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Gooooaaaal!

Emporio Brazilian Café scores with home cooking

"At Emporio, the crowd is 85 to 90 percent Brazilian," Pustilnik estimates. "So it's really a Brazilian experience."


A basket of hot bread balls is served gratis as soon as you sit down at Emporio. At first I thought they were gooey in the middle because the dough was underbaked, then I got a whiff of the cheese. These are the famous pão de queijo ("bread of cheese" in Portuguese). A specialty of the southern state of Minas Gerais, they're made from fermented manioc flour with a little cheese inside, and they're addictive once you start popping them.

Feijoada crossed lines of race and class to become Brazil's national dish.
Deron Neblett
Feijoada crossed lines of race and class to become Brazil's national dish.

Location Info

Map

Emporio Brazilian Café

12288 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77077

Category: Restaurant > South American

Region: Memorial

Details

281-293-7442. Hours: Monday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Feijoada: $8.99
Bobó de camarão: $8.99
Churrasco gaucho: $9.89
Bacalhau: $10.49

12288 Westheimer

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I order bobó de camarão, which means "shrimp in yucca cream." The dish is a classic of the northern Bahia region. It looks like red shrimp curry at first, but the sauce surrounding the plump shrimp is much thicker. Yucca is one of the most confusing subjects in the world of Latin American cooking. The edible root is also known as tapioca, cassava and manioc, and the different names often imply different preparations. In the bobó de camarão sauce, the yucca has been turned into a velvety cream that also contains fresh coconut, nuts and the red palm oil called dende. The pudding-thick sauce looks like it would be disagreeably rich, but while it is intensely flavored, there's a fluffy quality to the emulsion that keeps it light.

Nearly all of Brazil's famous regional dishes were invented by African slaves. And I began to wonder why dishes like feijoada, pão de queijo and chicken ximxim are identified by region, rather than by their African-Brazilian origins. According to a Web site called cookbrazil.com, it's because the culture has become so blended that no one can remember whether a specific food tradition originated with African slaves. "They are just Brazilian," writes the author. "There is no racial segregation in my beloved Brazil."

But if there is no racial prejudice in Brazil, why do Brazilians seem so much prouder of their gaucho churrasquerias than of their African-inspired home cooking? Or is the cowboy cuisine thing just for the benefit of dumb Americans?

The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel recently reported an incident that sheds light on one prominent American's impression of Brazil. "Do you have blacks, too?" President Bush supposedly asked Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso during a get-acquainted meeting. Word has it that Condoleezza Rice had to jump into the conversation and explain to W. that Brazil has the largest black population outside Africa.

Most Americans think Brazilians are all cowboys, like the gaucho waiters at those Galleria-area churrasquerias. You can't blame Brazilians for marketing their upscale steaks to meat-and-potatoes Americans. But if you want to experience the African-Brazilian home cooking that represents that nation's true cuisine, you have to go a little farther down Westheimer.

Of course, teaching Americans about food is the last thing on the minds of Brazilians right now. I asked Marcos Pustilnik if he would watch the World Cup at Emporio. "No, I am going to my brother's house like I did for the other matches," he said. "Brazil has been winning while I have been going to my brother's house, so I don't want to change anything."

By the time you read this, either Brazil will have lost in the World Cup matches and things will be back to normal at Emporio Brazilian Café, or Brazil will have won -- in which case, the party could go on for months. Here's hoping for more free beer!

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