During my college days, when I lived in Allston, Massachusetts, one of my favorite places to eat was a tiny family-run restaurant that served inexpensive, delicious Brazilian food. My friends from Rio and São Paulo introduced me to this casual spot, where we’d order huge feasts of home-cooked dishes like picanha ao alho (garlic steak), feijoada (a traditional meat stew) and other Brazilian specialties, with plenty of rice and beans on the side.
Here in the Bay Area, a handful of high-end Brazilian steakhouses exist around the Bay, but small, family-owned eateries are a bit harder to find. Of course, in Berkeley, there’s Brazil Café , but I was looking for something even more homey, like my old spot in Allston. Fortunately, I came upon a hidden gem in downtown Oakland called Rio California Café, and it has quickly become my go-to restaurant for Brazilian comfort food.
You’ll want to note a couple of things before planning your visit to Rio California Café. First, it is only open for lunch during weekdays (11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday). Second, its location makes it even more unique. Rio California is nestled inside an historic Victorian home within a part of Oakland you may not have spent much time in, or even heard about — Preservation Park.
From the moment you walk through Preservation Park’s wrought-iron gate, it feels like being transported back in time to the late 1800s. Despite its location right next to I-980, the two-block-radius neighborhood provides a surprisingly peaceful respite from the bustle of downtown, with its tree-lined streets, quaint gardens, period street lamps and row of historic, renovated Victorian homes.
Preservation Park was once an upscale residential area in the 1870s, but by the 1970s, it suffered decline and was on the brink of destruction. Fearing it would lose the area’s last Victorian structures, the city of Oakland stepped in to preserve them. But rather than keep the area residential, the city transformed Preservation Park into a pocket business district. Several Victorian homes (five original homes from the area and several more brought in from other parts of the city) now house small businesses and nonprofit organizations that have social, cultural or environmental missions.
Rio California was established in Preservation Park in 1998. Chef Ney Araujo, a former journalist-turned-restaurant-owner, first started Rio California as a food cart in Berkeley. Araujo eventually closed the food cart to run the brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Inside, you’ll find a casual, relaxing ambiance with a light and bright feel. Its white walls are covered in oil paintings featuring scenes from Brazil, and the tables are covered in green and yellow tablecloths, reflecting the country’s national colors. On a warm day, however, you’ll want to get a seat on its spacious outdoor patio.
Something that might surprise you is that not all of the dishes on Rio California’s menu hail from Brazil. If you’re not in the mood for moqueca de peixe (a fish stew with coconut milk, hearts of palm, coriander and peppers) or coxinhas (chicken croquettes), you can order lasagna, spanakopita, a chicken teriyaki sandwich on foccacia or even gumbo. This global array of cuisine reflects something you would see in a café in Rio, where these various culinary influences are a reflection of the country’s diverse population and tastes.
In fact, one of Rio California’s most popular dishes is a Caribbean dish — jerk chicken. Here, the tender meat is spiced to perfection with a traditional Jamaican rub and is served with rice and a side salad with a creamy-cilantro dressing, which is a perfect balance to the spicy meat.
For seafood enthusiasts, I recommend the grilled tilapia, which is topped with grilled onions and chopped tomatoes. The fish tacos are also noteworthy. They are accented with sour cream, sliced avocado and a spicy-sweet tomato-based salsa.
But while at a Brazilian restaurant, it would be amiss not to try one of the traditional dishes. Just make sure to come on Wednesdays or Thursdays, when feijoada or moqueca are featured on the menu.
When I visited on a recent Thursday, the smoky scent of feijoada permeated the café’s interior. Araujo is eager to help newcomers navigate the specialties. He explained that feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, originated during the country’s involvement in the slave trade. African slaves who were brought to Brazil made feijoada, using whatever discarded animal parts were available, along with black beans and spices. At Rio California, the hearty stew is made with black beans, a mix of Brazilian, Portuguese and Italian sausages, and generous pieces of pork. It comes with rice, collard greens and farofa (sautéed yucca flour). Mixing all of these components together creates a thick, flavorful stew — the epitome of comfort food.
Coxinhas are served daily at the café. These large, teardrop-shaped croquettes are served with a homemade dipping sauce made with tomatoes, onions, cilantro and jalapeños. The coxinhas are perfectly fried, with a crispy exterior that gives way to a soft potato-dough interior, filled with creamy shredded chicken. Be warned: they are highly addictive.
Rio California’s Brazilian-inspired sandwiches are a nod to the restaurant’s humble beginnings as a food cart that existed in Berkeley from 1992 to 2001. The Ipanema sandwich, with chicken breast and pineapple, or the Copacabana with tuna fish, dill, carrots, and green onions, are reminiscent of savory and sweet sandwiches that you would find on the beaches of Rio.
While a visit to Rio California Café can’t stand in for a trip to Brazil, this special restaurant in a special part of town can make you feel like you’ve gotten away from your everyday, if just for an hour or two. It’s still one of Oakland’s best-kept secrets, but one that deserves to be shared far and wide.