Tuesday night at 5:30 p.m. in September is a bit late to chase Rio 2016 excitement. But it's right on time for happy hour at Cafe Brazil, one of Denver's finest South American restaurants. From the Brazilian Highlands to the streets of Madrid, it reps Latin cuisine both familiar and hard to come by. Happy hour — a Spanish-style tapas spread with some of the global flavors that the colorful eatery has joyfully shared with Denver for years — offers a touch of both.
From unlock at 5 p.m. to the heat of dinner service at 6:30, Cafe Brazil's happy hour is built on the backs of workhorse Latin cocktails like the mojito, caipirinha and batida ($5.50). Mojitos come with a hurricane of mint leaves but are otherwise quite quaffable. House cocktails get a few bucks lighter as well, with the temptation of a San Palo Cosmo ($9), with fresh juice and cacaçha in place of vodka. Cooled by a single massive ice cube, Brazil's eye-watering national liquor asserts itself in the glass, creating a more masculine drink than the sugary stuff usually called a Cosmopolitan. Small plates and appetizers are also available in the Rum Room as ever, but most of the weekday crowd chose to head straight to the dining room. No matter: Fueled by aguardiente, we did our best to start the party at the bar.
Sure, it wasn't much of a party, unless consuming a ton of cheese is your idea of a good time. Perhaps it should be. Your first drink at happy hour scores you a round of free tapas, mostly Spanish plates like queso Iberico, lomo or piquillo peppers ($3.50 each). You only get one on the house, but this is a good deal — miniature snacks with the care and quality of Cafe Brazil's bigger plates. Tortilla Española, a star sherry sop in its native land, is reimagined as a cheesy frittata. Lomo embuchado is just a few paper-thin slices of cured pork loin to be wrapped around delicious crostini. They're soaked with butter and slightly spicy; on the basis of these crunchy little buggers alone, I would recommend the Cafe's charcuterie plate (Prato Iberico, $18.95).
More substantial plates await at the bar in the $6 to $12 price range, pulling from the dinner menu and expanding on the Spanish theme. There aren't many dishes from below the equator, which is understandable: Cafe Brazil's owners Mauricio Zorrilla, Marla Zarlenga and Tony Zarlenga have always served Castilian delicacies alongside Bolivian, Colombian and Brazilian foods. If the latter strikes your fancy, I'd recommend camarao Brazil ($12.95), Bahia-style prawns in spicy bean sauce. Subtropical flavors do creep in here and there. Grilled manchego ($6.95) is ladled with nutty salsa verde, an astringent complement to a triangle of cheese that's browned to a light crisp. Each forkful is a dance between textures. Blanco rojo ($6.95) is a conventional cold appetizer presented with style, red peppers and Spanish salumi layered over smoked mozzarella. It's almost too much cheese for one sitting and not enough of that tangy sausage, but it is ideal for those who want to cool down but not spring for the full charcuterie board.
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If you somehow haven't run out the clock by now, order up one of Cafe Brazil's rum flights, which are $1.50 cheaper before 6:30. From $9 (respectable brands from around the world) to $17 (rums old enough for mortgages and Roth IRAs), you get four generous shots to sip on. The whiskey lover's flight ($9) provides some hearty, oaky vintages like Flor de Caña twelve-year to sip slowly and savor. Without even touching the celebrated dinner fare, we had managed to put together a satisfying evening of drinks and snacks, soundtracked by light tropicalia.
Dinner, bar or happy hour — the tempo changes, but the dance is the same, crisp and brilliant as it must have been 25 years ago. If happy hour sometimes feels like the latest trend, an unsatisfying race toward the hottest and sleekest new thing, Cafe Brazil is always here for a reality check.
Don't Miss: Maybe the Cafe Brazil newbies you brought tonight expected gauchos and meat swords instead of quiet professionalism. Blow up their preconceived notions with one of our perennial favorites: the cazuela Colombiana ($19.95). Inspired by coastal Colombian fare, the dish shows off the pan-Latin influences Cafe Brazil thrives on — prawns and chicken in a spicy tomato broth thickened with coconut milk and dashed with Gorgonzola. This puppy's been on the menu since the beginning, and for good reason.