Cafe Brasil is a bright and comfy setting for authentic homestyle cooking
By Richard Foss
Cafe Brasil 11736 W. Washington Blvd., Culver West (310) 391-1216 cafe-brasil.com
To say that a restaurant has a sophisticated atmosphere and cuisine is usually a compliment, but that’s not what the word always meant. It used to be that something sophisticated was not genuine, but had been tampered with or adulterated. It’s obvious how the word evolved, because now a sophisticated person or cuisine has connections to many cultures or ideas.
Pure expressions of culture are the opposite of sophisticated, and might be called rustic or authentic. While they may follow a traditional path, unsophisticated cooking and art often has an undeniable energy.
As an example I offer Cafe Brasil, a casual cafe built into a motel on Washington Boulevard. It looks a lot like some tropical roadhouse from outside, its shaded patio rimmed with window boxes full of colorful flowers. It’s even more colorful inside, where mismatched furniture is set amid brightly painted walls festooned with a cheerful clutter of pictures and paintings. The geometry of these decorations is haphazard and might drive someone with OCD nuts, but others will find it charming.
The Brazilian food at Cafe Brasil is different than the pricey churrascarias that specialize in skewers of meat carved at your table — it’s cafe fare, with a counter for ordering followed by table service, and most meals priced below $15. Here you’ll find homestyle cooking that includes breakfasts, sandwiches, snack pastries and more substantial pastas, sautés and grilled items.
My two friends and I were curious about some of the flavors and ordered appetizers of crab cakes and a fried pastry called a pastel. We didn’t know that everything just comes when it’s ready, unless you are specific about wanting the appetizers first. I recommend ordering drinks and appetizers when you arrive, then returning to the counter to order mains. The service here is quick, so you won’t wait long.
The crab cakes were unlike most that you’d get in L.A. Instead of pan-fried with a shake of peppery seasoning, these had about equal parts crab and binder, with mild seasoning, and had apparently been briefly deep-fried. A tiny bit bland by themselves, they were better with a squeeze of lemon or a dip in the house-made tartar sauce, and really hit the spot with lemon and the house-made hot sauce (keep some water or beer handy).
The pastel was an impressive pastry that looked like a giant crisp wonton, and like wontons there was much more crust than filling — an excuse to eat delicious crispy dough. There was a bit of mildly seasoned beef in there, and an onion, tomato and herb salsa on the side.
The dinners that arrived were massive. My companions had ordered a plate of lamb chops and a bowl of a pork and black bean stew called feijoada; I had a daily special of fresh Mexican grouper. The portion of protein in each was moderate, but as each of these was served with a bowl of soup, rice, black beans and salsa, we weren’t going to leave hungry. This is the way most of the world outside of America eats — enough meat and fish to provide flavor, and plenty of vegetables to add variety.
The smallest portion of meat was the lamb chop plate, which had three medium-size chops — enough to enjoy while alternating bites with the soup, rice, salsa and fried plantains. The chops had been mildly seasoned — Brazilians like to taste the meat rather than the spices — and came out medium-rare, as requested. I wish there’d been more to share.
The fish had been given a more elaborate treatment thanks to some time in a marinade that included soy sauce, citrus, garlic and pepper. Soy sauce has nativized in Brazil, which has the largest Japanese community outside Japan as well as substantial numbers of Chinese and Koreans. They use soy very well, as this enhanced the fish without overwhelming it. Check the specials board before ordering, and consider the fresh seafood — based on this experience, they’re good at cooking it.
The feijoada comes as an assemble-it-yourself entree, with a bowl of stew, some rice and a small mound of toasted cassava flour called farofa. Newcomers usually try a spoonful of farofa to see what it is, and always spit it out because nobody really wants to eat toasted flour by itself. The idea is to mix a little of the rice into the stew, and then sprinkle farofa just before you dig in.
That toasted flour adds appealing flavor and texture to the rich, slightly smoky bean and pork stew. So does a spoonful of the frizzled collard greens that come on the side. Another thing that is always served on the side is orange slices, and nibbling these between bites of the thick stew has the effect of rebooting your palate. Feijoada is considered the national dish of Brazil, and if you really want to understand the cuisine you must try it at least once.
The beer and wine list is not extensive but fits the place; the wine pours are generous, though into tumbler-like glasses that might alienate wine snobs. There’s also sangria and low-alcohol versions of Brazilian cocktails.
Cafe Brasil is such an expat hangout that on a recent visit a woman at the next table addressed me in Portuguese, assuming that I would be able to understand her. They are also friendly toward culinary tourists like me who want a taste of the real Brazil, and I suspect that you will get a warm welcome too.