Richard Foss

Europe meets Africa in Brazil

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Stroganoff “on a tropical vacation” is among the authentic treasures of Brazuca

Brazuca’s Jose Bezerra serves Picanha grelhada, Brazilian grilled top round steak. Photos by Brad Jacobson

The most distinctive regional cuisines in the United States came about when African and European ingredients got into the hands of cooks who straddled those same cultures. The gumbos of Louisiana and soul food of Georgia are probably most famous, but there are hearty, spicy dishes from Maryland through the Carolinas to Texas that show the stamp of both.

The same combination of cultural influences happened in South America’s largest country, Brazil, which developed distinctive Afro-Portuguese stews and vegetable dishes. In the U.S. these items were first popularized as the side dishes at Brazilian barbecue restaurants where the spotlight was on a parade of rotisseried steak. A new generation of casual restaurants is highlighting a wider range of flavors in this overlooked cuisine, and several have opened in the South Bay.

You might have driven past Brazuca hundreds of times without noticing it, since the nondescript row of shops across from the Manhattan Village Mall is rather low profile. It’s not exactly flashy inside either, a simple little place with five tables next to a cold case full of flan and a small heated case with savory pastries. There is no samba music, but a soccer game featuring excited commentary in Portuguese seems to always be on in the corner. Luckily the volume is fairly low, so it’s not intrusive.  

The menu is short and does have some of the grilled meats you’d expect: grilled chicken, fish, the cut of steak called picanha. There are skewered versions that are just a bit fancier, like beef with vegetables or chicken wrapped with bacon, but nothing particularly fancy. Finger food snacks, a soup and a salad, a few sandwiches, and chicken stroganoff round out the menu. (And yes, chicken stroganoff is Brazilian – I’ll get to that in a minute.)

First, a word about the little pastries in the hot case. They’re salgados, snacks that have in common only that they’re things wrapped in dough and fried or baked. The one that is most popular is the pao de queso, tiny stuffed cheesebread puffs, but my favorite is the coxinha. These croquettes look like tiny chicken drumsticks but are actually chicken salad wrapped in a dough that is made with chicken broth and grated potato and onion. They’re fried after being rolled in breadcrumbs and come out slightly crisp with a creamy, silky interior. The filling of chopped chicken, cream cheese, onion, and herbs is irresistible. I could eat a dozen of them.

The rissoles are made in a similar manner but stuffed with ground beef and corn, and give the coxinha a run for my affection. Only the cheese puffs didn’t hit the mark, and that only because the tapioca flour that is used in these turns hard after a short time in a heated case. I enjoy these when they’re fresh, and if I am here again and see them coming from straight from the oven I’ll snatch them up. The croquettes survive the warmer for longer, and will be my choice any time I’m here.

I have tried the entrees of pincanha steak, a chicken skewer wrapped in bacon, and the stroganoff, and been happy with all three. Brazilian steaks are simply seasoned, a little rock salt and nothing else, and the picanha cut has enough flavor to suit that preparation. This one was meltingly tender and served with white rice, gently peppery collard greens, fried yuca, and black beans in a mild broth.

Brazuca’s chicken and bacon skewer served with Feijao Tropeiro, beans and collard greens. Photo by Brad Jacobson.

I found the chicken and bacon skewer more diverting, partly because I liked the meat and mainly because the sides were more interesting. The skewer was served over beans cooked with bacon and collards sprinkled with toasted cassava flour, with steamed yuca and a Brazilian variant of pico de gallo on the side. The skewer was everything I expected, the vegetable mix below it surprisingly better. Think of the pleasant grittiness of cornmeal in hush puppies or batter — the toasted cassava added that to the bean and collards. It’s a simple thing that makes a big difference, and though the portion looked huge it disappeared.

It’s time to get to that chicken stroganoff, which would have puzzled the Russian Count who created it (Or more likely his chef, though there was a fad for aristocrats cooking recreationally in the early 1800s). Russian stroganoff is composed of beef with onions, butter, sweet wine, and sour cream, served over potatoes or pasta. The dish became a hot item in Brazil in the 1950s, where it quickly mutated into something that included tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, brandy, and rather more pepper than was originally intended. Chicken replaced beef in many preparations, nobody knows why, but it works, and it was served over a mix of rice and potato crisps. This is stroganoff that took a tropical vacation and decided not to go home, and if you ignore everything you know about the original you may decide you like this better.

For dessert there is very sweet coconut milk flan, an enjoyable and eggy traditional flan, or a passion fruit mousse. The only one I have tried is the traditional flan, because the portions here are sufficiently large that I didn’t have room for anything else.

Brazuca means “Brazilianness,” a pride in the Brazilian way of life, and it suits this casual place where homestyle South American cooking is celebrated. You won’t spend much money here – the most expensive item, the steak plate, runs thirteen bucks — but you may be inclined to spend some time, and possibly even cheer when someone on the Brazilian team scores a goal.

Brazuca is at 3001 N. Sepulveda Blvd. in Manhattan Beach. Open daily except Sunday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., parking lot, wheelchair access OK but dining area small. No alcohol, few vegetarian options. Menu at BrazucaBrazilianRestaurant.com, phone 310-546-1414.  

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