Like most everyone in Austin, I am hit with a slight tinge of paranoia when venture across Interstate 35 into the east side of the city. It’s seen as the “dangerous” part of town, somewhere you should aim to avoid when the sun goes down. Either that, or white hipsterville. While the area does have its fair share of sketchy neighborhoods and artsy-fartsy establishments, the food there certainly should not be discounted. And in this case, I am telling you to run, not walk, to Rio’s Brazilian Café.
I happened upon this restaurant tonight by coincidence. Brian Crumley, the Austin-based jewelry designer I was meeting to profile for my features class, had previously raved about the place and suggested that we meet there for the dinner-interview. I’m not one to say no to a restaurant suggestion, especially one for a type of cuisine I’m unfamiliar with. Before tonight, I ignorantly though Brazilian food consisted mainly of meat, meat and meat. Oh, and did I mention more meat?
With the image of a hipstered-up version of Fogo de Chão floating through my thoughts, I was incredibly surprised to discover that a large portion of the restaurant’s menu was vegetarian and/or gluten-free. Many of the items that included meat could also be made vegetarian upon request.
The restaurant building itself is unassuming. The small building stands at Pleasant Valley and East 4th Street with no immediately obvious sign to demonstrate its existence. In the early evening sun, I managed to drive by the lime green building twice before finding the entrance to the modest parking lot.
The retro-chic interior was cute enough, but I was interested in the food. Unfortunately I had gotten there slightly earlier than my dinner company, so I was faced with a menu filled with delicious-sounding descriptions but no real sense of what was simply interesting and what was phenomenal. While the waiter was quick to help me narrow down my choices, I ended up ordering what Brian suggested: the Yuca Bolinho with Roast Pepper salgadinho (“savory pastry” in Portuguese) and the Angra dos Reis (butternut squash soup).
I must say that vegetarian and gluten-free Brazilian pastries are a dish best served very hot, and I was happy to see that Rio’s hit the mark perfectly. Now “ooze” is not a word I particularly like to use, but in this case, I will make an exception. The moment I cut into the pastry’s toasted yuca flour exterior, I was greeting by the most delicious gouda cheese, which so happened to ooze out of the salgadinho. For those who are iffy about trying foreign foods: yuca is a type of root vegetable, and I most closely equate it with a less-starchy potato. Either way, it’s delicious when surrounded by gouda. The roasted pepper doesn’t really do much here and is generally quite unnoticeable unless you look. The pastry comes with the restaurant’s malagueta sauce, which is apparently what Rio’s is known for aside from their cheese breads. When you dip the salgadinho into the sauce, it serves as a sort of synthesizing kicker, getting you at the very end of your chew right when you’re about to swallow. It releases one of those slow burns, which can be taken as good or bad depending on how much you enjoy your spice.
While there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the butternut squash soup, it wasn’t anything spectacular. For those who have been to a Trader Joe’s, it tastes exactly like the grocery chain’s boxed version. But Rio’s does add a bit of shaved basil and a tasty slice of parmesan-topped toasted baguette, which is nice.
Aside from the rather ordinary soup, I have to tip my hat to Rio’s Brazilian for creating and introducing me to such a delicious pastry. I will certainly make the trip back to Rio’s just for that Yuca Bolinho salgadinho.