Feijoada, South America’s cassoulet, is the improbable national dish of Brazil — a bowl of black beans and various gelatin-rich animal parts with the ability to glue your lips together at the distance of 10 paces and the approximate molecular density of lead. You’ve seen those cross-section displays of La Brea Tar Pit excavations, cores of asphalty goo that support incredible matrices of tiger skulls and mouse skeletons and mammoth femurs. A proper feijoada looks a little like that. If you saw a rogue feijoada in the middle of your lawn, you’d call 911, and a hazmat team would be at your door within minutes.
São Paulo claims feijoada as its own, and bowls of it appear on the tables of Brazil’s most formidable bankers. Rio claims feijoada too, and on Saturday mornings Ipanema restaurants are jammed with young, impossibly slender Cariocas who down enormous plates of feijoada before they retire for four hours of beach volleyball underneath the broiling sun. Feijoada is a ritual of cultural affirmation not much less essential than Carnaval or two solid hours at Sunday-morning Mass.
Almost every Brazilian restaurant in Los Angeles serves feijoada in some form or another, whether they call it black-bean stew or just happen to include a container of it in the midst of a 150-item churrascaria buffet line. Some of the feijoada, notably the version at Café Brazil down near Culver City, is genuinely good.
But Taste of Brazil, an attractive new Brazilian restaurant in the El Sereno district of eastern Los Angeles, may be the only restaurant in town that actually specializes in the stuff: inky tureens full of beans, garlic and every part of the pig that you’ve ever contemplated eating, plus a few I suspect have never quite made it onto your list. Like most restaurants, Taste of Brazil serves its feijoada with the usual garnishes of sliced orange, ribbons of boiled kale and little bowls of faraofa, which is a starchy, gritty dish of manioc flour fried with aromatic vegetables and usually bits of meat. (The first time you try faraofa, it may remind you of the grit that you occasionally forget to rinse off your spinach, but the texture can grow on you after a while.) There is also a low mound of fried pork rinds, in case the ratio of pork fat to legume isn’t quite intimidating enough, and a mild salsa of chopped tomatoes and onions.
The perfect accompaniment to feijoada is undoubtedly an enormous mug of ice-cold Brahma beer, but until Taste of Brazil gets its alcohol license (the application is in the window), you will have to settle for a glass of cashew-fruit juice or guarana, a vaguely apple-y Brazilian soda pop with the caffeinated kick of a double espresso. (Drinks are served from a small counter set up like a beverage cart on a Varig 747, cartons of passion-fruit nectar and unrefrigerated two-litre bottles of Diet Coke lined up like soldiers, ready to be cooled with a few cubes tonged from a bucket of ice.)
Should a feijoada not be quite enough for you — an order easily serves two — the crusty, chewy fried chunks of yuca are splendid, like French fries that bite back, and the slices of spicy grilled “calabrese” sausage are first-rate. There are well-dressed salads of hearts of palm, and fried chicken wings encrusted with golden bits of garlic and served, in a cross-cultural Buffalo style, with containers of ranch dressing.
Other dishes include peixe Baiana, a filet topped with sautéed peppers, onions and palm oil, in a sort of deconstructed take on the northern seafood stew moqueca; floppy grilled skirt steak; and beef stroganoff in a sweet-sour cream sauce that is the exact pink of Thousand Island dressing. No Brazilian restaurant could exist without its version of churrasco, and the grilled picanha, or beef rump, here is delicious, served encrusted in salt and sizzling on a superheated iron salver. The flan is best of breed, utterly soft and drizzled with a bitter caramel sauce.
But still — that feijoada. If the waiter senses that you have never eaten a feijoada before, he may direct you to dump out all the ramekins, mix them all together with rice and perhaps anoint the mess with a few drops of a malagueta-pepper sauce intense enough to dissolve the porcelain on the plate, but if you’re like me, you will spoon cautious, experimental amounts of each condiment onto the rice until you have created the perfect three grams of food, which you will fruitlessly try to replicate for the rest of the meal.?
Taste of Brazil, 4840 Huntington Drive, El Sereno, (323) 342-9422. Open daily for lunch and dinner. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Alcohol license pending. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$30. Recommended dishes: fried yuca; picanha na tábua; feijoada; flan.