Foreign Tongues 

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One step out of that well-trodden groove you've dug for yourself around town, and you might end up in another country altogether. Or at least that's how it feels when you cross the threshold of Via Brasil Café in the tiny Quioccasin Square shopping center.

Wafts of garlic and a deeply meaty aroma pour out of the door while Brazilian soccer plays on the television in the corner. The shelves on the right are piled high with unfamiliar goods with labels written in Portuguese. Every table is full, and no one speaks English. Or at least, that's how it feels at first. Everyone actually does speak English, especially the tirelessly patient and warmly welcoming owner, who will rush out from the kitchen to explain to the novice diner exactly what dishes are available (they change daily) and how they're prepared.

We in the United States are so entrenched in our particular way of portioning out the meat that we eat, we forget (or just don't know) about all the other parts of animals that the rest of the world eats. Any butcher shop or supermarket in Europe will mystify the average American shopper, as would those in most of Latin America.

What often gets overlooked in this country are cuts that need to be cooked a little longer but have a deeper, more robust flavor -- like cupim, served Fridays at Via Brasil, which comes from the hump of the Brahma bull. It's roasted slowly, sliced thinly across the grain and served with rice and fragrant beans. Spectacularly succulent ribs, crusted with salt and sliced horizontally, are a Saturday-only specialty, and the melting picanha, a particularly tender section of rump steak, is cooked slowly until it just begins to fall apart. All have an unfamiliar but addictive meatiness not found (so far) anywhere else in town.

Best is the feijoada, a Brazilian black-bean stew similar to French cassoulet or Spanish fabada, brimming with hunks of tender pork and garlicky Portuguese choriço, and served with an orange slice and farfofa (salty, buttery toasted manioc flour, similar to fine bread crumbs). Narrow shavings of bright green collards sautéed in olive oil with razor-thin slices of garlic come on the side, along with a mound of tender rice. Grab a can of cashew juice (made from the cashew apple, the tip of which is the cashew nut), similar to but not quite as sharp as pineapple juice, or the even more intensely sweet passion-fruit juice from the refrigerator case to the left, and you don't even have to close your eyes to transport yourself to Brazil.

Across the street at Bodega Latina (or at my favorite branch on Broad Street between Tan-A and Target), a different sort of Latin American cuisine is on offer. In the back of a small store brimming with Spanish canned goods and spices, a burrito station and steam table serve up authentic Mexican cuisine seven days a week.

Tender chicken simmered in a spicy, smoky broth spiked with lime and garlic is even better than the very good moist roasted chicken behind it. Although the carne asada (skirt steak with grilled green peppers and onions) is a little tough, the braised beef ribs are not. Instead, they pull easily off the bone and are lavished with cumin and chili, and cooked until they're an intense mahogany brown. All come with forgettable lardy refried beans that thinly pool to the side of your Styrofoam plate, along with well-seasoned rice redolent of olive oil and studded with bits of red and green peppers, and nut-brown fried plantains.

As the politicians up in Washington debate policies affecting immigration, the rest of us might remember that the calling card of a newly arrived group of people is the familiar food they bring from home. The rest of us, entrenched as we are in the white-bread homogeneity of mainstream American culture, also came, difficult as it is to remember, from people who were once strangers in a strange land. Although sometimes it seems as if all those places are so very far away, one bite of feijoda or a rib infused with garlic and cumin instantly erases language and cultural barriers that once seemed so insurmountable. S

Via Brasil Cafe
9033 Quioccasin Road
Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m.
Front entrance and bathroom handicapped accessible.

Bodega Latina
9042 W. Broad St.,
6003 W. Broad St., 285-5850
9002 Quioccasin Road, 741-5800
Monday-Sunday, 8:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Front entrance and bathroom handicapped accessible.

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