Jungle Gem

When Tony Zarlenga first spotted Marla Maria Diaz, they were both on vacation in Greece. "I was by myself, and I noticed this girl on the other side of the boat who was laughing and having a good time," he remembers. "She had a wonderful smile, and I kept thinking to myself that I had to meet that girl. But I was kind of shy, and I couldn't find any excuse to meet her on the boat. Then we got off and had to go through customs; she was waved through, but I was stopped. And I thought, 'There she goes. She's lost to me, and I'll never see her again.'"

Luckily for us, however, the future owners of Cafe Brazil were destined to meet less than an hour later. "I had planned to stay at this campground several miles from the dock, but when I got there, it was too expensive," Tony explains. "I asked the man running the place, 'Do you have anything cheaper, because I can't afford this.' And he points and says, 'That girl over there, it's too much for her, too, so maybe you can share a site.' And it was her! And I tell you, I was in heaven."

That was 28 years ago. For the past 25 years, the Zarlengas have been married; for the last nine, they've been sending Denver diners straight to heaven with their flavorful Brazilian food. "It's all Marla," Tony enthuses, obviously still smitten with the woman. "She does the prep and handles the supervision of all the food, and she makes the sauces and the stews. And I help, too, by doing a little of the cooking--and a lot of times you can find me in the dining room, checking on things. But then when she comes out and smiles at the customers, well, she still has that smile."

The smile comes naturally. The cooking Marla learned while growing up in Colombia before moving on to Milan to work as an au pair. Tony, who spent most of his childhood in Naples, was a chef in Luganno, Switzerland, when he met Marla. After they married, they toured the States, including Colorado, and Tony wound up getting a job at Chez Paul in Chicago. But they never forgot how much they'd loved Denver, and so when a friend was moving here from Chicago in 1979, the Zarlengas helped him move--and never looked back. "It was so beautiful and serene here," Tony says. "We just felt like it would be the most wonderful place to live and that it would never feel like work while we were in such a beautiful place."

But they still had to make a living, so Tony went to work for Chateau Pyrenees and later helped Noel Cunningham open Strings. In 1986, Pat Bowlen and a group of celebrity investors started two restaurants in Hawaii; they hired Tony to join them. "That was a fun four years," Tony says. "Sort of like an extended honeymoon. But we knew we wanted to open our own place, and so we came back."

Still, the couple was nervous about working so closely together. "It was mostly me who was terrified," Tony says. "Because when you're working separately, that gives you some space apart, and I had worked for couples in restaurants where it was frightening to see what they went through, with all the stresses and problems that come up, and it can be very hard on two people who start out loving each other. But we were in love with Colorado, too, and we wanted to make this work."

They found a small storefront on Navajo Street that had been home to several restaurants since it was built in 1939. "We still wonder to this day if we should move to a bigger place," says Tony. "But we like having quality control." As a compromise, a few years ago the Zarlengas tore out the storage room to add more space for tables, and that's helped. While it's still almost impossible to get into Cafe Brazil on the weekends without reservations, weekdays can be slow. "People these days, they seem to want fancier dining rooms and more exciting decor," Tony adds. "Yes, we are busy on the weekends, but I think people are going to the hipper spots during the week, maybe."

It's hard to imagine any place looking hipper than this, though. The brightly painted turquoise-and-pink exterior is matched by the fiesta-style atmosphere inside, where Brazilian baubles hang from the ceiling. The dishes also arrive with adornments: the freshest, most colorful ingredients available. The only thing more stunning than each dish's appearance is its taste. "It's all about Marla," Tony explains. "It's her food."

Although Marla's native Colombia is on the opposite side of South America from Brazil--and borders a different ocean--the two countries share a common love of seafood and chiles, both of which are put to good use at Cafe Brazil. For example, the starter of lula frita ($10.95), fried calamari, came with an herbed tomato sauce that had just the right amount of chile spark to give the squid some zing without overpowering it. This dish--a 1999 Best of Denver award winner--brought enough perfectly flour-dusted, golden-fried, greaseless calamari ringlets to serve at least four as a starter.

