The Las Vegas Valley is dotted with strip malls of all shapes and sizes that seemingly drive the functioning of this metropolis. You'll see shops lit up as bright as the lights on Fremont Street with words like “smoke shop” and “laundromat”, or for the slightly more popular centers, Dunkin Donuts, Carl's Jr. and the like. Properties like these have filled in almost every piece of vacant land within the city limits to the point where our authenticity feels like it can be summed up in a credit rating from Standard & Poors. Assimilation into this kind of cityscape is key for any restaurant to survive, and it's because of this that you will find some of the most authentic and memorable eateries within these strip malls.
Tucked away in a tiny plaza with the likes of Enterprise Rent-a-Car and two fast food restaurants, you'll come across Boca do Brasil. The fast food drive-thru’s and U-shape of the center make parking tight, but you’ll soon find out that risking the possibility of being towed is worth it. As you approach the front door, the scents of freshly baked breads and seasoned beef waft past the hinges and reel you in. Roughly three feet in front of the entrance, you hit a short dividing wall with display glass that rises roughly another foot, giving you a front row view of the wood-fired oven and prep tables where the chefs proudly display their work. As you walk into the main dining area, you immediately notice the country’s flair for bright colors that inspire relaxation and happiness.
The walls are painted bright shades of yellow and green with paintings of hard-working fishermen and the amazing landscape that call Brazil home. Even the tablecloths are green, a patriotic nod to the Brazilian flag. A large photo of one of the country’s many waterfalls covers an entire wall next to the restrooms. Subtly, this tells you everything. The “rush-n’-go” atmosphere you find in most American dining establishments has no place here. Like the waterfall, you move at your own pace; enjoying the moment in which you find yourself. This restaurant is merely the creek-bed that guides the way to your cliff where the moments shared between you and your company, like the water, flow freely from dish to dish before dispersing, only to return some time later after yet another cycle of life has passed.
This is an all-Brazilian staff, led by head chef and owner, Angela Mahaeta. During a trip to Las Vegas to visit her son, she decided to move and bring her passion for authentic cuisine with her. Then, in 2011, she opened the doors to what can rightfully be claimed as the only “homemade” Brazilian restaurant here in town. Angela initially started with a menu that incorporated many Greek dishes, characteristic of a population that has such a noticeable presence throughout southeastern Brazil and Sao Paolo. The menu now, however, is comprised of mainly traditional Brazilian dishes with some old favorites thrown in, like the Lamb or Chicken Gyro, Greek Salad with imported Kalamata Olives and feta cheese and lamb-topped “Greek Pizza” with tzatziki sauce. As for that “samba” flavor that most patrons here crave, you’ll certainly find that in plenty. A can of Guarana Antarctica is a terrific way to start everything. This soft drink is a staple of the Brazilian culture. In addition to the 16 other ingredients common to the Amazon Rainforest, it’s main ingredient is the natural caffeine from the fruit of the indigenous Guarana plant. This fruit, with it’s coffee bean-sized seeds, has been used by the local population for almost 3,000 years. Also, their Coxinha is second to none. A crispy, fried potato dough stuffed with shredded chicken and a brand of cheese named Catupiry, native to Brazil thanks to an Italian immigrant Mario Silvestrini who introduced it in 1911. An additional “must” on the appetizer menu is an order of the Pao de Queijo. Palm-size balls of baked potato dough with a warm, cheesy center that are far more flavorful than they appear at first glance.
Those already familiar with the larger Brazilian steakhouses will recognize Picanha; if not by the name then certainly by the flavor. This distinctive cut of sirloin steak surrounded by a thick strip of crispy fat that requires nothing more than a few cloves of garlic and a pinch of salt as seasoning, if at all. While some may be concerned by the lack of added spices, rest assured that what the cut lacks in seasoning it more than makes up for in beefy flavor with its perfect char that only a real “churrascaria” can do. If it’s closer to lunchtime and you find steak a bit heavy before returning to work, other menu items common throughout Latin America are here. Various filets of beef, chicken or fish can be found a milanesa (breaded and fried) or grelhado (grilled) with traditional rice and black beans on the side. Something else? Carne com Batata is a hearty, stew-like dish with a robust serving of potatoes, carrots and tender beef soaked in a mixture of olive oil, wine and garlic. Or go with the Bife a Cavalo so you can get protein from both the thin cut of grilled beef and the two fried eggs on top. These pair very well with the rice and black beans, by the way.
I learned something new here. Brazilian food is far more influenced by foreign culinary cultures than I would’ve guessed. Menu items like Beef Strogonoff, a Russian-born dish with chunks of sautéed beef and rice covered in a sauce made of a sour cream named “smetana” that’s found in Eastern Europe, the Chicken or Eggplant Parmegiana and various spaguetti (Portuguese spelling) dishes are very popular amongst the locals and have become staples of typical Brazilian dining. Much of this has to do with the authentic ingredients that are used by the staff, many of which you can purchase for yourself directly from the display shelves behind the host counter. This is where you’ll also find their homemade desserts on display. According to the Brazilian Association of Chocolate, Cocoa, Peanut, Candy & Derivatives (yes, Brazil has their own association monitoring the Sweets Market), the average annual consumption of sweets is 2.6 kg per person. Brazilians clearly love their sweets, and Boca do Brasil clearly know how to satisfy someone’s sweet tooth. Their list of desserts changes from day to day, but you’ll always find a native candy wrapped tightly in individual neon pink wrappings on the display shelf, known as Sonho de Valsa. These perfect, palm-size bonbons have a cashew cream surrounded by multiple layers of chocolate and a wafer cone that gives it a crunchy texture that elevates it to dessert perfection.
I’m no stranger to South America. I’ve lived there on more than one occasion and I have friends that are from various countries throughout Latin America. For whatever reason, Brazil is the one country that I’ve never visited. Boca do Brasil may not be in Brazil, but the atmosphere you feel from the moment you walk in is nothing short of pure Brazilian. It’s easy to understand why many Brazilians always appear so relaxed. Lush rainforests, beautiful beaches and attractive people are no longer the only reasons I’m interested in visiting. Knowing how satisfying their cuisine is makes the idea of finally buying my ticket even more probable, and I have Boca do Brasil to thank for that.
Boca do Brasil
4825 S Fort Apache Rd,
Las Vegas, NV 89147
While he now calls Las Vegas home, Darren J. Alvino, II is an avid traveler who has lived, worked and studied on almost every continent. Four years as an Army Ranger, a B.A. in International Studies from The University of Colorado and an boyhood fascination of National Geographic have ingrained in him a deep love & respect for all aspects of our worlds’ cultures, especially their cuisine.