There are a few things about Brazil and its cuisines that you probably should know before you lift your fork. Of course you can skip ahead to the reviews, but you'll be left wondering what Lebanese meatballs are doing on a Brazilian menu, and what you're supposed to do with the weird pile of tan cracker-meal on your plate. So -- Brazil sprawls over a vast area nearly the size of the United States, and although even its southernmost border is on a latitude equivalent to New Orleans', it's not all rain forests, beaches, and sugar plantations: There's also mining country, cowboy country, wine country, industrial cities, et al. And like the U.S., it's an international melting pot, but with different ingredients, and more interracial mingling. (Unlike the U.S., its birds of different feathers have long flocked together.) Its first main ethnic groups were Amerinds, Portuguese, Africans, and then Germans. Next came Italians, Japanese, Lebanese, and Eastern Europeans, all of them contributors to the country's varied menu.
All three of San Francisco's Brazilian restaurants boast cooks from a single region, the northeastern, coastal province of Bahia -- home of Brazil's most fascinating food. The influences of Portugal, Africa, and the indigenous peoples meld there into a spicy, luscious tropical cuisine, the edible quintessence of the national culture. (Elsewhere in the country, people eat steaks, pizza, or even wurst.) When it's at home, the Bahian kitchen includes dried and smoked meats and fish, fresh seafood, coconut milk, ground nuts, corn, okra, tropical fruits (including lemon and lime juices as important flavorings), dende (red palm) oil, sugar, and powerful condiments, especially the scorching hot peppers native to the region -- members of the devilish habanero family. (San Francisco's Bahian restaurants, protecting tender yanqui palates, cut way back on the cooked-in peppers, but furnish do-it-yourself spicy table sauces.)
Along with the rice and beans common to Iberian colonial cuisines, Bahia's staple starch is the native cassava, also called manioc root, made from yucca (a tropical leafy plant, not the Mexican cactus of the same name). Yucca root is used as a flour, a starchy vegetable, a farinalike porridge, a sauce base, and a table condiment called farofa -- that heap of beige grits you'll find alongside most of your entrees, looking like casserole topping, hold the casserole. Brazilians sprinkle this toasted manioc flour over almost everything, even pizza. Since farofa is a developed taste that I haven't yet developed, the renditions at all three restaurants tasted about the same to me.
Two of us had two meals at each of the Brazilian trinity, starting downtown and heading west; the first round was in early spring (to make up for not getting to Bahia for the real, pre-Lent Carnaval), the second round, last week. Since comparisons are as inevitable as they are supposedly odious, I decided in advance to try at least one seafood dish from each of the three, and one feijoada completa, the "national dish" of Brazil. Native to Rio, it's a stew of black beans, with various meats and sausages cooked separately and introduced into the beans shortly before serving; feijoada is always served with sides of pilaf-style rice, couve (sauteed shredded collard greens), farofa, and orange slices.
Cafe do Brasil (aka Brazilian Fruit Basket)
If we could put together the best features of all three restaurants, the side dishes would come from Cafe do Brasil. With its sublime rice and beans, bright, fresh table sauce, and amazingly edible greens, this double-named restaurant is also probably the best Brazilian choice for vegetarians.
With big windows on both Mission and Seventh Street, the middle-size room has a dark yellow and Shaker-green color scheme, rugs enough to keep the sound level reasonable, marble-topped tables, and large houseplants to imply a tropical ambience. A bulletin board along one wall includes numerous grateful postcards from travelers (former guests of two large midprice motels nearby) who were lucky enough to fix on Cafe do Brasil for their breakfasts. Lunchtimes, the place is rocking; daytime meal choices are interesting but basically American. Evenings are much quieter, and Brazilian specialties dominate the dinner menu and the music.
Our meals began with a very light-textured club roll, split and spread with chopped garlic toasted in oil. Appetizers are any three for $4.95. Quibe (which Middle Eastern restaurants usually spell "kibbeh") are deep-fried Lebanese beef dumplings, shaped like miniature footballs. They were pleasant, very salty but lighter than many Middle Eastern restaurants make them. Pastel Samuel was a thin-crusted baked cheese turnover. Empadas (miniature pies) were reminiscent of dim sum tartlets (or Trini-Venezuelan "arepas") with flavorful crumbly dough shells made partly of corn flour, and a rather plain filling of finely minced chicken which worked wonderfully with the crust. With the appetizers came a delightful dipping sauce of sweetened vinegar with hot peppers and cilantro, resembling dips you get in Thai restaurants. The competent waiter was Asian-Brazilian, and I wouldn't be surprised if the cook were, too.
Xin xin ($8.95, and more commonly spelled xim xim) is pronounced "shinh shinh"; this version was an eccentric take on a Bahian classic. It had shredded dark-meat chicken (rather than the more usual serving pieces) with sliced okra in a pleasant but timid sauce. Although the menu specified "prawn sauce," we didn't see any prawns, but perhaps the liquid included ground dried shrimp. Moqueca de peixe ($10.25) consisted of red snapper sauteed with bell peppers and onions in a coconut milk sauce. The sauce was rich and very tasty, and the fish was tender but tasted as though it hadn't been caught yesterday. Our second dinner's camarao a Baiana ($13.50) had six plump medium-large prawns, just slightly overcooked, in a gorgeous coconut milk sauce with sauteed peppers and onions. With its clear, rich flavors, this was the best of the seafood dishes at all three restaurants. We wanted it spiced up; but the few rings of jalapeno were put into the pot late, and the surrounding sauce remained mild. These main courses all came with the same side dishes (including the inevitable farofa). A slightly stingy portion of scrumptious pilaf-style rice had long, plump grains permeated with some tasty broth. Collard greens are normally bitter; here, fine-shredded, they had been mysteriously tamed, and tasted good enough to eat.