called Brasilian Marmitex, a daily-changing special with the heavy meats and carbs of a Brazilian midday meal in the heartland farm states. According to a posting on Chowhound, Marmitex is a brand of disposable food containers so ubiquitous in Brazil that the word is now synonymous with takeout and prepared foods. And the Brazilian-owned pizzeria is a fine old tradition in the East Bay Mario Righi bought Nino's Brazilian Restaurant and Pizzeria in Berkeley in 1988, and says his sales are fifty-fifty, Brazilian and pizza.
The staff at Mr. Pizza Man gave me the owner's first name only: Matias, and say a woman named Rosa cooks the daily Marmitex. One day it was bife acebalado, beef as borderline tough as your mom's Swiss steak, smeared with garlic, pepper, lemon, and so much salt the effect was spicy. It came with fried onions, a huge mound of buttery rice, moist pinto beans, and spaghetti smeared with pizza sauce and scallions. Another day it was breaded, fried catfish with the same bed of monster carbs.
This is strictly home cooking, and from a pretty burly home at that. Don't expect subtlety just solid eating, graced with futebol on the big screen, bottles of fiery malagueta peppers in alcohol on the tables, and the sight of Brazilians tucking in.
Saturday is the best day there's always feijoada, the traditional Saturday midday meal that makes any Brazilian feel Brazilian. The version here is particularly brawny: soupy black beans loaded up with hunks of spicy linguiça sausage, a scrap of pig's ear, and pieces of pork hock all quivery with fat and unctuous, pitted skin. It comes with shredded collards, raisin-flecked farofa (toasted cassava meal), and more buttery rice. Not much more than a curiosity now but give it time.
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