Rio’s Brazilian Café (in Austin, TX)

15 June, 2011 § 1 Comment

(Before reading this post please press play and soak up the tropical breezes with the band Pink Martini while you read this.)

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Bolinho de Aipim de Queijo (Little ball of manioc and cheese)

What can I say…I am a sucker for mandioca (as the Brazilians call it)! This is interesting to me since I am not a huge fan of the common potato. Not sure what mandioca is? Read up on this staple tuberous root vegetable (also known as manioc, yuca, yucca or cassava and often substituted for a similar tuber called aipim in Brazil) here, here or here to learn why it is the basis of most diets in tropical countries. In fact, Native Brazilians like the Tupi have been cultivating mandioca and including it in their cultural food heritage for as long as anyone can remember. As for myself, I grew up in the Northern Hemisphere, in Ohio, where the closest to “tropical” we ever got was a Piña Colada or extra pineapple on a “Hawaiian” pizza! So when I moved to the humid, palm-tree regions of Costa Rica and Brazil I was exposed to mandioca (called yucca in most Spanish-speaking countries) for the first time.

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Pão de Queijo (Cheese bread)

In the US, we have a popular dessert called tapioca that involves little gelatinous balls resembling spider eggs in a sweet, milk-based pudding. Well, tapioca has a gummy texture because it too comes from the mandioca root. So imagine what would happen if you took that root, peeled it, dried it and ground it down to a flour, then used it as other cultures would use wheat, rice or corn. What you would get is a stretchy and soft “bread” dough that could be used to make anything from the Brazilian version of tapioca (which looks more like a sweet or savory crepe), to pão de queijo (cheese bread), to mandioca frita (fried manioc, which tastes like a sweeter, starchier french fry). At Rio’s Brazilian Café my beloved mandioca is properly utilized in many of the appetizer dishes including the Bolinho de Aipim de Carne, which as the café’s menu reads is “Yuca root pastry stuffed with ground beef, garlic, Serrano peppers, and scallions, then rolled in toasted yuca flour and deep fried”; Bolinho de Aipim de Queijo, the same bolinho as the last one only stuffed with smoked Gouda cheese and roasted red pepper; and of course pão de queijo, but with the option of basil, roasted red pepper or regular flavors!

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Salgadinho (finger food) sample platter

Despite the immense size (the 5th largest country in the world with a population of 203,429,773 people as of July 2011) and ethnic diversity of Brazil, salgadinhos (appetizers/finger foods, pronounced SAL-ga-gee-nose with the “gee” like the “g” in “giant” if you are from the state of Rio de Janeiro – otherwise it sounds more like a softer “dg” sound) are what every Brazilian seems to identify as food that everyone in the country can relate to. The only things that people argue over are the specific ingredients used on the inside, or preparation techniques used in a particular region or family’s food traditions. I think that is why I like Rio’s Brazilian Café’s subtle “Americanizing” of some of the salgadinhos that they sell like, for example, using smoked Gouda cheese and basil in a few of them. This allows the history and cultural identity to traditional foods to stay the same, but with a nod to the diversity of flavors in the United States, which after all, is where the restaurant lives. In-house Brazilian and co-owner of Rio’s Brazilian Café is Elias Martins, a “Carioca” (a person from the city of Rio de Janeiro). He is the gorgeous man behind these food creations and the go-to source for questions about all things Brazilian. Watch the video below from Good Day Austin‘s cooking segment to see Elias and his American partner Ben Googins (who himself lived in Brazil for many years) do their thing and make basic pão de queijo and caipirinhas. If you do not know what the latter is, watch and get thirsty!

I see adaptations to age-old food recipes as metaphors for the adjustments Brazilians (or any newcomer to another country) must make in order to come to peace with the sometimes jarring differences one comes across when trying to eat, yet still hold on to what is familiar, in your new home. For instance, when I lived in Brazil I remember constantly being frustrated with the thinner texture and melt-ability of mozzarella cheese there. It never took on that “crispy cheese” flavor that I like. I never liked Brazilian pizza for that reason despite trying it over and over again. My compromise was that I ordered extra toppings to mask the flavor of the cheese and compensate for the general lack of tomato sauce used under the cheese. Other expats I met all around Latin America had similar ways of bringing their comfort foods abroad with them. I knew a Brit that when she located PG Tips tea from England in a random shop in Costa Rica, instantly hugged the box and closed her eyes like a child on Christmas morning; an Italian in Buenos Aires, Argentina who searched high and low for freshly made pesto and when she finally discovered it in a tiny, Italian pasta shop bought two orders and ate half of one straight out of the container with a spoon, glossed-over eyes, and a beaming grin; and a Danish friend in Brazil whose family visited her and brought over black, salted licorice that left the taste of rubbery sea water in my mouth, but that made her loudly squeal with delight when the bag was given to her.

