Despite using his GPS, my brother was still having trouble finding Panela’s Brazil Cuisine. “I think you gave me the wrong address – that’s the middle of a residential district,” he said uncertainly. It is indeed, and when he got out of the car his first question was, ‘How does anybody find this place?”
It is something of a challenge. Panela’s is in a tiny triangular corner of a small, old shopping center surrounded by houses, and by the time you can see the place you have passed the driveway. The owners have done what they can in terms of signage, but there isn’t much traffic on Phelan Lane to see the flags, menus, and tables topped by beach umbrellas.
That lack of traffic is a plus to diners sitting at the outside tables or in the tiny park next door, which most people do because the interior has room for only three tables. It’s a pleasant enough space, with a view of the open kitchen where two women converse in Portuguese while making meals, and it’s where we dined this time.
I had been to this restaurant before, and had a Brazilian steak plate and the weirdest hot dog in the South Bay. The standard grilled sausage was topped with lettuce, tomato, corn, peas, parmesan cheese, fried potatoes, and parsley – it overflowed the bun by wide margins, looking like someone’s stoned munchies’ dream of a midnight snack. It was strangely compelling – there were so many flavors and textures interacting that I kept eating just to see what was next. I don’t actually like hot dogs very much, and joked with my companion about ordering the Brazilian dog, hold the hot dog and give me everything else.
The Brazil plate was more conventional – a thin steak that had been griddled and topped with two fried eggs, served with rice, beans, fries, and salad. If reading this gives you a sense that Brazilians eat hearty, that’s accurate – it was an unexpectedly massive meal, the more so since it cost only nine dollars.
The other items we tried on that visit were standard Brazilian items – a small pot pie and pão de queso (or cheese bread), which is actually balls of mozzarella cheese rolled in an egg and tapioca flour batter. The version here was more dense than some we’ve had elsewhere – some places make them light and almost hollow, while these had a crisp exterior and were chewy inside. Those who are avoiding gluten will particularly love these things, and it took restraint to not order more.
The chicken pot pie was different from the American staple –usually a stew topped by a crust, while the Brazilian version has less gravy and more vegetables. The appetizer size version we had was tasty, with corn, peas, onion, and hearts of palm, and it was good enough that I considered getting a full-size version for a main course at home.
When I returned with my brother a few weeks later, we repeated the cheese balls – they’re such a part of a Brazilian meal that it’s hard to imagine not ordering them – and also started with a rissole and a pasteis. Both are variations on a turnover, the rissole a soft half-moon stuffed with chicken or beef, pasteis a wonton-like deep fried pastry with a variety of fillings. We chose cheese and tomato and were unimpressed – it was a small amount of filling in a very oily wrapper, and the only dud of the meal. The ground beef with onion rissole was more to our taste, lightly spicy with what tasted like a hint of very mild curry.
We were dithering over the drinks, most of which we had never heard of, when the women behind the counter offered, “I’ll let you try two, and you only pay me if you like them. “This was a can’t lose proposition, so we found ourselves with acerola and cupacu fruit juices. The acerola was reminiscent of a mild, fruity cantaloupe, the cupacu more complex – like pear juice with a little nuttiness and the hint of an alcoholic cordial. After I got home I found that cupacu is closely related to the cacao plant, so the chocolate-like complexity is somehow logical. We paid for both drinks, because we did indeed enjoy them.
For main items we selected a Brazilian salad of spinach, white onion, pineapple, and almonds topped by grilled chicken, plus another steak plate featuring the picanha cut that is a Brazilian favorite. Picanha sounds like picante, the Spanish word for spicy, but it isn’t – it’s a cut called the rump cap that is flavorful and has a rind of fat along one side. It was more tender than the standard skirt steak I had tried on the previous visit, and worth the three dollars extra. (Since that still means a vast amount of food is twelve bucks, it’s a very affordable splurge.) The steak was almost unseasoned, but a Brazilian hot pepper sauce was on every table that added plenty of heat and spice.
The salad was odd and interesting – I’ve had pineapple and onion before on teriyaki plates so I know they work together, but they were particularly good with the spinach, almonds, and fragrant grilled chicken. Some standard Italian dressing was offered but was almost superfluous – this was fine just as it came to the table.
Sweets were offered – homemade cakes or Brazilian packaged candies – but we had filled up on starters and the entrees. Our lunch was $36 for two and might have been much less if we hadn’t been so curious about the snacks to start.
Despite the weird location, Panela’s seems to be doing well – we saw a stream of take-out orders, and when we left the outside tables were both full. The word has evidently gotten out, and people are going out of their way to find this hidden gem of North Redondo. There is a certain joy to seeking and finding such a place, and now that your GPS has made it easier you have no excuse for not going.
Panela’s Brazil Cuisine is at 2808 Phelan Lane in North Redondo – open Mon. to Sat. 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Parking lot, no alcohol served, steps inside. No website. (310) 214-4148.