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When it comes to charm, Cafe Brazil is the Rio thing

Legend has it that the first owner actually was Brazilian," our waiter muses as he admires the caramel-colored crema on top of our post-dinner espressos. "He left town after a year and a half because he couldn't find fresh mangoes in the state of Colorado."

This is my aha moment, my last question finally -- blissfully -- answered. Our meal at Cafe Brazil has been my best dining experience in Colorado since I moved back to the Front Range a year and a half ago, a journey into another family's universe so utterly charming that I'm ready to give up all of my earthly belongings and move right into this restaurant in northwest Denver. But until the waiter's observation, I haven't been able to shake one nagging thought: Despite its name, Cafe Brazil is not Brazilian.

During a stint in the Southern Hemisphere five years ago, I hit Rio after months of living in Argentina and immediately started gorging on pao di queijo -- balls of fluffy bread filled with cheese -- and thick slabs of juicy filet cut straight from a skewer, downing glass after glass of tropical fruit juices and basically saturating myself in a fresh, vibrant culinary culture that I was starving for after months of heavy, Italian-influenced cuisine. But I found none of these things at Cafe Brazil.

Mauricio Zorrilla and Tony Zarlenga create a world of flavors at Cafe Brazil.
Mark Manger
Mauricio Zorrilla and Tony Zarlenga create a world of flavors at Cafe Brazil.

Location Info

Map

Cafe Brazil

4408 Lowell Blvd.
Denver, CO 80211

Category: Restaurant > Brazilian

Region: Northwest Denver

Even Cafe Brazil's dining room, while done in primary colors as vibrant as traditional Brazilian cooking and overlaid with a soundtrack of samba, didn't take me back to the sexy beach lounges overlooking the Atlantic. Rather than the glittering favelas of the hills above Rio, I found myself nostalgic for outdoor markets in the Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires, for the coffee shops of Santiago's Barrio Bellavista -- places filled with brightly painted houses, impossibly crammed together like a surrealist painting somehow existing in the three-dimensional world.

Over firm Castelvetrano olives, fluffy tortilla Espanola and slices of lomo embuchado, the salty cured pork loin imported from Madrid, my dining companions and I reminisced about Spain and Colombia and Chile -- without once mentioning our travels to the vast, Portuguese-speaking nation on South America's east coast. And so I began to wonder why the restaurant that's been charming Denver diners for eighteen years now has the word "Brazil" in its name at all. Cafe Brazil's menu may claim roots in the seafood-rich state of Bahia, but it actually proffers continental South American fare with obvious European flourishes, as Spanish phrases creep in among the Portuguese just as pecorino and penne mix with palm oil and prawns.

That's not to say that Cafe Brazil displays no Brazilian influence at all. There's a fairly textbook xim xim, for instance, with chunks of chicken breast and grilled shrimp swimming in coconut milk and bright-orange dende oil, topped with cashews and packing a punch with ginger. Feijoada, the hearty black bean stew made with tenderloin and various types of cured pork that is Brazil's national dish, is on the menu, too. Although Cafe Brazil's rendition is less meaty than the versions I ate in Rio and I found no evidence of the usual tongue, it's served the traditional way, over rice with a pinch of farofa, coarse manioc flour that serves as garnish on many Brazilian meals. Still, it's telling that as Mauricio Zorrilla, one of the owners, pronounced the name of the dish, he let it roll off his tongue with a hard Spanish j. Turns out that's because he's originally from Colombia, as is his aunt, Marla Zarlenga.

In fact, many of the tastiest offerings on the menu are Colombian dishes with a Brazilian touch. The Peixe de Angola, for example, with Malagueta chiles tossed into the creamy fish stew made with sweet and spicy coconut milk and lime. More Colombian still are the crispy, sweet fried bananas gracing many plates and the Cazuela Colombiana -- a savory stew of tomato and chicken breast and prawns. And then there's the killer dulce de leche ice cream, creamy caramel gelato topped with espresso that precisely imitates the flavor of a candy that comes from Marla and Mauricio's native country.

But the menu sometimes strays far from the northern beaches of South America, detours that reflect the origins of Marla's husband, Tony Zarlenga, who's from Italy. The grilled manchego is unapologetically Mediterranean: stretchy Spanish cheese, grilled until lightly crispy on the outside, doused in creamy, garlicky pesto. A meat and cheese platter offered one night as a special spans the globe, with cured cuts of sausage from Spain and Uruguay piled next to sheep's-milk cheese from Italy and, inexplicably, Greek dolmades. Another special, this one an entree, brings a rack of Argentine lamb, succulent and pungent from three days of marinating in mint, garlic and hot peppers, topped with tart apricot sauce: It's delicious, if slightly overcooked. Desserts, too, run the international gamut, from a tart, cheesecake-like Key lime pie -- not impossible to find in South America, but decidedly Floridian in origin -- to baci semifreddo, a traditional Italian chocolate-hazelnut dessert that's like a cross between custard and ice cream, melting on the tongue after the gelatinous first bite.

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