By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Despite the suggestion of a waterfront location, there is no bay in sight at Brazil by the Bay. What you see instead while savoring dishes that are as common to Brazilians as meatloaf is to Americans, are low-rise industrial structures and the rear parking lot of the Valley View Casino Center.
This is Hancock Street, an unglamorous loop of automotive shops and home-supply outlets that happens to also squeeze in a café and two breweries, not to mention a Thai massage parlor.
Brazil by the Bay took residence here 12 years ago after operating as Brazil on the Hill for a short time at the corner of University and Third avenues in Hillcrest. High rent squeezed it out, but the move didn’t kill its following of expats and curious locals.
The restaurant adjoins a small store, which carries dry and frozen groceries imported from Brazil — cookies, juices, acai berries, cheese rolls, etc. An interior doorway connects to a casual dining area with a modest-size bar and limited seating that extends to an outdoor patio.
Beware of the malaguetas. They’re the bird’s eye red chili peppers used widely throughout Brazil in sauces and stews. On a couple of visits, our waitress brought them to the table as a condiment. Packed in vinegar, they offer a fantastic fruity flavor that turns wildly dangerous when eating more than a speck. Their capsicum levels may easily rival those found in Thai chilies.
The peppers lend necessary zing to appetizers such as kibe, a deep-fried log of ground beef, wheat, onions and herbs that’s sold commonly on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The coxinha, too, is otherwise bland. The soft, fried dough ball is filled with chicken, cream cheese, tomatoes and onions. Beyond its velvety interior, I found it underwhelming without the added heat. As for the side of potato sticks we ordered with the coxinha, we assumed they were something house-made, but they turned out to be the ones my mother used to buy in a can.
Flakier and plumper are the pastels, another dough-based starter encasing beef or chicken, or a combination of cheese and guava, which the menu lists as “Romeo & Juliet.” For good reason, the pastels tend to sell out quickly on most days.
Most of the dishes are authentically Brazilian, with the exception of Caesar salad, burgers, and a tri-tip sandwich I recently ordered that was as satisfying as any assembled in an American kitchen. Served on a good French roll, the tender chunks of steak were shrouded in caramelized onions, portabella mushrooms and Jack cheese.
Although if you’re looking for the top national dish of Brazil, the feijoada offers a sexy mix of pork, beef and black beans in a thick stew served alongside rice and farofa, a fine manioc flour that looks and tastes like dried breadcrumbs. Brazilians sprinkle it onto pieces of cooked meat as sort of a last-minute breading. It’s flavorless, but adds sumptuous texture.
I’ve had the feijoada twice here, and it’s been consistently comforting with its subtle smoky flavor complemented by customary orange slices and braised collard greens. Priced at $16.99, the meal ranks among the priciest on the menu unless opting for the $60 Brazilian-style tri-tip for four, which is brought to the table on a hot grill with roasted garlic.
Traditional Brazilian meat skewers, however, are missing from the menu. Our waitress on my last visit shrugged when I asked why, as if to say, “This isn’t Rei Do Gado,” the churrascaria in the Gaslamp Quarter where patrons are served continuous trains of skewers until signaling their servers to stop.
Brazil by the Bay isn’t that, if only because of its humble confines and its intent on serving food common to Brazilian households.
As I’ve witnessed each time, customers from the mother country fill the tables, conversing often in Portuguese with the endearing wait staff. For the cultural experience alone, I can live without the meats on sticks while extinguishing the burn from the malaguetas with a cold Brazilian Xingu beer.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.