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 most exciting aspect of the restaurant (that’s not in a moqueca) involves 180-degree marina views. The space itself is fairly simple, with burgundy walls, and a small bar.
Of course, we weren’t at the restaurant to eat bacalao. We were there to work our way through the moqueca selection. Black clay pots are rubbed with sap from the red mangrove tree to make it blacker and water resistant. Then 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.
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.
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.
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.