A Peek Inside LA’s Little Brazil: a Festival of Flavors and Sounds

Café Brasil in Los Angeles
If you've spent any time in the Culver City area of Los Angeles, traveling on Venice Boulevard. from where the Camaguey Market is located on Veteran Avenue heading east to just past Clarington Avenue where Brasa Brasil Grill is located, you've probably heard Portuguese spoken on the streets.

The number of Brazilian restaurants and businesses has grown in recent years. There's even a Brazilian Mall across the street from Café Brazil, one of the older Brazilian restaurants in Culver City.

I say it's time for a Little Brazil. Many already have referred to this area as a Brazilian enclave, or community. Here you can eat a variety of Brazilian cuisines, shop for sexy Brazilian bikinis, stock up on authentic ingredients for Brazilian recipes, buy an Ivete Sangalo DVD, and send money to your family in Rio.

Some of the best Brazilian cooking is found spread all over the greater Los Angeles area. Natália Pereira hails from Minas Gerais and brings elegant home cooking to her downtown Woodspoon.

Moqueca, a newcomer in far away Oxnard, brings the cuisine of Espí­rito Santo, home of the original moqueca Capixaba. It has a full menu of moqueca (seafood stews) and rare regional dishes.

The cooking of São Paulo is well represented at El Sereno's Taste of Brazil, where a fine feijoada is available every day, among other sold plates.

There are churrascarias all over Los Angeles, the best being Fogo de Chão, a chain from Brazil. But, recent events in Little Brazil with the arrival of Luciene Peck at Rio Brasil Café, the discovery of Sabor da Bahia's Brazilian street food, and Nalva at Zabumba have raised the stakes for substantial regional cooking.

There are places to send money back to loved ones in Brazil. The restaurants are frequented by Brazilians and there is a real Brazilian community living here as well. You hear Globo blasting on TV sets as you walk around the residential streets around here.

One of the oddest experiences I had here was watching the Brazil vs. France World Cup match back in '04 at Café Brazil along with Brazilians and Brazilian soccer fans.

When Brazil lost, all of us wearing our green and yellow were taunted and heckled by several cars driving by proudly flying the flag of France. I couldn't believe my eyes. The French knew where to go: Little Brazil.

Come to Little Brazil. Try the exciting cooking of Rio Brasil Cafe, Nalva at Zabumba, and get some acarajé to go from Sabor da Bahia. Enjoy the diverse restaurants, listen to Axé being played on the patio at Cafe Brazil. Pick up a copy of Carnaval 2009 on DVD over at Supermercado Brazil and a cold guaraná. It already exists, so let's make it official.

Brazilian Street Food

The state of Bahia, located in the Northeast of Brazil, has the most distinctive African culture in the country. From capoeira (Afro-Brazilian martial arts dance), African derived music forms such as samba and axé  (aah-shay), the West-African derived religion called candomblé, to its cuisine with strong links to Africa, Bahia is a treasure.

Dendê oil (palm oil), extracted from the West African palm tree that was brought by slaves to Brasil is a defining ingredient in Bahia cuisine.

After missing each other for the past month and a half due to my busy schedule, I finally hooked up with Renni (hay-ne) and Ilma( Eel-ma) of Sabor da Bahia catering for some acarajé (a-cah-rah-jay) today.

Acarajé is like a Brazilian version of falafel. A black eyed pea fritter which is deep fried in dendê oil, shaped into a ball, split open when cooked, and then stuffed with vatapá. Vatapá is a creamy paste made of bread crumbs, shrimp, coconut milk, and dendê.

Malagueta peppers, Brazil's chiles, are ground into a sauce to put in the acarajé, and a tomato salad adds to the party, but not without some dried shrimp thrown in.

In Brasil, acarajé can be the size of a softball, quite a filling meal. This is street food, the most common item you will find in the colonial part of Salvador da Bahia called Pelourinho.

The Baianas (Bahia women) wear traditional white clothes with a head wrap. Baianas are so cool that every samba school in Rio and São Paulo has a procession of Baianas in traditional costumes.

