A Perfect Day for Banana Pizza
The Brazilian restaurant Zabumba is as soccer-mad as any three British pubs, with a welter of video screens tuned to the games, World Cup schedules handed out with the check, and at least one waitress who wears a uniform consisting of short-shorts and a Brazilian-flag halter top, which may be sort of a Southern Hemisphere analogue to Daisy Duke. Brazil's 1994 victory is commemorated on the side of the restaurant in block letters so high you suspect they can be seen from space. And on game days the restaurant opens at 8:30 a.m. - dawn for the party-mad Brazilians who hang out here.
Zabumba is the center of expatriate Brazilian life in Los Angeles; headquarters of the local samba club; a hive of Brazilian karaoke; and a steady venue for all forms of Brazilian entertainment this side of Xuxa look-alike competitions - including something called a Queen Samba contest. When a game is not on, taped arena concerts churn from the restaurant's several video screens, spilling distorted horn bleats across the room, and occasionally you can see a waitress dancing by herself behind the long bar, blissfully unaware of the customers semaphoring wildly for their checks. (Zabumba is not, to put it mildly, a service-oriented restaurant.)
At lunchtime, a significant percentage of the patrons seem to be men in their early 40s, scoping out the famously beautiful waitresses. (Brazilian dental-floss bikinis are actually listed for sale on the menu.) In the evenings, Zabumba seems more bar than restaurant, with a list of exotic cocktails that runs longer than an Amado novel and a blender that seems to go nonstop.
Zabumba is by no means the best Brazilian restaurant in Los Angeles; in fact, the grill cuisine at the converted hamburger stand Cafe Brasil, just a block away, is more consistent. There are neither the suavely exotic dishes that pepper the menu at Itana Bahia in West Hollywood nor the elaborate rotation of meats that characterize Santa Monica's By Brazil or Green Field in West Covina. Zabumba is less a center of xinxin and jungle-fish stews, than a place to gulp a shrimp pizza and a glass of passion-fruit juice between band sets.
You will find competent versions of the usual Brazilian appetizers, a mild (if ecologically appalling) heart-of-palm salad, gamy fritters of pounded salt cod, nubs of garlicky chicken. The fried dumplings called coxinha de galinha, filled with a mixture not unlike chicken potpie and molded into the shape of drumsticks, are crisp, chewy and steamy, somehow more like something from a dim sum cart than anything recognizably Latin.
At dinnertime, the kitchen slings out crock after crock of its version of the famous Rio dish feijoada, a black-bean stew simmered with various sausages and cuts of fat pork. The feijoada is served authentically, accompanied by plates trisected into mounds of rice, fried manioc and shredded, undercooked collard greens. You apparently spoon the beans into the middle and muddle it around a little bit - the collards are too bitter to eat on their own but are indispensably good when meted judiciously into the feijoada.
Zabumba's appealing, if dumbed-down, version of the Bahian stew muqueca, shrimp or chicken cooked with coconut cream, palm oil and a mash of sauteed vegetables, is significantly less intense than the muquecas a few miles north at Itana Bahia. Something called Max Jr. involves a chicken breast marinated with garlic, mustard and a little oil, then grilled to a sort of leatheriness. The milanesa is less the crisp, pounded thing you find by that name all over Latin America than a regular steak, lightly breaded and cooked to a bare medium-rare.
Zabumba, you will not be surprised to hear, has an extensive pizzeria menu, and there seems to be an appreciative audience here for pizzas topped with things like bananas and cinnamon, chicken and corn, or chicken and hearts of palm. Toasted sandwiches, on discs of the sort of flying saucer-shaped pizza bread you find at Angeli, are mostly glued together with melted white cheese and plumped out with things like ham, Portuguese sausage or fried bananas and cheese, which tastes like something Elvis might have liked if he'd come from Minas Gerais instead of Tupelo.
"This sandwich is really good," exclaimed a 3-year-old of my acquaintance. "How come we haven't been to this restaurant before?"
Zabumba, 10717 Venice Blvd., Culver City; (310) 841-6525. Open daily for lunch and dinner (and for breakfast on World Cup mornings). AE, MC, V. Full bar. Street parking only. $4.99 lunch specials. Takeout. Catering. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$25. Recommended dishes: coxinha de galinha, muqueca de frango, bife a la milanesa.
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