Mouth of the Border

Cafe Brazil has always been a curveball to throw at someone from out of town. It's particularly fun when visitors assume there's not much to eat in Denver other than big haunches of elk--and then they stumble into the turquoise-and-salmon-pink cinder-block interior of this tiny northwest Denver bistro.

Order them a Guanabana jack juice with a side of hearts of palm, served on a black plate. Cowtown? Ha.

So when I recently secured an out-of-town guest to confound and impress, I made reservations at Cafe Brazil. I had to--there are all of ten tables in the place and nowhere but the sidewalk to kill time until you're seated.

Everything was set, and yet I felt a lingering anxiety. It had been a good two years since I last ate at Cafe Brazil, and in that time I had spent nearly a month in Portugal, Brazil's stern parent country. I had eaten enough Portuguese food to choke a horse, and so I was concerned. Why? Well, here are some of my highly personal observations of Portugal's cuisine:

*The Portuguese national dish is bacalhau--dried, salted codfish. The Portuguese boast they can prepare bacalhau 365 different ways. All 365 taste like salty lumps of putrifying Kleenex swimming in a glaze of oil.

*There is no way to order a cup of coffee in Portugal. You can get um pingo (a drop, literally) or a milky, weak mass. I taught myself to say "a big cup with NOTHING in it but STRONG coffee," but all this order got me was a surprised look and two BIG, HOT cups with a STRONG amount of NOTHING in them.

*Portuguese country markets are full of wonderful things like live chickens and miles of sausages, as well as the ripest, most perfect produce I have ever seen. None of the fruits or vegetables, however, ever seem to make it into a restaurant kitchen. Instead, I encountered green threads swimming in most soups, which one farmer informed me came from "carbages." This translated to a cross between cabbage and garbage, which was linguistically and gastronomically accurate.

*Supposedly, there is a terrific workingman's chicken available on every Portuguese street corner. You just ask the cook for frango asado. But what you get is whatever is in the pot that night, and a lot of the time what was in my pot included a tired old hoof that never belonged to any chicken.

In case you're wondering, I didn't whine all the way through the trip. At times I wined. A Portuguese ham shop, gorgeously decorated with pig hindquarters and garlands of bay leaves, was the underpinning of an afternoon to remember. (If you ever go there, make it a week.) They poured us white porcelain mugs of vinho verde--the wine that was being harvested outside as we tippled inside--and kept bringing plates of what tasted like peasant's prosciutto.

So if my worst fears were realized and Cafe Brazil had indeed embraced its Portuguese roots, I hoped to salvage the evening by pigging out on ham.

As it turned out, I never had to put my emergency plan into action. Our waitress appeared wearing shiny blue hot pants, platform sneakers, a nose ring and fashionable shadows beneath her eyes. (In Portugal, girls wear wool suits until they are married. Then they wear shapeless black garments and carry a cane.) A waft of pepper scent made me sneeze, and someone turned up the carioca on the sound system. We were off!

While summer lasts, ceviche ($7.95), though not on the menu, may still be offered as a Cafe Brazil special; get it if you can. Our order netted tender, citrus-soaked chunks of grouper surrounded by a pile of red and green peppers, onions and cilantro, with none of the soupiness of the Mexican version. We balanced all this cold crunchiness with our old standby, palmito ($7.95)--perfect little circles of hearts of palm in a buttery white-wine sauce liberally dosed with what the menu calls "parmegian cheese." The appetizer tasted like a tropically sophisticated version of the Creamy Artichoke Dip served at bridal showers everywhere. With our starters came a steaming basket of banana bread and tiny, melt-in-your-mouth corn pancakes. I saw people smashing the two together in one bite, so I tried it. It made sense.

Almost as much as the Cafe's black-bean soup, which made me realize that my own black-bean soup suffers from a terrible case of overkill. I cram in too many beans beneath, too much sour cream and salsa on top. At Cafe Brazil, a lot of the bowl is taken up by an intense bean liquor. With or without actual beans, the broth's deep flavor hit my bloodstream like a cold remedy and tasted like security.

So what was with the salad? It came with a mango dressing so awesome you could drink it from a shot glass but otherwise was basic diner: pale iceberg lettuce, an anemic tomato slice and a purple, cabbage-related shred.

I forgot all about that disappointment, though, the minute I saw La Calena ($15.95). A large bowl of huge prawns and sea scallops, this exotic stew was flavored with passion fruit and mango and served under a blanket of carrots and orangey-red peppers. It was gorgeous--like sunset in a black bowl--and everyone kept reaching across the table to steal more of the sloppy, tangy rice underneath.

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