Phoenix certainly has no shortage of south-of-the-border restaurants. Most of them, though, stop their southward march in Sonora, Mexico, land of tacos, burros and enchiladas. Yes, there's Salvadoran fare at Eliana's, some Latin American dishes on the menu at Havana Cafe and a few faintly Argentinean-style grilled meats at Evita's. But these are lonely outposts on the deep-south-of-the-border dining scene. Now Cafe Brazil has come along, bringing the first taste of Brazilian cuisine to the Valley. Remember the observation of French gastronome Anthelme Brillat-Savarin? Two hundred years ago, he remarked, "The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star." I'd say the arrival of a new ethnic restaurant in town furnishes an equal amount of pleasure. This place is a delight. It's taken over the spot that used to house Olympic Flame, a venerable Greek restaurant that called it quits last year. Like the food, the scenery has also undergone a complete face-lift. Gone are the flaming-orange booths; now there are black high-backed chairs. Aqua tablecloths, not Formica, cover the tables. On weekends, a guitarist and a singer offer soothing Brazilian rhythms. And the Greek tourist board posters have come down, replaced, naturally, by Brazilian tourist board posters. At first glance, the posters looked a lot more attractive than the appetizer list. The four starters have one thing in common, and I'm not talking about their Brazilian heritage. All come ominously dipped in bubbling oil.
Fortunately, fears that we were going to run into the Brazilian equivalents of onion rings, battered zucchini strips and Buffalo wings disappeared once they reached the table. Rissoles are crunchy pastry turnovers, similar to Argentinean empanadas, stuffed with either chicken or shrimp. Coxinha de Galinha are breaded, deep-fried croquette balls, harboring a deftly seasoned chicken filling. Both starters are immaculately fresh, greaseless and tasty. And at three to an order, they have just enough heft to tamp down hunger pangs without overwhelming them. Galinha a Passarinha represents a significant appetizer advance over chicken wings. The first improvement derives from not using wings at all, but meatier, skinless chunks of poultry. The second comes from the sharp, garlicky marinade and crispy fried texture. Gnaw on these and swig down some Brahma beer, a first-rate Brazilian brew. If you can't be tempted by deep-fried munchies under any circumstances, consider the soup. We're not exactly in the middle of the soup season, but the caldo verde can make you forget the calendar. It's a hearty, full-flavored potato broth brimming with collard greens and sausage. Main dishes, priced mostly in the $9 to $12 range, fall into the predictable beef, pork, fish and chicken categories. But there's nothing very predictable about the preparation. Don't look for the chile zing of spicy-hot fare. You're more apt to encounter the aromas of garlic, olive oil, lemon or coconut milk. Without question, the most alluring entree is the heavenly scented Bobo de Camarao, the most expensive platter at $14.95. It features five decently sized shrimp, meaty and firm. But the real glory is the heady sauce they're bathed in: a redolent blend of olive oil, coconut milk, yucca and ground cashews and peanuts. This is the kind of sauce that you wish came served in a bucket. Ladle it over the mound of rice and eat slowly. Risoto de Galinha is a worthy alternative, especially when you factor in the three-digit cost. Substantial amounts of shredded chicken, tossed with peas, olives and Parmesan cheese, rest atop a bed of rice, alongside mashed potatoes and a buttered mix of squash, peppers, onions and carrots. Most chicken dishes are instantly forgettable, but this one can make heads turn like the girl from Ipanema.
Feijoada (pronounced "feh-zhwada"), the Brazilian national dish, is a weekend specialty. Of humble origin, it's a stew that often employs parts of the pig that Americans rarely face: hocks, tails, snouts, ears. Don't worry--the kitchen has no interest in overwhelming most of us with more authenticity than we can handle.
The version here comes on two plates: one supporting a big helping of rice and black beans; the other holding ham, pork and sausage, as well as the traditional accompaniments of saut‚ed collard greens and slices of fresh orange. Cafe Brazil's feijoada balances nicely on the line between ethnically exotic and far-out. Good news for vegetarians. The kitchen has hit upon the happy idea of offering a bargain-priced daily meatless plate. We hit it on the right night: a luscious crepe stuffed with ricotta cheese and greens, coated with tomato sauce, surrounded by rice and mixed vegetables. I'm just as happy to report that the kitchen understands that a veggie dinner doesn't have to translate into a light one. Even though there's no animal protein, this plate will fill you up. The one less-than-captivating dish: Bife ao Molho. No problem with the beefy tomato sauce, but the chewy meat works your jaws beyond the comfort zone. Cafe Brazil offers the novelty of Brazilian wines to wash down dinner. They're an interesting curiosity and, at $3 a glass, your curiosity won't alter your standard of living. On the other hand, you can find the same brand of Brazilian wine at Cost Plus for $3 a bottle. Unfamiliar ethnic desserts sometimes take a while to get used to. Cafe Brazil's don't. Quindim de Coco is terrific, a creamy pudding with a base of roasted coconut tinged with caramel. Pave is a frozen, three-layered combo of chocolate cake, pudding and meringue. The ricotta torte is falsely advertised as low-cal and low-fat. No way. But I can forgive the misrepresentation--this cheesy treat, drizzled with chocolate sauce, ends the meal on a high note. The service has more flaws than the food. Sometimes plates aren't bused before the next course arrives, silverware doesn't get replaced or it's difficult to get a coffee refill. And, on both visits, we heard the crash of dishes behind the kitchen walls. But it's easy to overlook the imperfections--the staff is friendly, charming and eager to please.