I returned recently with some trepidation. I'd heard rumors that in my absence the expansion plans of the Brazilian-born owners, Augusto Gaioso and James Leung, had gotten well under way and even the name of the restaurant had been changed. It's now known as the Samba Cafe. What if it had been plasticized, homogenized? I worried. What if it's not as good as I remember?
A better question would be, Why do I waste so much time worrying? Though the strip center looks even bleaker than I remembered and the mind-numbing drive through suburbia is as interminable as ever, the restaurant's food and decor are even better than before.
The tiny space has been effectively rearranged to seat possibly 50 diners, while the groceries and videotapes are neatly gathered around the corner cash register. The room has been repainted a vivid shade of tropical coral: the walls, the floor and even the acoustic ceiling tiles. It's like stepping inside a monstrous hibiscus flower.
The handsome Gaioso, surely one of the most charming hosts in Houston, still greets visitors at the door. "Is this your first visit?" he asks solicitously. If so, you will get his soft-voiced short course in Brazilian cuisine, punctuated with smiles and the repeated assurance, "You will love it." I sometimes still pretend to be a first-timer, just to hear it again.
Gaioso will steer novices towards the feijoada ($8.95), now available every day instead of Sundays only as before. The menu quite accurately describes this as chef Marinho "Bam-Bam-Bam" Ferreira's "most memorable dish." The feijoada is a thick, rich stew of black beans, pork ribs, sausage and dried beef, kept warm in a stout clay pot. It feeds my soul; actually, it could feed a battalion of souls if I weren't so greedy. At least three of the ingredients are things I ordinarily deny myself singly, much less in concert -- pork and sausage and beef? -- so guilt sharpens my enjoyment. The stew is accompanied by a mound of steamed white rice and chewy bits of farofa (yucca-flour patties fried crisp with bacon) to sprinkle over the top and by al dente collard greens perky with orange juice. A trip to the salad bar completes the experience.
The salad bar is a new feature. It used to be the steam table when Gaioso offered that staple of start-up restaurants, the ridiculously cheap all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. (That's history, so I won't even mention what a deal it was.) Oh, God, I thought, not a salad bar. But this salad bar is blessedly free of iceberg lettuce and other common irritants. On a recent visit, choices included an assortment of mixed dark greens, pickled vegetables -- squash, zucchini, carrots and mushrooms sprinkled liberally with black pepper -- a tricolor pasta salad, a quite respectable tabbouleh and an odd but good, blindingly white potato salad. The dressing that I feared would be ho-hum ranch turned out to be a light, tangy blend of yogurt and garlic. I normally refuse to make even one trip to a salad bar; here, I wanted to make two.
In the interest of research, I tore myself away from the feijoada long enough to try a different dinner special, the Moqueca de Peixe ($9.95). Last August, Gaioso promised more Bahia-style entrees like this one on the expanded menu. "Bahia's regional food is more like Louisiana food is here," explains Gaioso. "More spices, more seafood." The Moqueca is a catch-of-the-day fish filet -- firm white catfish on my last visit -- cooked in red palm oil and coconut milk. (I hear the sound of my smaller arteries slamming shut.) The perfectly cooked fish flakes gently under the fork; it's topped with rings of still-crunchy red and green bell peppers. The creamy red broth reminded me of a red Thai curry, but without the incendiary peppers.
A cup of gravy-like pirao, seafood stock thickened with yucca flour, comes with the Moqueca and tastes much better than it sounds; it has a faintly sweet, mild flavor. Gaioso instructed me to spoon the pirao over the rice and offered a range of Brazilian hot sauces to fine-tune the dish.
"In Brazilian cooking, we never cook hot peppers in with the food, as Mexican kitchens do," manager Sabino de Melo explained. "We serve the pepper sauces alongside the dish after cooking, so you can adjust it to your taste." The Samba Cafe stocks several hot sauces made with the Brazilian malagueta pepper. These sauces are fragrant but more vinegary and less scorching than, say, Tabasco or Cholula sauces.
Another good choice is the Peito de Frango Frito ($8.95), which offers a generous portion of chicken breast marinated in olive oil and vinegar with cilantro and black pepper then sauteed. It's served under an enormous heap of similarly sauteed onions and mushrooms sprinkled with parsley. Again, the dish is mild by Texas standards.
The chicken belongs to the Samba Cafe's second group of dinner specials, the ones served with additional side orders. I'm not sure I understand the logic, but I'm sure that I was envious. This category commands not only the faintly sweet, tender white rice, but also a cup of black beans served soupy charro-style and redolent of salt pork; plus a choice of fried banana, French fries, or boiled or fried yucca.
Gaioso's advice: "Please don't get the French fries. You can get those at McDonald's." My advice: get the fried bananas. The bananas are meltingly ripe and sweet, lightly battered and fried, and served molten hot. Yucca, on the other hand, is an acquired taste; I preferred the fried version to the uncompromisingly boiled edition but found both a tad tough.
I have saved the best for last: the desserts. They haven't made it to the Samba Cafe's regular menu yet and are available only at Ferreira's whim. You must ask for either of Ferreira's versions of Brazilian flan ($2.95). Beg, if necessary. Neither resembles any of its Hispanic cousins that I've met in town.
The coconut flan's lacework crust of chewy, sticky shreds of toasted coconut is filled with coconut milk and pulp cooked down to the specific gravity of plutonium, then topped with ribbons of whipped cream. The "regular" Brazilian flan is a crustless wedge of sweetened condensed milk reduced to pure caramel. "I eat our flan every day," says de Melo, laughing. I could manage maybe one a week, I think. Both are so densely sweet and rich that a dainty demitasse of dark-roasted Brazilian Cafezinho coffee (50 cents) is required as an antidote.
The Samba Cafe is busiest at lunchtime, and many non-Brazilians have joined the ranks of the Portuguese-speaking, cheek-kissing expatriates who crowd its tables at noon. Evenings are slower, perhaps because the restaurant has yet to obtain a beer and wine license.
Like most restaurateurs, de Melo dreams of expansion. "I love the Rice Village area," he says. "There's a place over on Kirby that I think would be wonderful." I'm rooting for the Rice Village, too: Without the drive to suburbia, maybe I could learn to eat coconut flan every day.
Samba Cafe, 1854-B Kirkwood Road, (281)558-0830.