Many of the immigrant populations to arrive in Charlotte follow a predictable pattern of gastrobusiness evolution. Some start with a few small grocers, a bakery or two, and mom and pop restaurants. Smaller communities spawned a singular high-end outpost (Cuisine Malaya, the late Tango Argentina) and depended on the mainstream population.
Entrepreneurs within Charlotte's once thriving Brazilian population first opened several high-end churrascarias. From this first spate of eateries, only Brazas remains, and it was sold to a non-Brazilian restaurateur. In early 2008, Charlotte's Brazilian community had three grocery stores (one with a café) and a bakery, and plans were afoot to open a high-end corporate churrascaria downtown.
However, the economic downturn in the housing market caused a slowdown in the construction industry where many area Brazilians worked. This, coupled with the promise of a better economy in Brazil, slowly depleted the Brazilian community in Charlotte.
Pão Brazil, a bakery which had opened pre-collapse, changed hands seven months ago. New owner Maria Costa has renamed the business Tropical Bakery & Cafe: Typical Brazilian Food.
Unlike her predecessors, all bakery items are made in-house by Costa, who trained as a baker in São Paulo, Brazil. Multicultural and multi-ethnic Brazil is indebted to a variety of cultures for its cuisine and in Tropical Bakery are relics of the indigenous, Italian, African, Portuguese and Lebanese cultures.
Even though the word café is used, this is not a café in the American sense of the word. Tropical is primarily a bakery. The interior has not changed: yellow, bright and sparse. The television is often tuned to Ana Maria Braga, the Martha Stewart of Brazil. Customers at the small tables read Brazilian newspapers.
Takeout is popular. Customers leave with a dozen or so loaves of oval-shaped pão francês (three for $1), thin crust French bread that's made in-house. When Tropical first opened, Costa sold an average of 120 loaves per day. Today, that figure has risen by 250 percent.
One of the best baked goods is the pão de queijo, cheese puffs made with cassava flour, parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, and egg. (The mozzarella is a personal preference of Costa and is not the traditional recipe.) These are best straight from the oven and are baked throughout the day. Tropical is the only spot in the area -- high-end included -- which makes these tasty treats in-house.
Another item worthy of a go is Costa's specialty: the crispy coxinhas, a salty coquette filled with minced chicken. Sandwich-sized Brazilian empanadas have a white wheat flour dough encasing fillings of ground beef or minced chicken. The quibe (kibbeh on the board) is the Brazilian rendition of the Lebanese favorite, but this is strictly beef (the Lebanese use lamb) mixed with bulgur with limited spices and is a bit dry.
Dozens of ringed biscocitos flank one end of the glass display case in the front. These look like meringues and are made with yucca flour, eggs and oil and are served with coffee. Near these are sheet pans of torta de Frango, the Brazilian chicken pie.
Coconut and guava are the star attractions in the dessert case. One popular sweet bread features cheese and coconut, while several of the small cakes use coconut as a primary ingredient. Some desserts succeed more than others: yes to the pastel de nata, a coconut cake, and the cookie bem casados, which means well married. Traditionally served at weddings to invite a "sweet life" for the bride and groom, these shortbread cookies rolled in powdered sugar have a layer of guava paste. Also in that case are small plastic containers of fermented milk, a Japanese drink beloved by Brazilian children.
Costa also makes an addicting coconut quindins, a Portuguese coconut candy, and a few rustic truffles, one with peanuts, another with fudge. Most of the baked items and snacks are very reasonably priced, many only $2; cookies are less and some are sold by the pound.
Costa has added daily specials, including the feijoiada, a black bean stew served over white rice with collard greens and then sprinkled with farofa, a toasted mixture of yucca flour, tasting similar to spicy breadcrumbs. But most of her customers come for the bread, cakes, juices, snacks or Brazilian soft drinks such as Guarana Antarctica, a popular soda made by Pepsi.
With her native population decreasing, Costa hopes to engage other Latino communities by participating in the Cinco de Mayo event, which she wryly noted will be held on Sunday, May 2, this year.
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