Jaguar Express

''If I could be said to have created the Brazilian Panda Express, real Brazilian, I would be a happy man.'' Jose E.F. Salgado (Photo by Anne Fishbein)

Brazilian cooking is incredibly diverse, ranging from the jungly cassava-based cooking of Minas Gerais to the spicy, tropical seafood dishes of Bahia, from the weirdly heavy bean dishes of Rio to the cosmopolitan restaurants in skyscraper-choked São Paulo that might as well be in Osaka or Toulouse. There are dozens of native fruits in Brazilian juice bars, each more delicious than the next, and a peculiar kind of Brazilian-German cooking. Brazilian gourmets often claim to have the best river fish, the best chicken, the best beef in the world.

Still, if you were to take a survey of Brazilian restaurants in Los Angeles, you would be challenged to find a single restaurant that wasn’t a steak house, a restaurant that specialized in something other than sizzling portions of sausage, rib-eye and rump. Even when they’re good, Brazilian restaurants in Los Angeles aren’t temples of cuisine, they’re gaucho parades, theme parks of machismo, flashing swords and bleeding hunks of cow.

Café Toros, then, may be the most unassuming Brazilian restaurant in town, a bare storefront that shares its Westside mini-mall with an Iranian grocery, a dry cleaner and a discount-insurance broker. Lighted signs in the window advertise ice cream and coffee, but not Brazilian cuisine. The dining room itself, a cramped space barely large enough to contain five small tables and decorated with not much more than bulletin-board notices advertising jujitsu lessons, thong bikinis and waxing salons, is hardly grander than a doughnut shop. When the restaurant runs out of rice during a busy lunch, you sometimes see a cook sneak out to the Chinese restaurant next door.

The kingdom of Jose E.F. Salgado, a compact, gray-haired man who stalks behind his counter like a leopard expecting prey, Café Toros is a bastion of Brazilian home cooking, a center of homey stews, garlicky beans and the kind of baked pork ribs you would expect Dad to make on the night Mom went out to the movies. Meals are served on sectioned picnic plates, eaten with plastic utensils, and washed down with a can of guaraná or another soda you choose yourself from the fridge. Salgado helps you choose your meal with the seriousness of a man recommending a $25,000 ring.

“This is my menu,” he says, indicating his kitchen with a sweep of his arm. “We have a paper menu too, but you learn my food only by tasting.”

“For example, this is beef stroganoff,” he says, wrestling the lid off a steam-table vat of pink stew. “You know beef stroganoff, perhaps. It is very popular also in Brazil, especially on Sunday afternoons. But you do not know my beef stroganoff — taste!”

He plunges a tiny, Baskin-Robbins-style tasting spoon into the container and extracts a cubic centimeter or two of sauce. It is good: a little tangy from the sour cream, of course, but also a bit wild, tinged with flavors of exotic aromatics that never quite made it to suburban American dinner tables in the ’70s. He dips other plastic spoons into other containers and offers tastes of thin beefsteaks stewed with tomatoes and onions, chicken in a creamy cheese sauce, baked fish in a subtly sweet passion-fruit sauce, a sort of shepherd’s pie made with ground beef and cheesy mashed potatoes, spicy black beans cooked with sausage, and vegetarian red beans cooked with garlic.

Salgado dreams of closing Café Toros during certain World Cup games and turning his restaurant into a private soccer club, where 30 people can drink highly caffeinated soda pop and cheer on the Brazilian side. Brazilians are famous for their healthy athleticism, their splendidly toned bodies, their dedication to the physical realm, and it shows in the customers who already seem to have made the place their clubhouse.

I like the moqueca, a Bahian-style fish stew with coconut milk, vegetables and an unmistakable splash of dende, the pungent, reddish palm oil used in a lot of African and Afro-Brazilian dishes — it’s not the version you commonly find in Brazil, intensified with ground, dried shrimp and an exponentially larger dose of dende, but it is tasty enough. The house roast chicken, cooked with tomatoes and onions, is good too, as is the strange, bittersweet roast chicken made with dark Brazilian beer. Café Toros is as far from the grand, carnivorous excesses of Green Field or Fogo de Chao as it is possible to get. But to the young Brazilians who crowd into the place on weekends, eating griddled rump steak and guzzling cans of Golly, Salgados’ place tastes like home.

On the other hand, Salgado receives his inspiration from an unlikely place.

“Panda Express is brilliant,” he confesses. “Three seafood, three poultry, three meat, all hot and ready to go. If I could be said to have created the Brazilian Panda Express, real Brazilian, I would be a happy man.”?

Café Toros, 3300 Overland Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 838-8586. Open daily 10 a.m.–6 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Lunch for two, food only, $12–$20. Recommended dishes: coxhina?, moqueca?, chicken in black beer.

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