Renni and Ilma make party size acarajé, the same size of falafel. And a friend and I stopped over to watch them make it to order. This is a labor intensive food. There are Baianas in kitchens at our Brazilian restaurants here in LA, but they don't have acarajé. Too much work.

Black eyed peas are the foundation of acarajé. Whole black eyed peas are first ground into smaller pieces. These are then soaked in water and peeled. The outer layer of the black eyed pea must be removed to yield a perfectly white batter.

Malagueta peppers are soaked in vinegar and spices then kept refrigerated until used. You can buy them here in LA at the Brazilian markets, but the homemade version is much more satisfying. For Sabor da Bahia's pimenta (hot sauce), they mash it up so it spreads easily on the split open acarajé.

The batter for the acarajé is stirred constantly before deep frying, but only the hands of a Baiana are suitable. Renni chatted with us about Bahia, and axé music. She is a singer. Never once did she stop stirring, loving care from a Baiana to the hot dendê.

For US$ 10, you get five acarajé, pimenta (hot sauce), tomato salad, and vatapá. The vatapá is thicker than many I've had on the street in Brazil, but for this smaller sized acarajé, it's perfect. The more runny vatapá would not stay on these party size delicacies.

And, Renni and Ilma like it this way. I do too. They don't put the dried shrimp in their acarajé though because they haven't found the kind they use in Brazil here in LA, and Americans aren't used to eating whole dried shrimp with the shell on.

Due to many strange looks at their catering events they stopped putting the dried shrimp with your order. They also make a version of acarajé called abará. It's a similar preparation except for that the ingredients are steamed in banana leaves. It's a Brazilian black eyed pea tamale with shrimp and dendê. You get three abarás for US$ 10.

Renni and Ilma are Baianas, their apartment is immersed in Bahia culture, wish I could have heard Renni's music. She couldn't stop stirring black eyed peas long enough to go put on her CD. This is a true gem. Acarajé, from a Baiana cooked in her own home. Next best thing to being in Pelourinho and getting it on the street.

All you have to do is call them to place your order. They have acarajé on Fridays, and need at least an hour to prepare your order, so call in advance. Call the day before, leave them a message if they don't pick up and they will get back to you.

Abará is available every day. They work during the week, but sometimes can get orders out in the evenings Monday through Thursday. Their apartment is located near Overland and Venice Boulevard in Palms, they'll give you their address to pick up your order when you call.

I've been asking restaurants for years to make this stuff. Thanks Renni and Ilma for this taste of Bahia. At present, Sabor da Bahia is the only place to get acarajé. Look for them at Brazilian festivals too.


Brasa Brasil Grill – Still a great value for churrasco at around US$ 18 for salad bar plus continuous meat service. Lately the quality has been inconsistent at the salad bar, though. Be selective and look for the freshest looking items.

The maminha (tri tip) and picanha were tasty when I was there a couple months ago, and the other cuts that came were quite enjoyable. I find the staff very pleasant and it usually ends up being a nice hang.

Café Brasil – It always feels like summer here, and is the ideal setting to enjoy an afternoon in LA. It feels like Brazil. The juices here are the real deal, passion fruit sweetened with real sugar cane juice tastes as good as the juice stands in Rio.

They also have a sugar cane juice made from fresh stalks, surprisingly mild in flavor. Best bets here are the prato feito (complete meals), a protein with all the Brazilian sides, rice, beans, greens, and farofa (manioc meal). The pastéis (pastries) are nice too, they're very light on filling, but still are enjoyable.Try the hearts of palm pastel.

Pampas Grill – This is the second branch opened by this excellent por quilo (by the kilo) restaurant. The food is weighed, a very popular type of service in Brazil, and then you pay for what you eat. The salad bar is immaculate, the pratos quentes (hot plates) are textbook versions of Brazilian classics like stroganoff and abóbora (pumpkin).

They have seven cuts of churrasco, two more than their Farmer's Market location, and beer and wine.This is an authentic por kilo, well received in the Brazilian community for its flavor, authenticity and quality. Por kilo is a great way to go when you don't want the full churrascaria experience.

