March 7-13, 2007

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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
A plate of pride: Meat and mango mix in feijoada, the Brazilian national dish.

Brazil Nuts

Americans love Brazilian culture, and Senzala should be no exception

By Stett Holbrook

WHAT IS IT about Brazilian culture that inspires such a following in the United States?

People who have never set foot in the country become die-hard Brazilian soccer fans and go nuts for the team during World Cup matches. Brazilian music—samba, bossa nova—inspires a special form of devotion, too. After all, who doesn't love "The Girl From Ipanema"? And capoeira, the fluid, dancelike Brazilian martial art, vies with karate and judo in its appeal.

However there's one aspect of Brazilian culture that hasn't made much of an inroad into American society: the food. But Brazilian natives Wagner and Lidia Bueno are working to change that.

The couple runs Senzala, a Sunnyvale Brazilian restaurant that's really more like a Brazilian cultural center that also serves food. Brazilian art and photographs cover the walls. There's a small stage where bands play Brazilian music on a regular basis. Television monitors through out the sprawling restaurant play DVDs featuring Brazilian musicians. During last year's World Cup, the restaurant filled with green and yellow-clad fans who gathered to watch the Brazilian national team play.

The restaurant was an outgrowth of sorts of the capoeira school the Buenos run in San Jose. On occasion they've taken students to an inn they own on the beach in So Paulo, and it was there Lidia Bueno refined her group cooking skills. Urged on by students who liked her cooking and by her own desire to open a restaurant, she and her husband opened Senzala last January.

"It's my cooking," she says. "I do everything like I do at home."

While Brazil conjures up images of Amazonian jungles, scarlet macaws and booty-shaking women wearing feather headdresses at Carnival, much of the food, particularly that found in and around Rio de Janeiro and So Paulo, is far less exotic. The classic Brazilian dish is feijoada, a hearty, smoky black bean stew made with chunks of beef and pork. The dish is particularly good at Senzala ($10.99). Served atop white rice with collard greens, a sprinkling of yucca flour, and fresh oranges on the side, it's a simple and satisfying meal. And a big one, too.

Carne de canela ($10.99) is another winner that exemplifies the straightforward, hearty style of the food. It's the Brazilian equivalent of pot roast, thick pieces of slow-cooked beef topped with stewed peppers served over a mound of saucy beans and rice. The crispy fried yuca on the side makes it an even more filling dish, but I could do without the steamed carrots and broccoli. They taste a little too homey.

Bife acebolado ($10.99) is good, too. It's a thin cut of beef fried up with thin sliced onions and served with rice, beans and more yuca.

The one dish I tried that came up short was the galinha com polenta ($10.99). In spite of the thick tomato sauce that covered it, the chunks of chicken breast were dry and bland. Again, the steamed carrots and broccoli didn't do it for me. But the creamy polenta and rice and beans served with the dish made sure I didn't leave hungry.

I stuck to the so-called "lunch bar" dishes but Senzala also serves a beef kebab, hamburgers and sandwiches.

Given the large portions, eating dessert may require some effort, but it's worth it. Pudim de leite ($2.50) is what we call flan and what I call good. I also liked manjar ($2.50), a giggly, creamy coconut pudding.

The sprawling restaurant was once a deli but looks more like it was a cafeteria. Most of the food comes from steam tables and you grab a tray and slide down the line to grab drinks and desserts until you end up at the cash register. But in spite of this vestige of American-style food service, Senzala is the place Silicon Valley to get your fill of all things Brazilian.


Address: 250 E. Java Dr., Sunnyvale.

Phone: 408.734.1656.

Hours: Snacks 9-11am, lunch 11am-2pm.

Cuisine: Brazilian

Price Range: $7-$14.

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