Admit it: What you covet most at a churrascaria, other than the endless meat parade, are those warm, golden, cheese-bread balls that usually come free by the basketful. And it's always at a churrascaria, isn't it? Because where else would you have had them? When it comes to the food of Brazil—the largest country in South America and host of this year's Olympic Games—you barely know of any other kind of restaurant. Orange County may be awash with businesses offering all sorts of Brazil-branded services—waxing, jiu-jitsu, Gracie gyms, blow-outs—but for food, it's basically the churrascaria or nothing.
Can the average Orange Countian name a single non-churrasco dish that's not açai? And did you know those cheese-bread balls are actually called pão de queijo? Or that they're just one of Brazil's many pastry-based delicacies known as salgados? Yes, it's true! There's more to Brazilian food than its fabulous barbecue, and Brazilians eat salgados on a daily basis. They're offered at corner shops, bakeries, cafés and street vendors—practically everywhere. And Orange County now has a true salgados specialist at Taste Brazilian Style Gourmet.
The restaurant, if you can call it that, is wedged among a body-piercing store, a tattoo studio and a massage parlor in a cramped strip mall. Its dining room has only about eight chairs and two tables. It's crowded if there are more than six people there at one time. A waist-high freezer of prepackaged ice-cream bars claims one corner, and a tall, glass case holds a few of the salgados on display. The kitchen takes up more than three-quarters of the floor space; in it, trays of unbaked bread and flour dust stand ready for duty.
One night, when I ordered a basket of pão de queijo, the cashier asked if I minded waiting a few minutes. He wanted to make me a fresh batch. When I finally bit into a hot, golden crust, I realized how long it's been since my last pão de queijo. My teeth sunk into the familiar and wondrously pliant, chewy texture, which lies somewhere between a gooey fried mozzarella stick and the stretchy part of a Pillsbury crescent roll.
And it was just the start of my journey into the universe of salgados. There were breaded croquettes called coxinha, dough shaped into teardrops filled with chicken and cream cheese. There were quibes, a close cousin to kibbeh, bulgur wheat and ground beef sculpted into tiny, mint-inflected footballs that are deep-fried to a crisp. And enroladinho de carne moida, which seemed to be the spicy beef version of the coxinha, formed into one-bite stogies. If you went by the pictures on the video menu board, Taste makes eight kinds of salgados in all. But if you count the pastries that had multiple options for fillings, it's actually more. The folhado, baked puff pastry pockets, can be stuffed with either chicken and cream cheese or bananas and Nutella. Empadas—tiny pastries that resembled pot pies, complete with the crumbly crusts—have variations that include chicken or hearts of palm.
I much prefer the Brazilian version of empanadas called pastels over the dry empadas, though. Also, for the pastels, which were fried into bubble-crusted half-moons, Taste offers almost every conceivable filling, from ground beef to banana to cheese and guava. Truthfully, I've never met a fried empanada I haven't liked. Perhaps the most unique salgado I tried was the joelho, ham and cheese encased in a torpedo-shaped shell of dough that was baked as dense and as shiny as a ballpark pretzel. It's a Hot Pocket you actually want to eat.
Taste also offers açai bowls, since OC remains so crazy for them. But I'd ignore them to focus on the salgados or something more substantial: the oar-sized sandwiches that have shredded chicken or beef, lettuce, and tomato tucked into pressed, oval-shaped loaves of bread. They're the halfway point between a Cuban and a torta. And though they're labeled “Lunch Specials” on the whiteboard, the kitchen staff also cooks plates of grilled steak, pot roast or chicken Parmigiana to serve throughout the day. They're often paired with a scrumptious mound of rice, black beans, fries, a side salad and sometimes farofa, fried cassava flour that tastes like flavored sawdust. So far, I've not yet seen feijoada—Brazil's national dish of beans, sausage and pork—on the menu here, but it's rumored the kitchen does make it on occasion. In the meantime, I'm going to keep ordering more pão de queijo and be thankful I no longer have to pay the exorbitant all-you-can-eat churrascaria entry fee to have it.
Taste Brazilian Style Gourmet, 19933 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 460-8606. Open Mon.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$30, food only.