Rio Brasil Café, (formerly, Brazilian Exotic Foods) – This restaurant opened in the former location of Café Toros followed by Delí­cias do Brasil, which closed for a minute, and has reopened as Rio Brasil Café.

I went before it closed, was excited to try more of their plates, then was saddened by the sign saying they were closed. I received word that they were back, a tough time to open a specialty restaurant, but had a chance to dine there the other day.

The cooking is from Rio de Janeiro's Luciene Peck. Try bobó de camarão (shrimp in a yucca cream), kibe de forno (baked kibbeh), casquinha de siri (Bahia's crab au gratin), or her awesome feijoada, when available.

This restaurant is a shoestring operation, but the cooking here is top notch. It will be formidable when they can bring a full menu. They make brilliant salgados (savories) and will have these available when they get a hood for their deep fryer. I tried the bobó de camarão the other day and was brought to tears. It's worth a trip for this dish alone.

Sabor da Bahia – Reni and Ilma make acarajé and abará from their apartment near Overland and Venice. They bring authentic Bahia street food to "Little Brazil. "One of the best kept secrets in LA.

Zabumba – Always a great place to check out a variety of local live music acts, but was never a food destination. That's until Nalva arrived. Nalva is another talented Baiana who recently took over the kitchen.

Zabumba is open Thursday through Sunday evenings for a number of music themed nights. Everything here is delicious and filled with love. Salgados fried perfectly, devastating feijoada, addicting Brazilian pizzas, and home cooked moqueca de peixe (fish stew Bahia style).

She makes the best pão de queijo (cheese bread) in town. Try the peixe com molho de maracujá (fish in passion fruit sauce), or just a plain misto quente (the ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwich from Brazil).

The Markets

The Mall – The Brazilian Mall has a great store called Supermercado Brazil. They have frozen salgados and other foods to go, everything you need to make traditional Brazilian foods, music and DVD's, beverages like Guaraná, Brazilian coffees and sweets, and yes they have Havaianas (colorful Brazilian flip flops) and bikinis.

There is a Brazilian beauty salon next door, and coming soon, a Brazilian pizzeria. The courtyard of the small Brazilian Mall has the same pattern of the floor as the beach walk on Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro. Brazil Explore magazine has an office here too.

El Camaguey – This place has a full spectrum of Latin American products, but a strong emphasis on Brazilian foods due to the needs of the local community. You can get picanha cut by the butcher for your backyard churrasco, carne seca (cured beef), bacalhau (salt cod), and all the condiments necessary to spice the Brazilian way.

Palms Super Market
I've never been here, but they are known to carry Brazilian products as well.



Brasa Brasil Grill
10022 Venice Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 558-3287

Café Brasil – Two Locations
11736 W Washington Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90066
(310) 391-1216
10831 Venice Blvd
Los Angeles CA 90034
(310) 837-8957

Pampas Grill
3857 Overland Ave
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 836-0080
Neighborhood: Mid-City West
6333 W 3rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 931-1928

Rio Brasil Café (formerly Brazilian Exotic Foods)
3300 Overland Avenue
Suite 103
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 558-3338

Sabor da Bahia
catering and orders to go (call first)
acarajé and abará (Fridays)
abará (every day)

Zabumba (Cozinha da Nalva – Nalva's Cooking)
10717 Venice Blvd
Culver City, CA 90034
(310) 841-6525
Thursday through Sunday nights
7 pm 'till late

Wood Spoon
107 W 9th St
Downtown Los Angeles, CA 90015
(213) 629-1765

Brazilian, Seafood
3550 S Harbor Blvd #201
Oxnard, CA 93035
(805) 204-0970

A Taste of Brazil
4840 S Huntington Dr
Los Angeles, CA 90032
(323) 342-9422


Brazilian Mall
10826 Venice Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 837-4291

El Camaguey
10925 Venice Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 839-4037

Palms Super Market
3568 Motor Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 202-1230

Bill Esparza is a Los Angeles based blogger and Latin America food, wine, spirits, and travel specialist. Dedicated to educating people about Latin American culture and gastronomy one bite at a time. His blog http://streetgourmetla.blogspot.com. Bill can be contacted at billiard68@yahoo.com.


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