Cafe do Brasil, 440 NW 11, makes Oklahoma City home to something most major metropolitan areas do not have: A regional Brazilian restaurant and apple cake that will hug your taste buds like they were related.
The collected wisdom on the subject of Brazilian food in this country doesn't amount to much more than the fast-vanishing vapor trail of the churrascaria fad of the late 1990s.
While most of the churrascarias survived Y2K but not Y2K+10, Ana Paixao Davis' Cafe do Brasil was busy establishing itself as a key cog in the growth of MidTown and vital chapter in the story of Oklahoma City dining.
Cafe do Brasil sprang from a 1994 partnership between Davis and her brother, Mario, called More Than Muffins. That counter-service concept served breakfast and lunch from a small storefront at 1903 Classen Blvd now occupied by the Guatemalan restaurant Cafe Antigua.
“The first day, we made $65; the second day, $120 and I thought ‘Yes, yes!' But we worked really hard cooking and cleaning, and had little money to pay ourselves after we paid our staff, which eventually grew to seven.”
In 1998, Ana bought out her brother, changed the name of the restaurant and introduced native Brazilian cuisine. The change was a hit, causing her to quickly outgrow the space on Classen. She and husband Larry Davis, and immigration attorney, bought and renovated Garrison Funeral Home at 440 NW 11. Larry Davis hung a shingle in the building and Ana Davis opened her 15,000 square foot restaurant on Nov. 22, 2005.
In the past seven-plus years, Ana Davis and staff have established Cafe do Brasil as a top spot for lunch and dinner and opened the Bossa Nova Bar in an upstairs space that boasts a rooftop patio with a view that's second to, perhaps, only Vast.
Rather than fall into the meat-faucet style of churrascarias that was trendy when she started, Davis has focused on foods from various regions of Brazil.
At lunch, Cafe do Brasil is one of the downtown area's best values, offering well-portioned dishes that offer more heart-smart choices than average, all for about $10.
At night, the venerable cafe transforms into fine-dining. Dishes range from steak to seafood with tons of vegetarian and chicken dishes in between.
The signature dish is Feijoada, a stew of black beans, sausage and pork served with rice collard greens and the toasted-flour mixture called farofa. This rustic dish of Brazilian comfort food is derived from a portion of history Brazil shares with the United States that neither nation can be proud of: Slavery.
The Portuguese Empire colonized Brazil in the 16th Century and began shipping slaves in shortly thereafter. And just as slaves in this country showed resourcefulness by turning ingredients considered undesirable into flavor-rich comfort food, so, too, did the slaves of Brazil. Applying traditional African technique on castoff pork, rice, beans and greens, Brazilian comfort food was born.
Brazilian cuisine also is greatly influenced by its proximity to the ocean and the men who sailed it.
Xin-Xin is clearly founded on Asian techniques. The chicken and shrimp dish is cooked in palm oil with coconut milk, cashews, peanut paste, and dried shrimp over rice.
Stroganoff de Frango features grilled chicken with mushrooms flambeed in white wine, mixed with cream and served over rice and topped with crispy potatoes.
Cafe do Brasil doesn't completely ignore churrasco fare. Churrasco Misto is marinated top sirloin, pork tenderloin and sausage are skewered and grilled before arriving on your table over white rice, black beans and collard greens. The Picanha Special is a steak served with chimichurri.
A new addition is Portuguese linguica, which is a spicy, piquant version of everybody's favorite meat encased in meat.
The menu offers eight desserts, but I have only ever had two: The apple cake and the Mousse de Maracuja. The apple cake is a spice cake, served warm with a light whipped topping. It is unspeakably homey and delicious. This cake is part of what put Cafe do Brasil on my regular lunch dance card many years ago, thanks to its heroinlike power over my great friend and partner in culinary crime Jesse Olivarez. Trips to Cafe do Brasil were incomplete without at least one slice of apple cake. He often ordered a second for “after dinner,” which usually meant “for dinner” or “this afternoon at his desk — maybe in the car on the way back to work.” The cake is rich, heartfelt and impossibly tasty.
The Mousse de Maracuja was a real find. I only ordered it because they had run out of apple cake. This passion-fruit mousse turned out to be almost the equal of apple cake, but in a much lighter and refreshing way. Where the cake will be the last thing you remember before the food coma, the mousse is more likely to step aside as you venture to that late movie or hop from club-to-club.
None of this would've been possible had young Ana Paixao not immigrated to the United States three decades ago with no grasp of English and no more than a c-note in her purse to pursue a life not offered back home.
Ana grew up one of 12 children, and watched her mother run a virtual catering company just to keep her family fed.
“My father was a chicken farmer, so we had a house in town and a house on the farm. On Sundays, my mother would cook all food for the family. It took all day,” Ana said.
She said despite spending all of Sunday with her daughters to feed the family, her mother still spent each day at home preparing food for breakfast, a huge lunch and then a small dinner, as is the custom in Brazil.
“I love my parents and family; they're awesome. But I didn't want my traditional culture. I wanted to grow as a person, as a woman, and learn something different,” Davis said.
But Davis' dreams were her own. She said her father refused to help her financially.
“He didn't want me to leave, but I did at age 25.”
She came to Oklahoma following a younger brother who was here for college who returned to Brazil after graduation. But Davis stayed and went to school, first to learn English and then earn a business/hotel and restaurant management degree at Oklahoma City University and the University of Central Oklahoma.
“I started out busing tables at Johnnie's Charcoal Broiler because tables don't talk. Later, I worked as a manager at Cocina de Mino Mexican restaurant for Leticia Hernandez. From that little lady I learned everything, from cooking and food presentation to greeting customers at the door and making them feel special.”
Now Davis is flanked by an all-female management team and one of MidTown's most popular eateries.
Davis' apple cake might not be as American as Apple Pie, but her story is. Drop by Cafe do Brasil for a slice of both.
Cafe do Brasil also offers catering, including a private party room. The restaurant is open for lunch from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, with hours extended to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Brunch is served 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.