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.
Next to arrive was the Feijoada Completa ($12.95), known importantly as Brazil's National Dish.
"How tweet zee fezhwada?" a waiter asked our official out-of-towner.
"You know how eat zee fezhwada?"
She didn't, but his explanation didn't shed much light. As near as we could figure out, you took bits of sausage, fried banana, collard greens and rice and incorporated them into a bowl of black-bean stew in which already lurked small, extremely hot sausages. On top you sprinkled farofa, which looked and tasted like raw cornmeal. The result was another ideally flavored bowl of exotica--except that somehow, several orange wedges were left over. We never did figure out their official use.
Ultimately, it wasn't my problem, as I was making my way through the massive Churrasco Gaucho ($13.95), a vast platter of marinated, skewered hunks of white-meat chicken, garlicky beef and juicy sausage served with black beans and rice. You would have to be working twelve-hour shifts on the pampas to finish the whole thing, but I tried--and I wasn't sorry.
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Which meant I could only pick at the coconut flan ($5). Since I consider flan up there in the dessert firmament with Key lime pie, it was unthinkable to skip it. If I had, I would have missed the little lumps of reconstituted coconut in a wonderful suspension of liquid and solid that I have never been able to cook successfully. Cafe Brazil ought to pack cups of this stuff into one of those two-wheeled refrigerated Mexican ice carts you see all over northwest Denver. Personally, I would buy one at noon every day, Monday through Friday.
By the time we left, the cafe was even more crowded, the music was louder, and flames were visible in the kitchen window whenever another enormous prawn hit the grill. Everyone was casually, tropically happy--except for a couple I heard arguing over who would get custody of an ample bag of leftovers. It couldn't have been less Portuguese.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must report that the Cafe Brazil menu features two dishes composed mainly of dried, salted codfish, this time spelled "bacalau." Because of past trauma, I didn't go anywhere near them--but maybe some brave soul should. If any restaurant can make it work, this one can.
3611 Navajo Street, 480-1877. Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.