Many Americans fondly remember food from their childhood -- a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Wonder Bread for lunch, macaroni and cheese for dinner. But those aren't the comfort foods of my youth. Spending seven of my first nine years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, gave me a very different concept of comfort food. Our live-in housekeeper and cook, Congida, made giant pots of feijoada, a black-bean stew prepared with pork, beef or both, which she'd serve up over mounds of white rice.
We ate it at every meal, never tiring of the flavorful dish. For breakfast, Congida would sometimes fry an egg sunny side up, and I'd break the yolk atop the rice-and-bean mixture before mixing it all together in a glorious, delicious mess.
So instead of Jif and strawberry Smucker's, white rice with fried egg and feijoada are the flavors that take me back to my childhood. Over the past couple of years, since raising the vegetarian flag, I haven't been able to enjoy the feijoada my mother makes (she uses smoked sausage to get that authentic Brazilian flavor). In fact, as far as I know, there's only one place in town where you can get vegetarian feijoada: Cafe Brazil, at 4408 Lowell Boulevard.
Just stepping inside the restaurant is a quick cultural trip. The walls are painted bold primary colors and adorned with traditional Brazilian artwork. It's a popular place, and busy, but you should still count on taking your time, enjoying the atmosphere and soaking up the smells and the sounds. (In this way, it's like the bustling city of Rio.) If you're in a hurry, this isn't the spot for dinner. But if you have time for a leisurely look at the drink menu -- which includes caipirinhas as well as an astonishing array of rum flights -- and an even more leisurely look at the dinner menu, then Cafe Brazil is the place for you.
The dining room is usually packed with returning diners, some of whom might not have stopped by in several years and some of whom are Cafe Brazil regulars. On my recent visit, I sat near a table of (mostly roly-poly, mostly out-of-town) businessmen, who were listening to a local proudly showing off his knowledge of the menu, the servers and the owners. (One of his table-mates attempted to order a Captain Morgan mixed drink and was soon schooled in several higher-quality spiced rums to atone for the lack of pirate-themed beverages in the building.) At another nearby table sat five middle-aged women meeting up, a la Sex and the City, to gossip and eat.
Cafe Brazil serves its food on black matte dishes, which helps the colors pop on the plate. It certainly worked with a special appetizer offered that night: Titled Plato do Colorado, it featured Haystack goat cheese, grilled and topped with a Palisade-peach chutney with crunchy, slightly bitter pomegranate seeds ($10.95). I followed this with a mango-cucumber-yogurt soup that was deceptively hot; slices of jalapeno and raw red onion lurked in the cool yogurt mix, the flavors popping just like the colors.
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The main event, of course, was the Feijoada da Marla ($15.95), described on the menu as "a healthy stew of black beans, potatoes and carrots topped with green onions and cilantro, served with a traditional plate of rice, fried bananas, farofa, collard greens, orange slices and aji of campana." The two pinches of farofa arranged on either side of the rice brought back some memories. I was never that fond of the toasted manioc flour mixture, but my brother used to heap handfuls of it atop his feijoada. The collard greens could be mixed in to add some bitterness, while the bananas were crispy and sweet.
But the real test was the feijoada itself. I spooned some over the rice, squeezed an orange slice over the mixture and took a bite. The beans were firm, tasting of garlic and a slight hint of chili powder, and the taste was close to the feijoada of my childhood -- closer than anything I've tasted since going veg. Still, it was missing a critical component: the smoky, fatty taste of pork and beef. The dish was good, but it wasn't Congida good.
I'm positive that had I ordered the Feijoada Completa, I'd have been transported back to my childhood table. Alas, my dietary restrictions prohibited me from taking that step -- but I did finish every last bite of the Feijoada de Marla.
I'm still tweaking my own feijoada recipe; one of these days I'll get it right. But until then, Cafe Brazil could be the closest I'll get to a fully vegetarian yet authentic-tasting version of this personal comfort food. And I'm looking forward to returning with my immediate family and taking pleasure in their enjoyment of the traditional dish...complete with meat.