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Hans and Natalie Carlberg: Enjoying their acai bowls on the patio.

Dinner in Brazil

Traditional fare makes dinner at Cafe Brazil as cheerful as its canary walls

By Selene Latigo

I've been a devout breakfast patron of Cafe Brazil ever since the first time I gazed upon their bright and sunny establishment. I can't count how many times we've braved thick crowds, all for the anticipatory first bite of zesty frittata or blissful banana pancakes. So, I was excited to see their freshly hung banner, offering Thursday night dinners starting at 6pm. I'd missed the first chance to sample Cafe Brazil's fleeting dinner menu a few months ago during their post-fire reopening, and I wouldn't miss out again. Dave and I, along with our close friends, Emily and Dennis, set out to explore dinner in Brazil.

Expecting a crowd, we arrived at 6pm sharp. We were welcomed with excitement in the air, lively music and cheerful canary-yellow walls. Along with some items from the regular menu, such as the a cavalo, acai, and smoothies and juices, there was a variety of new choices, all at very reasonable prices ranging from $3 to $10. We placed our drink order, choosing both Portuguese beers from the two offered ($2.50). The Palma Louca was very light and refreshing, inspiring memories of beachside vacations. The Xingu was a dark, nutty and rich beer without the heaviness I often associate with dark beers. With the drinks came our mixed appetizer basket ($6.75), containing a sampling of deep-fried and golden snacks. There were coxinha de galinhas, tear-shaped balls of dough filled with shredded chicken; rissoles containing creamy hearts of palm mixture that had a gooey cheese flavor; and yucca strips that were extremely similar to french fries. All were highly salted and could have used a dipping sauce to cut the sodium-packed decadence we still found guiltily gratifying.

The appetizer basket distracted us from decision making, and it took a few visits from our patient server before we ordered. I chose the only nightly special of yucca dumplings, aptly named nhoque ($9.75) and pronounced like the more familiar Italian dish gnocchi. These skillfully cooked, tender pieces of yucca dough came in a light, fresh and unadulterated tomato sauce (with or without shrimp), and with a choice of soup or salad. The soup of the day, heart of palm, was packed with tangy white slices of heart of palm that I love, although there wasn't much flavor besides the milk and butter base. My dinner companions chose the salad, a simple blend of mixed greens and peas with a classic dressing of their choice.

Dave chose the feijoada completa ($10.25), a traditional Brazilian specialty that arrived in two components. Our server helpfully instructed him to dump the deep bowl of black bean and sausage stew on top of the platter filled with piles of rice, farofa (a Brazilian condiment using ground manioc root), orange segments and collard greens. With a hint of caraway seed and juicy sweetness of citrus, Dave's entree was uniquely flavorful and fulfilling.

Another visually appealing and well-balanced dish was Dennis' beef a francesa ($8.75), which came on a large platter with rice, farofa and black beans, surrounding a generous portion of thin steak topped with onion, tomato, green peas, strips of ham and matchstick french fries.

Emily's entree was the muquecas ($9.75), one of several seafood items offered on the dinner menu. This currylike stew came with rice, farofa and the choice of shrimp or talapia, a combination of the two, or tofu, simmered in a tomato sauce with coconut milk and green peppers. Although she'd have preferred more spice and another vegetable to even out the large seafood ratio, this dish contained quality ingredients with tender fish and a refreshing light sauce.

Instead of ordering one of the few dessert specials, we sampled a couple of Cafe Brazil's popular fruit drinks. Promptly delivered to the table in large parfait glasses, both selections were a cool shade of green. The avocado shake ($3.95) was a frothy concoction of avocado, milk, sugar and lime, with subtle and delicate custard flavor, while the abacaxi ($3.25) was an alluring and deliciously perfect blend of pineapple, mint and honey. Aside from the great food and skilled staff, Cafe Brazil worked its usual magic, offering us a glimpse of Brazil without having to leave home, a bonus that will draw us back again.

Cafe Brazil is located at 1410 Mission St., Santa Cruz; 831.429.1855.

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From the May 4-11, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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