I'm staring at my plate in anticipation. There's a short tower of rice, a stack of shredded collard greens, a mound of toasted crumbs, and all the piles are separated by deep-fried bananas. It's a lot of food, yet the big white dish looks naked. Finally, the waiter reappears with a squat brown crock full of steaming feijoada.
I spoon the thick black stew on top of the rice and greens. It appears to consist of equal parts black beans and big chunks of bacon, ham, sausage and beef, all of which have been dyed black in the long cooking process. The flavor is salty, earthy and deep. As in a gumbo, the rice serves to temper the intensity and smooth the stew out. The finely shredded and lightly sautéed collards add a welcome note of bitterness. The crumbs, called farofa, are actually toasted manioc, and they taste like a cross between Grape-Nuts and beach sand.
Legend has it that feijoada was invented by African slaves who took pigs' knuckles, snouts and other odd pieces unwanted by their masters and stewed the cuts slowly with black beans and seasonings. The resulting dish was so delicious it went on to cross all lines of race, class and income and become Brazil's national dish. I've fallen in love with the stuff at first taste. Of course, the carnival atmosphere of Emporio Brazilian Café may have contributed to my instant infatuation.
The extremely modest 18-table restaurant is equipped with folding chairs and minimal decorations. The cafe normally operates on a limited schedule, serving lunch only for most of the week. And they usually don't serve alcohol at all.
But the World Cup has changed all that, at least temporarily. The restaurant bought a keg for the big game between Brazil and England. After Brazil's stunning win, the soccer team advanced to the semifinals and a nonstop party broke out at Emporio. The ceiling has been decorated with Mylar streamers in the gaudy green and gold of the Brazilian flag. A big-screen television is tuned to Globo, the Brazilian TV network, which seems to be covering all soccer, all the time. And until the keg runs out (or Brazil loses), the beer is free.
Brazil's winning goal in the fateful match with England was kicked by the longhaired and much idolized forward, Ronaldinho. Debate about the shot rages on several continents. Did Ronaldinho intend it as a shot on the goal? Or was it a crossing shot that went astray? Soccer commentators on Globo rehash this single point at least twice an hour, which involves continuously replaying the shot and the incredibly dramatic audio. "Goooooaaaaal," screams the play-by-play man as the ball clears the posts.
"Goooooaaaaal," imitates the three-year-old in the high chair at the next table, to the amusement of everyone in earshot. The adorable brown-eyed child is eating yucca and playing with a toy police car as his father finishes dinner.
"We moved from Brazil about a year and a half ago," the father says in halting English. "He misses the food sometimes, so we bring him here."
Emporio Brazilian Café is a homey affair. This is where Houston's Brazilian community gathers to eat feijoada on Saturday night -- or watch the national soccer team in the wee hours of the morning. By the cash register, there are shelves full of imported candies, condiments and other hard-to-find items treasured by Brazilians in exile.
"I take my son there to get the Brazilian peanut candy he misses," says Marcos Pustilnik, a Brazilian who has been living in Houston since 1990. I asked Pustilnik, who grew up in Salvador da Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, what he thinks of Houston's Brazilian restaurant scene.
"Fogo de Chão is a good example of a Brazilian churrasqueria," he says. The restaurant may be part of a chain, but each location is a carbon copy of the São Paulo original; the servers are all Brazilian, and they know how to cut the meat and when to take it back to the grill, he tells me. But Pustilnik isn't as impressed with another churrasco restaurant. "I don't think Rodizio represents Brazilian food very well," he says.
At $50 per person, Fogo de Chão is a great place to entertain clients or eat a fancy meal that lasts two or three hours, Pustilnik concludes. But there's a lot more to Brazilian cuisine than churrasco.
"Emporio has what we call comida caseira, home cooking," the Brazilian says. "I don't go there expecting fancy plates, but they serve extremely good feijoada. It completely reminds me of my mom's."
Emporio Brazilian Café's cooking manages to taste homemade partly because the chef concentrates on two regional classics a day. Feijoada is served Saturdays, along with a shrimp dish called moqueca. Friday is the day for bacalhau, a dried cod dish, and seafood feijoada, which is a pinto bean stew with squid, shrimp and other seafood. A rich shrimp stew called bobó de camarão is the Wednesday special.
Still, some plates are available all the time. One of the regular menu items, the mixed grill called churrasco gaucho, consists of grilled chicken, pork, sausage and fajita meat. Instead of being sliced from skewers, the meats are served on a plate with white rice, farofa and fried bananas. A bowl of black beans and a mild vinegar-and-onion salsa come on the side. There's also a beef dish called Brazilian Stroganoff on the daily menu, along with some soups, salads and sandwiches.
"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.
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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