It was Saturday night at a well worn Palms strip mall. Live bossa nova music filled the air, cachaca flowed like water and the tables quickly filled with heaping plates of Brazilian comfort food. Miles Clements recently rhapsodized about Rio Brazil Cafe in his LA Times review, so the quality of the food wasn’t exactly shocking, but it was a nice surprise to find such a tight-knit community hub with such festive atmosphere.
Rio de Janeiro native Luciene Peck is a longtime caterer who opened Rio Brazil Cafe 14 months ago in an area that’s known for its large population of Brazilian immigrants. Peck learned to cook from mom Dona Lucia, who still makes Rio Brazil’s carne seca and salgadinhos (savory appetizers) when she has the time.
The storefront features green and yellow walls that match the colors of the prominently displayed Brazilian flag. If you’ve been looking for a Brazilian bikini, you’re in luck. Rio Brazil Cafe holds only seven tables, and service can best be described as leisurely, but this is far from fine dining. Rio Brazil is about down home comfort, both on the plate at the table. We sat back and enjoyed the soothing sounds of the guest guitarist and drop-in singer (who’s also reputed to produce the city’s premiere black-eyed pea fritters (acaraje).
We ate dinner with Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, who’s nearly as familiar with Brazilian food as he is with Mexican food. He provided some insight and contributed three different bottles of cachaca, Brazil’s famed sugar cane liqueur. He poured Germana straight up and contributed the last of his Sagatiba to produce Batidas – cachaca alternately blended with frozen green grapes and strawberries until it formed drinks befitting Bourbon Street blenders.
Peck didn’t offer us any menus, but they apparently exist at lunch. At dinner, look to the dry erase board out front, which hosts a few special dishes, or listen to a recitation.
We started with salgadinhos – savory appetizers. They were all good, but the best was probably the teardrop-shaped coxinha, a chicken croquette with a thin, crisp sheathe and a creamy core flecked with minced pepper, red onion and tomato. Other highlights, bollinos – balls filled with oozing Monterey jack cheese; fried arancini-like ovals called risoles filled with shrimp; and pastellos – Monterey jack wontons. Each salgadinho benefited from a spicy, fire-red malagueta pepper sauce.
Esparza requested off-the-menu Escondidinho – “something hidden” – in this case, carne seca. It was kind of like a Shepherd’s pie, only with yucca instead of mashed potatoes and a melted slab of Monterey jack cheese. Carne seca wasn’t as seca (dry) as the name suggested, and the salty beef added to the hearty dish.
Feijoada ($15) – “the most traditional dish in Brazil” – was a hearty black bean stew with earthy flavor, loaded with cuts of pork, beef, linguica, carne seca, pork feet and knees. It was served with collard greens, which helped to cut the feijoada’s richness, along with orange slices and farofa (yucca flour, aka “edible sand”), which added a gritty textural contrast.
During the day, Peck’s selection is much simpler, featuring chicken, beef and some less time-consuming dishes. Unfortunately, the economy has limited her options. If she gets bigger crowds, she’ll have the freedom to build more elaborate menus, which would certainly be a boon to Westsiders.