The bartender at Moqueca is mixing up flamingo-pink Copacabanas. Brazilian caipirinha cocktails are flowing and there's plenty of Xingu, the dark-as-ink Brazilian beer, being poured. Through the windows of the second-story dining room you can look out over Oxnard's Channel Islands Harbor. The exterior lights catch flashes of rippling water and bounce off the gleaming white boats bobbing by the docks.
It's not quite the frenzied Carnival spirit of Rio, but it's easy to imagine that you're partying at a Brazilian seaside resort. Most diners, though, aren't here for the view. They've come for the moquecas Capixabas, the spicy, bubbling fish and seafood stews, a regional specialty of Espirito Santo, the tiny Brazilian state along the country's southeastern coast.
Each moqueca comes to the table in a rustic, coal-black cooking pot of the same name. Gleaming white lobster tails, shrimp or chunks of fish poke out from under the fire engine-red potage.
Owner Maria-Gloria Sarcinelli imports the moqueca pots from her home city, Vitória, in Espirito Santo, where women called paneleiras make them from black clay and mangrove tree sap according to an ancient Indian formula. The pots seemingly have a mystical power to transform the foods' own juices into a flavor-packed sauce — lime-marinated seafood mixed with fresh tomato, olive oil and seasonings.
Of eight moquecas available as entrées, the most luxurious would be the whole lobster tail and shrimp combination. At $36 per person it may be a splurge, but it's apparently worth the coin. Plenty of couples and groups at tables around the stylish color-drenched room are seen splurging.
More wallet-friendly are the moquecas with jumbo shrimp, fish fillets or cubes of shark meat. Indecisive diners appreciate the moqueca mista de mariscos that includes shrimp, octopus and squid. There's even a moqueca for vegetarians made with plantains.
Designed for two, moquecas come accompanied with rice to eat family-style. If you ask, the server will bring the traditional side, pirão, a bowl of lightly thickened and seasoned fish soup.
But moquecas don't steal the entire show at this seafood hideaway. An appetizer of scallops in their shells baked under a fine mist of Parmesan brought "mmmm's" and "ooh's" and "aah's." Small moquecas or moquequinhas of mussels or cubed shark are easily shared among a crowd. Equally shareable, frito misto, expertly fried and precisely arranged crisp fish, calamari and shrimp, make a fine textural contrast for the stews — and an excellent absorbent for the excesses of too many caipirinhas.
Complimentary bowls of beringela, a mellow eggplant spread, alongside a basket of toasted French bread slices start every meal. Brazil's favorite pepper — the malagueta — is brought steeped in oil in tiny condiment bowls, giving chile-heads a chance to jack up the heat quotient of any dish.
Espiritu Santo-style moquecas, based as they are on olive oil, seafood and vegetables, illustrate the Portuguese side of Brazilian cooking rather than the more African-influenced moquecas of Bahia state to the north, where cooks enrich the stews with coconut milk and the palm fruit oil called dende. Closely related to those dishes is Moqueca's bobó de camarão of lime-marinated shrimp simmered in a mocqueca with coconut milk and thickened with a light puree of fresh yucca root.
Glowing orange paella-like arroz de polvo comes studded with marinated octopus chunks that infuse the grains with an edge of garlicky tartness. If you wonder why beef and chicken stroganoff make an appearance on the menu, "it's because everyone in Brazil loves them," says Sarcinelli, whose daughter-in-law, Tatiana, is Moqueca's self-taught chef.
A few items hint at chef Tatiana's tenure working in restaurant kitchens in Italy, especially the seafood-laden risotto de mariscos made with chewy Arborio rice; it gets its rosy tint from bright-red urucum seeds (annatto).
Desserts are as rich as the cocktails are festive. Tart-sweet glazed passion fruit mousse complements the seafood, but some hedonists go for the pave de bombom — layerings of flan, whipped cream and crushed chocolate candy bar.
Finding Moqueca's location was a stroke of luck for Sarcinelli, who initially moved to Southern California to manage a friend's restaurant, Gaucho Village in Glendale. The Oxnard setting immediately brought to mind her hometown of Vitória and the seafood restaurants Brazilians know it for. The gracious old colonial city is built on an island whose bays and beaches are filled with a lively restaurant and bar scene.
Mocqueca's opening was a leap from the Brazilian carved-meat churrascaria restaurants so popular with many Americans. But, Sarcinelli says, "my customers kept asking me, ‘What do Brazilians eat besides meat?' That convinced me they were ready to explore another side of our food."