You have to give the smiling corn-cob sign above Pamonha's Brazilian Cuisine credit for truth in advertising. The cafe specializes in corn, or more specifically, a type of sweet-corn tamal (called pamonha) that's hard to find in the United States. The Brazilians are in full force, too. One night, my friends and I walked inside to find the waitress standing in the middle of the room, staring above our heads at the television screen. Just as we puzzled out what she was looking at, Brazil scored a goal off Mexico, and “Goooooooal!” boomed from the set. The server started cheering, and through the narrow window into the kitchen, we could see a blue baseball hat and a set of teeth jumping up and down.
The restaurant, owned by Cairo Corvalho, opened a year ago 200 feet over the border into Daly City and has become a culinary nexus for the many Brazilians who have immigrated to San Francisco and Daly City from Goiânia.
If you go for dinner, you'll have access to the planet's most baroque burger, which Pamonha's only sells after 4 p.m. The X-tudo ($7.99), whose name is slang for “cheese-everything” — no hyperbole here — is so big that it has to be shoved into a paper bag to keep everything in place; a detachable jaw would be handy here. There is lettuce and fresh tomato on the burger, and cheese, of course. But also an X of bacon, a slice of ham, a hot dog (sliced lengthwise), a fistful of corn kernels, and potato crisps. From what I could taste of the beef underneath, it wasn't the best burger, but a big dollop of mayonnaise and 10 toppings were distracting enough to keep me from caring.
More charming: the soccer-loving server. She brought out frosted mugs to serve with the beer, because that's the way they like it in Brazil, and patiently talked newcomers through the menu. We ordered the fried linguiça ($11.90), links of a skinny, simply seasoned pork sausage that the restaurant makes itself and serves with enough lemons to dress a school of sand dabs, and she also delivered a jar of pickled peppers for us to try, explaining that the owner imports them from Brazil. Each was the size of a small blueberry and had the power to sear tracks down my gullet as I swallowed.
She made it easier to dismiss the fact that half the listed menu might be unavailable at any one time, or that the only soup coming out of the kitchen that day, creamy chicken and corn ($4.50), ranked up there with Campbell's. Steak with onions ($10.99), a quarter-inch-thick slab the the width of an adult's head, was not the tenderest cut of meat my college cafeteria served. It did come with a Thanksgiving dinner's worth of sides: an equally big mound of rice, some sautéed carrots, parsley-flecked corn, beans, and a mound of mushy linguine tossed with tomato sauce.
The daily specials, all from central Brazil, range from chicken with bacon on Wednesdays to Saturday's feijoada, the national dish of black beans and pork. I'd recommend getting there early on Friday before the moqueca ($10.99) — two crisp fillets of pan-fried fish smothered in a lovely, mellow sauce of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and fingernail-sized shrimp — runs out.
But the real reason to visit Pamonha's is for its eponymous dish (all varieties cost $5.99). According to our server, the restaurant is one of only two in the United States that serve pamonhas (pah-MOAN-yas), which a friend of the owner makes with yellow sweet corn imported from Mexico. A specialty of Goiânia, the tamales are made by cooking grated corn together with milk, pouring the batter into corn husks, and boiling the packets until the starch in the corn batter swells and sets, giving the finished pamonha a texture reminiscent of long-cooked polenta, flecks of corn-kernel skins contributing a subtle graininess. Each pamonha is the size of a fat corn cob and weighs close to a pound.
The pamonhas on the cafe's sign drew me into the restaurant a few weeks ago, and the dish itself kept bringing me back until I'd tasted every variety. As I'd snip the string that held the packet together and slowly unfurl the husks, the smell of sweet corn would intensify until I finally reached the steamy, marigold-colored center. The heart of the pamonha contained its own treasures. Spooning in to either the sweet or salted pamonha — the difference between the two is slight — and a vein of molten mozzarella-like cheese would emerge. A third variety, the “moda,” secreted away several links of linguiça, too. Even the pamonha with sausage could be served for dessert, the richness of the sweet corn barely tempered by salt. Corn pudding for dinner! No wonder I kept finding excuses to drive back to Daly City.
Catch the restaurant on the right day, and you might get to taste a fourth kind of pamonha, served with the rice and beans on the dinner platters: a plum-sized dumpling flecked with green onions and deep-fried just long enough so it develops in a fragile, papery skin. That one may be my favorite pamonha of all, a hush puppy beyond compare.