Party attitude: You see it at Gauchos Village in Glendale, where a live samba band plays on weekends and sequined dancers appear once an hour to dance in the aisles like Carnaval-crazed cuckoo clocks. It’s the reason Bossa Nova on Sunset is open till 4 a.m. and why diners line up outside Picanha in Burbank to wait for a table after going to the movies. It’s evident at Green Field in Long Beach when an anniversary couple thrills to the sight of servers slicing off juicy pieces of steak right at their table. Even the tourists in line at Pampas Grill, a tiny stall at the Original Farmers Market in L.A., act as if they’ve scored a coveted invitation.
Rarely seen in Southern California before the mid-'90s, Brazilian restaurants are taking the region by storm. Fogo de Chao in Beverly Hills is the most visible example of the trend. But dozens of others have opened in recent years and more are on the way. Some are modest sidewalk cafes or homey mom-and-pop spots, while others are upscale steakhouses or high-concept corporate creations -- but one thing they have in common is a generous helping of party attitude.
The best Brazilian restaurants offer an irresistible combination of attractions: swashbuckling waiters in gaucho pants, festive cocktails and generous portions of special-occasion food that’s easy to understand because it has much in common with so many other cuisines.
There’s a penchant for barbecue, an affinity for collards, plantains and yuca, and an openness to global influences. And the restaurants have interesting multicultural credentials: Some are owned by Korean-Brazilian expats and a majority attract a diverse crowd of diners whose enthusiasm for dishes as varied as menudo and sushi is indulged by the chefs.
Brazilian restaurants, especially churrascarias (all-you-can-eat barbecues) are even giving Chinese banquet halls a run for their money when it comes to group dining in Southern California. Look around at the weekday lunch crowd at Agora, an upscale churrascaria in an Irvine office park, and you’ll see promotion parties, sales meetings and retirement bashes. At Gauchos Village one Saturday night, a band of eight guys who look like engineering students chow down at one table while a multi-generational family of 10 holds down the fort at another. And early one Sunday evening, the enormous, high-ceilinged dining room at Green Field in Long Beach is bustling with half a dozen large groups of birthday-present-toting friends.
Start with a caipirinha, the cocktail made with cachaca, Brazil’s potent cane spirit, usually mixed with fresh lime juice and sugar but sometimes made with other fruits as well. At many spots, your drinks will come accompanied by a basket of light, hot, delicious cheese rolls known as pao de queijo. They’re like tiny not-quite-hollow popovers in texture, made with yuca flour.
Entrees are most often grilled beef, chicken or fish. Salads and salsas are an important counterpoint of fresh crunchiness and tangy flavor. Hearts of palm salads, often with tomatoes and cucumbers, are characteristic, as are eggplant and olive salads. Different versions of beet salads are on most menus and buffets too, as are tabboulehs.
Among the standout desserts are those using tropical flavors: quindim (coconut custard) and mousse de maracuja (passion fruit mousse). In addition to caipirinhas, you’ll find Brazilian beers and sodas on beverage lists as well as tropical juices including cashew fruit juice.
Brazilian cuisine has been influenced by its immigrant history, so pizza, pasta, stroganoff, kibbeh and other Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and European dishes are part of the mix, as are dishes also common to Latin American and Afro-Caribbean cuisines such as fried plantains, collards, yuca (mashed, fried or served as farofa, a seasoned crumb mixture), rice and beans. Pasteis, the Brazilian version of empanadas, show up on some menus too.
Brazil has many types of restaurants, including chopperias, indoor-outdoor cafes where folks stop in for a beer and light meal; botecas, counters that sell snacks such as meat pastries and fried codfish balls; and places that specialize in feijoada, a bean stew.
But it’s churrascarias, with their elaborate buffets and skewer-toting meat servers, that have captured the American imagination. Churrascarias started in the city of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil near Argentina right after World War II, says Huck Kim, one of the owners of the two Green Field restaurants in the L.A. area.