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Dessert - (Left) Mousse de Chocolate com Maracujá

Desert was also served at Rio’s Brazilian Café and boy was it luscious! My friend and I  ate a rich chocolate and passion fruit mousse served with fresh whipped cream, and the dessert special of the day, which was creamy rice pudding with coconut milk. Yum!!!

They also serve and sell a medium and dark-roasted coffee (the only way it is prepared in Brazil) called Casa Brasil that is made literally down the street from the café by an American guy that (like myself) fell in love with Brazil and wanted to do something tangible with his passion. He purchases the beans in bulk from a sustainable farm and brings them back to Austin himself, thereby cutting out the business Middle Man and ensuring that the beans are fresh. Casa Brasil also works with environmental and social groups in Brazil to help make coffee a viable, ethically produced product that a worker can be proud to represent. Check out the video below to hear the man himself speak about his work.

Another example of this dedication to one’s adopted country (even if you do not still live there) is Ben Googins, the co-owner of Rio’s Brazilian Café. His enthusiasm for Brazil and its food is enough to convince any boxed-mac-and-cheese-with-hamburger-eating-American into an aficionado of churrasco, bife à milanesa or feijoada, the last of which also happens to be the national dish of Brazil. Ben explained to me many of the idiosyncrasies of Brazilians living in Austin, TX and while I will not divulge any of the local gossip he let slip, I will say that (just as I expected) the Brazilian expat community there is different from what I encountered in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. It seems that for most Brazilians in Austin, they tend to pair up with an American partner and they independently create their own family unit that stays less intertwined with a large, central Brazilian community. There are big cultural celebrations that bring os brasileiros together like fantastic Acadêmicos da Ópera Samba School of dancers and drummers that prepare for Carnaval each year at the Palmer Events Center, but in general cultural heritage is something Brazilians living in Austin hold onto in private rather than en mass. I wonder if that is why Rio’s Brazilian Café is such a success: Brazilians living in that city are starved for a taste of home in the form of food, drink, music, atmosphere and memories, and this restaurant delivers all of those details.

The interior is warm, visually entertaining, and reminiscent of being in a local eatery in Brazil where many a “restaurant” is no more than a few tables set up in/outside of a person’s home. It is laid back and welcoming!

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Rio's Brazilian Café Interior (Click on photo to see larger version)

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Rio's Brazilian Café Interior (Click on photo to see larger version)

The exterior is like the colorful, tropical hangout you hope to see when going to a place with “Brazil” in the title! With the balmy weather and plethora of sunshine in Austin, a patio or outdoor eating area is also a requirement for any restaurant there. Sitting under a green-grass umbrella shading the super-brightly colored tables and chairs, and knowing I was about to eat some tasty morsels was reason enough to just sit back and smile! Bon appetite! Tchau!

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Rio's Brazilian Café Exterior

PS…check out Rio’s Brazilian Café’s very own YouTube channel and other video and photo links to all the fun stuff Elias and Ben are up to!

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Oh Austin…My Oh My!

8 June, 2011 § 1 Comment

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Partial view of downtown Austin.

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Plaque on the exterior wall of the College of Communication building on UT's campus.

I had intended to visit this artsy, Foodie, liberal-leaning, “Blue”-dot-in-the-middle-of-“Red”-Country city for a long time. I already knew that this capital of Texas was named “The Live Music Capital of the World” as it is the home of such music festivals as Austin City Limits and South By Southwest (SXSW) – which also includes a fabulous film festival – and that it has a great university (UT Austin). In fact, a visit to the school whose mascot is named after Texas longhorn cattle was one of my main incentives for visiting this city in the first place. As a student of Anthropology, Film and Media Production, and Brazilian Cultural Studies I knew that UT Austin had reputable programs and resources in these areas so I wanted to check them out as an option for graduate school. Once we met in person, the university and I became fast friends! There was a good variety of architecture on campus ranging from the brand-new Student Activity Center (which is a beacon of modernity and where the Anthropology Department lives on its top floors), to the iconic bell tower of the campus’ main building that was re-built in 1937, to the Victorian-style Littlefield Home from 1893 that literally stands as an eccentric example of a different era’s innovative design. Despite its modest exterior, I too was impressed by the Radio-Television-Film Department of the College of Communication where high-tech equipment somehow felt at home among the well-loved, army bunker-like studios that produced programs like the Austin City Limits Live TV show, which was broadcast from 1974 until last year (when it was moved to the Moody Theater in the downtown W Hotel).

