For hardcore food fiends, it’s no longer enough to just serve Mexican, Chinese or Japanese food. The meals have to be tied to a particular region or state, with a laser-like focus and indigenous ingredients. That’s what makes a restaurant like Moqueca so exciting. A Brazilian samba singer tipped off Street Gourmet LA blogger Bill Esparza in late 2008, right as the restaurant was opening. A little over a year (and several meals) later, Esparza brought several bloggers to the Oxnard harborfront to delve into the regional Brazilian cooking of Espiritu Santo, including me, Esther (e*starLA), Fiona (Gourmet Pigs) and guest of honor Javier (The Glutster), who was celebrating his 21st birthday.
Chef Tatiana Favoretto hails from Vitoria, the capital of Espiritu Santo. She was cooking in Italy when mother-in-law Maria Gloria Sarcinelli, who has ties to Gauchos Village in Glendale, convinced her to move to Southern California to open a traditional Brazilian restaurant. Moqueca resides on the second floor of a marina-front building and is named for a traditional Brazilian cooking vessel, which features prominently on the menu.
The space itself is fairly simple, with burgundy walls, a small bar, and on the back wall, clear plastic shelves filled with Brazilian figurines. The most exciting aspect of the restaurant (that’s not in a moqueca) involves 180-degree marina views.
Moqueca doesn’t settle for bread and butter. Instead, diners receive a basket of crostini, a dish of spicy malagueta peppers luxuriating in olive oil, and another dish of rich, pepper-flecked eggplant dip.
The Glutster is a salt cod addict, so he pinpointed Bolinho de Bacalao ($12) cod, parsley and potato cakes. The fried, crisp-crusted fish sticks were served with a cooling dish of tangy yogurt sauce. They were dry for my taste. That’s my only quibble for the night.
Of course, we weren’t at the restaurant to eat bacalao. We were there to work our way through the selection of moquecas. Black clay pots are rubbed with sap from the red mangrove tree to make it blacker and water resistant. Then the moquecas are used to cook enticing seafood stews, which are known as moquecas.
Two Brazilian states lay claim to the moqueca. Bahia developed a sweeter, richer moqueca with coconut milk and dende oil. Espiritu Santo is responsible for a spicier version, where the core ingredient is marinated with garlic and lime juice, then cooked in the moqueca with tomatoes, cilantro, onions, and olive oil.
Our first moqueca ($38) was loaded with somewhat meaty cubes of angel shark and fillets of mahi mahi that came apart in juicy sheets. The sauce was completely addictive, with hints of Italian arrabiata. We spooned the sauce over steamed white rice.
We had some leftover money to play with from Fiona’s Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 award and splurged on a moqueca with lobster tail and shrimp ($72). The split shells made for easy tail plucking. The shrimp were cooked to a nearly ideal consistency, firm but not rubbery. The sweet crustaceans imparted a slightly sweeter flavor to the stew.
Pirao (fish stock thickened with yucca flour) didn’t materialize. Apparently customers are wary of the traditional moqueca accompaniment, so it typically goes to waste. After we mentioned the gaffe, the pirao arrived after dessert, but there’s no going back to fish after eating something so sweet. For me, at least.
Bobo de Camarao ($32) was a sauce with a different flavor profile. Yes, the shrimp were also marinated in lime juice and garlic and cooked in a moqueca with tomatoes, cilantro and onions, but coconut milk added sweetness, and yucca generated a thicker, creamy consistency. At lesser Brazilian restaurants in Culver City, the bobo has been known to congeal, but not at Moqueca.
Shrimp marinated with lime juice and garlic, cooked in clay pot with tomatoes, cilantro, coconut milk and onions, thickened w/yucca cream
We got a fairly straightforward side of Banana Frita ($5), fried plantains that were caramelized at the edges.
After visiting six wineries and gorging on seafood, I was ready to sleep, but the indomitable Glutster insisted on splitting three desserts. This decision turned out to be a good one. Pudim de Caramelo ($7) was a Brazilian caramel flan with dense, curd-like consistency.
We finished with Quindim ($7), twin domes of coconut-studded egg yolk custard. This dessert was kind of like what you’d find in the middle of a dim sum custard cup, only firmer and coconut flavored. This was Moqueca’s least compelling dessert.
Before our dinner, Oxnard was an afterthought on the drive from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Moqueca made us realize that the harbor town is now a culinary destination.