Based on South American cattle ranch traditions of mixed-grill meats and tables spread with side dishes for seasonal feasts, the all-you-can-eat restaurants quickly caught on and spread all over the country. Kim, who was born in South Korea and grew up in Brazil, says churrascarias in the U.S. serve more Brazilian dishes than do the ones in Brazil. The wide selection of meats offered is similar, he says, but buffets there don’t feature as many traditional, “country-style” Brazilian dishes as seen here, instead concentrating on contemporary Euro-fusion creations.
In Brazil, says Sophia Kang, who with her brother Stefano owns By Brazil in Torrance, churrascarias are the restaurants of choice for “get-togethers, whether it’s family or friends.” The Kangs recently bought the small, family-run restaurant from original owner Waldir Souza; they offer a homey version of churrascaria in the 15-year-old establishment, which they claim is the oldest Brazilian restaurant in L.A.
The authentic dishes in By Brazil’s buffet are reminiscent of a really terrific potluck supper: simple, well-prepared onion salad seasoned with oregano, excellent pao de queijo, good rice, beans and plantains, and a changing array of specialties such as rice balls, chicken stroganoff and fish stew. And the churrascaria offers six kinds of meat and poultry, always including the Brazilian specialty picanha -- here, a marinated sirloin cap.
At the other end of the spectrum, the enormous Green Field restaurants feature more than a dozen meats in the rotation -- including tri-tip, smoked turkey wrapped in bacon, brisket, garlic steak, Parmesan pork, beef ribs, etc. -- and a buffet piled with iced peel-your-own shrimp, ceviche, mussels, salads (watercress, tuna, caprese, hearts of palm, corn), hot dishes and soups.
Some churrascarias, including Picanha in Burbank and M Grill in L.A.'s Koreatown, offer a buffet-only option; some offer children’s prices. It’s a great way to please everyone in the party, from vegans to would-be linebackers (one recent night at Green Field, a young man asked the server to forget slicing and just give him the entire steak).
But great Brazilian food can be found in a la carte cafes as well. Malagueta (named for a chile pepper) in Old Town Pasadena offers all-you-can-eat meat service and feijoada on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only, but its eclectic menu of salads, pizzas and pastas is studded with Brazilian treats: avocado and heart of palm empanadas, fried yuca and plantain, and fish or shrimp with a sauce of cilantro, onions, tomatoes, malagueta and coconut.
From the consistently good kitchens of the three Bossa Nova restaurants (two in West Hollywood and a small “express” branch in Beverly Hills) come not only great pizzas with flavorful crusts, but spicy Brazilian sausage served with sauteed yuca, bolinho de bacalhau (cod fish croquettes), and a heavenly coconut flan whose recipe owner Aurelio Martines keeps under lock and key, but that’s reason enough to drop by when you have the midnight munchies.
A couple of nightspots that are more clubs than restaurants also feature Brazilian food. Zabumba, where the action doesn’t get going until 10 p.m. but whose kitchen stays open till midnight, serves grilled entrees as well as pizzas and salads. Best bet here is an appetizer platter with coxinha, a kind of fried chicken turnover as well as mandioca frita (fried yuca) and bolinho de bacalhau. At Rio in Encino, there’s a stage show at about 9:30 p.m. after which the kitchen closes and the dance floor opens. Go for the drinks and appetizers here too.
Brazilians make up a tiny percentage of the local population: According to the U.S. Census, there were about 19,000 people born in Brazil or of Brazilian ancestry living in the L.A. metropolitan area in 2000. But Southern California’s Brazilian community, which is about 20 years old, “keeps on growing,” says Glauco Magalhaes, president of Brazil-California Chamber of Commerce. “Before, Brazilians were immigrating mostly to New York and Miami.”
And as the community continues to grow, so does the restaurant scene: Look for a new branch of Cafe Brasil on Washington Boulevard a few miles west of the original as well as a new churrascaria called Porto Alegre in Pasadena by year’s end.
But restaurateurs aren’t just appealing to homesick compatriots. In L.A., says Magalhaes, “you can’t have a restaurant just for Brazilians. It would go broke.”
No doubt about it: Everyone’s invited to the party.