The Find: Rio Brazil Café in Palms

This hearts of palm moqueca includes tomatoes, onions, peppers and coconut milk.
This hearts of palm moqueca includes tomatoes, onions, peppers and coconut milk.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The menu at Rio Brazil Café seems a relic of restaurant protocol, a vestigial document that exists only to fulfill standard expectations. There has to be a menu, right?

But on it are dishes that are hardly reflective of the Palms restaurant’s best offerings. Rio Brazil Café is governed by the caprices of the kitchen, run by chef-owner Luciene Peck, who deftly cooks her way through Brazil’s regional recipes. These don’t always show up on the menu.

As a result, Rio Brazil Café can feel in flux. Even the restaurant’s name is up for revision, as a recent change is yet to be reflected on the sign, cards and website that are all still emblazoned with the old Brazilian Exotic Foods moniker.


The only constant is the cafe itself: half a dozen tables, lime-green walls and a flat-screen TV broadcasting high-definition diversions.

There is a regular lineup of salads, sandwiches and wraps, but those only obscure Peck’s Rio-bred talent. And though the menu lays out a schedule of daily specials, in reality, they may or may not be available -- each day’s dishes can be confirmed only by asking.

Often available is a surprisingly formidable Brazilian beef stroganoff that trades the traditional sour cream for a sweeter shot of evaporated milk. There’s also atero, a plate of dried beef called carne seca that’s accompanied by a mound of mashed butternut squash. Yet that can be a rare dish -- it takes chef Peck 15 days to make a batch of carne seca.

Rio Brazil Café saves its best cooking for the weekend, when Peck prepares a different regional recipe every Saturday. These diverse dishes have bolstered the restaurant’s reputation, a rise in stature propelled in part by the dedicated efforts of the Street Gourmet L.A. blog and made all the more obvious by the restaurant’s presence at the recent Sunset Junction festival in Silver Lake.

But the pinnacle of Peck’s weekend cooking comes in a homely bowl of feijoada, a viscous, steaming stew of absolute blackness that looks as if it could probably patch a pothole. The feijoada‘s tarry appearance immediately invalidates all the watery renditions of the national dish that exist elsewhere: The stew is a thick, long-simmered mix of black beans, beef and pork, including both that 15-day carne seca and linguiça sausage.

The feijoada is seasoned simply (its blackness consumes all but a bay leaf or two), allowing each tender piece of meat to retain its own character and flavor. Served with rice, farofa (toasted cassava flour), lightly fried collard greens and orange slices, the stew is powerful in its simplicity.

Should you be able to sync your appetite with the fluctuations of the kitchen, you might also encounter bobó de camarão. A popular dish of Afro-Brazilian origins, bobó de camarão offers shrimp swimming in a yucca-thickened coconut cream. In the hands of chef Peck, the dish comes across as an expert coconut curry.

Also rotating through Rio Brazil Café's regional roster are a number of moquecas, including a hearts of palm version (baked hearts of palm with peppers, onions and tomatoes cooked in coconut milk and palm oil) and traditional seafood moquecas (salmon, mahi-mahi or whatever else is fresh) too.

You can also add extra flavor to any dish with a dollop of the house-made hot sauce of malagueta peppers and olive and palm oils, a pasty condiment that clings to your meal with fiery intensity.

After just one visit to Rio Brazil Café, you start to get the feeling that the restaurant might be a culinary front for some kind of larger edible enterprise. And as it turns out, that operation is a family affair. Peck’s mother, for example, provides the restaurant’s salgadinhos, savory snacks (think croquettes and Brazilian kibbeh) that have to be ordered in advance. A cousin also cooks.

Rio Brazil Café is ultimately but one branch of a multifaceted food family, and all its extended members will be present at Brazilian Day in L.A., the Brazilian consulate’s musical, artistic and culinary celebration that takes over Hancock Park on Saturday. The women of Rio Brazil Café will be there armed with dishes that are, of course, off the menu.