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Main building bell tower on UT's campus, built 1937.

I also already knew about the well-respected academic and extracurricular activities sponsored by the university’s Brazil Center as part of the Latin American Studies Program. Had I visited the campus during the school year I could have seen a movie at the Brazilian Film Series, or listened to a visiting speaker talk about Brazilian music or other cultural gem. I had checked the Center’s events calendar well in advance and realized that like most university goings-on, they were rather limited during the summer. Instead I expanded my search for Brazilian food culture and looked out into the larger city population. Before I arrived in Austin I had made contact with a handful of Brazilians that both worked in some sort of food business, or were involved with socio-cultural activities such as Capoeira (Brazilian-style dance/martial art) or drumming and dancing groups who perform for Carnaval celebrations every year in town. I had arranged to meet, greet, interview, photograph, film, and/or just sit and chat with these folks. Unfortunately, things did not go exactly as planned.

This blog is not just the virtual record version of my senior thesis; it is also a forum where I can vent my personal experiences and grievances with the project. So I will be honest. From the beginning I knew that I was going into this project with high expectations to do something culturally significant (since that is what I am in school to do after all); that I would have fun with novel, yet somewhat unfamiliar media (so that people would be interested in following my work); while often being restricted to a tight time frame in which to work; and all the while contending with my ever-present “Super Woman” complex that makes me think I can accomplish anything I set my mind to as long as I stick with it and “make it happen.” Ha! Obviously I was going to have problems!

To make a long story short, I got flustered in Austin. Don’t get me wrong, some productive side effects of all my neuroses did occur. My OWLE Bubo did great things to both wide-angle and close-up views, the Case Mate fuel cell rescued me several times, and I really like the ProCamera app as a way to improve the limitations of video capabilities in low-light settings, which for me is the major shortcoming of the phone’s default camera. I also got quite a few inquires from curious passers-by who saw me fiddling with the OWLE, so I was able to spread the good word about this newfangled device.

But, the more taxing situations kept distracting me. The design of the OWLE blocks the phone’s internal flash unit. The phone case that cradles the phone into the device is thin, making me nervous about keeping it in the case when doing normal phone functions. There is only one input jack on the iPhone, which is fine if you only want to plug in a headset but not very handy when recording long videos where you need headphones AND an external microphone. The powerful, cold shoe-mounted, external LED light that I bought to brighten up dark scenes works wonderfully IF I want to light something large and far away, but it bleaches everything out if I use it with the macro lens on something close by. Several of the Brazilian contacts that I had prearranged to meet fell through or time just got away from me once I had to operate in the city. Finally, after counting on the opportunity to film several people while in town, in the end I was only able to get still photos of one Brazilian restaurant and a Brazilian-esque cocktail.

All that said, my time spent in Austin was splendid! After a few days a very good friend there cheered me on when I was getting stressed out and reminded me that I have to keep my head about me and stay positive. He was right. Every struggle is a learning experience. After all, even Super Woman can have an off day (or week), and cannot possibly be invincible all of the time! Sometimes a lady has to shove the mental Kryptonite aside and just carry on!

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"Lake" Austin at sunset.

Challenges:

  • Staying focused in a new, exciting town
  • Being able to stick to an agenda when there is a lot to do in a short period of time
  • Coordinating with people I have never met and who are also on tight schedules
  • Adjusting to the technical learning curve necessary when using new film/video equipment
  • Not getting too frustrated when things do not turn out the way I had hoped they would
  • Getting this post written in a timelier fashion

Successes:

  • Met fascinating people and ate amazing food
  • Got a better perspective on the city from the locals’ point of view
  • Got a better perspective on the Brazilian scene from the locals’ point of view
  • Will be applying to UT for graduate school and would really like to live in Austin
  • Learned more about how I should organize/prepare myself for upcoming Denver’s shoots

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The Adventure Begins!

2 June, 2011 § 2 Comments

Hello all! Yup, today I look out beyond my West Coast home to fly to Austin, TX to begin my quest. I have already been in contact with some wonderful Brazilians in Austin who are ready to help this gal out with her project, which is very exciting! I cannot wait to get started and hope you enjoy being along for the ride!

Bon voyage (to myself)!

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