You don't need much more as a starter, since all the entree orders include salad in a zesty mango dressing or a wonderful black-bean soup. More like a thin stew, the soup boasted an ideal balance of liquid and beans, with flecks of chiles and a fiery salsa on the side that could be used to fire up the already spicy brew. A basket of arepas--a Colombian cake made from a cooked-corn flour mixed with salt and water and fried on a griddle--and moist banana bread arrived with the soup, and the soothing breads were just what we needed to cool our tongues.

But that was only a brief respite, because the main courses also packed plenty of heat. For instance, the peixe de angola ($15.95), a dish of shrimp and bacalhau, or dried salt cod, also contained the malagueta pepper, an Amazon relative of the habanero, which is one of the hottest peppers going. The cod had been reconstituted in a coconut cream sauce, and the fish's saltiness mixed with the toasted coconut and shallots for an unbelievably rich and appealing combination. The large shrimp had also released their juices into the mix, and garlic and tomatoes added depth. All in all, this was one killer dish, served with the usual Cafe Brazil accompaniments of impeccably cooked, herb-infused rice and a melange of steamed and sauteed vegetables that ringed the plate like a crown.

Another crown adorned the pernambuco ($15.95), six huge sea scallops that also benefited from their sautee in coconut milk. The scallops had been cooked until barely done, which kept their exteriors from drying out and left the interiors a little smooshy--and also retained that fresh, fresh taste.

This time Kaffir lime leaves provided the flavor impact, with shallots and garlic making just minor appearances.

Although the entree portions were beyond generous, the dessert selections sounded so intriguing we couldn't pass them up. Both were tortes ($5.25) of sorts, one with mango and the other with lulo, a hairy Colombian fruit that's similar to kiwi but has a more lime-like taste. The mango version was delicious, exotic and not too rich; the lulo had a bitter edge. (Marla says she tries not to use too much sugar in her desserts, but sometimes the lulo needs more.)

On a return visit we focused on the menu's most exotic offerings--starting with the palmito ($9.95), hearts of palm drenched in a buttery white-wine cream sauce that had been topped with a bechamel sauce made with pecorino and romano cheeses. It was a heart attack on a plate, but oooh, what a way to go. Our other starter, camaro Brazil ($9.95), was much less rich but no less flavorful, with large shrimp sauteed in white wine and then set adrift on a sea of spicy black-bean sauce that was reminiscent of the soup.

Which we slurped up again, this time skipping the salads. But for our entrees, we went with the complete unknown. Feijoada completa ($13.95) is Brazil's national dish, a stew traditionally consisting of smoked meats, dried beef, tongue and sausages. Cafe Brazil remained true to the original except for the tongue; the stew was served with the standard sides of rice, fried bananas, collard greens and orange slices, as well as farofa, a Brazilian condiment that's made with tapioca flour, palm oil, onions and malagueta chiles. The server at Cafe Brazil told us that all of the sides were supposed to be added to the meaty mix, and we obeyed, with wonderful results: The augmented stew was a potent combination of smokiness, citrus and chiles, with the slightly sugary bananas offering an extra tropical boost.

Our other entree, the fruit-based calena ($16.95), featured mango and passion fruit that had been cooked down into a sauce sparked by cilantro, green onions and tomatoes, then used to simmer shrimp and scallops. This was the least piquant of the dishes we ate at Cafe Brazil, and it proved that the kitchen didn't need to rely on chiles to spice up the taste.

And the Zarlengas don't seem to require any additional spice for their relationship, either. "Oh, he can be sweet, but he can be the devil, too," says Marla. "We get into those little fights, but we still always make up. And then we get back to work."

Cafe Brazil, 3611 Navajo Street, 303-480-1877. Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.


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