So it turns out that one of downtown Oakland’s best-kept secrets is a Brazilian lunch spot on the first floor of a restored Victorian that sits within spitting distance of I-980.
To dine at the Rio California Cafe, you have to find your way to Preservation Park, which itself is a gem hidden in plain sight, a short stroll from City Center, past the chain restaurants in the outdoor “food court,” past the parking garage — past all that teeming urbanity. Enter through a wrought-iron gate marked “Private Property” (no worries, the park is open to the public during the day) and it’s as though you’ve been transported to, well, some other kind of place: gorgeous tree-lined thoroughfares, period-specific street lamps, a bona-fide Parisian fountain, and — most strikingly — sixteen Victorian homes lined up like a convocation of tastefully bedecked matrons.
Since the late Eighties, these very buildings have housed nonprofits and small, socially conscious businesses — more than forty of them at the moment. And one of them is home to Rio California, a place where the employees of those nonprofits, and whoever else cares to come, can get a big plate of jerk chicken or feijoada for less than ten dollars — where, if you sit out on the sprawling deck in the shade of a thick-trunked, leafy palm, you’ll feel like you’re dining at a cozy bed and breakfast, far away from the city and from work and from any unpleasant thing.
Ney Araujo, the cafe’s gregarious chef-owner, opened Rio California in the late Nineties, as the brick-and-mortar successor of a sandwich cart business he’d operated on the UC Berkeley campus. According to Araujo, the food he serves is very much like what you’d find at a cafe in Rio, which is to say it spans a number of global influences — Italian, German, African. It’s what Araujo calls “continental food with a Brazilian accent.”
For starters, you can choose from about a dozen different sandwiches. These are a holdover from Araujo’s street cart days, the recipes mostly adapted from his brother, who used to sell sandwiches on the beach in Brazil. Almost all of them are cold and salad-based — chicken salads, tuna salads. The “Sunset” is a tuna salad sandwich for people who like their tuna moist and mayo-heavy, with the addition of raisins and corn kernels for a mix of sweet and savory. Served on hearty multigrain bread, it’s the kind of thing that’s perfect for a bagged lunch or a picnic outing.
Araujo also makes Brazilian-style empanadas, usually a couple of different kinds every day, with a thick, chewy crust. The chicken empanada was somewhat dry and bland, but the spinach version was excellent: savory, smoky, mushy, with a hint of spice. One of these, served with a side salad, would make for a light lunch on its own.
There are about eight hot lunch specials posted up on any given day, ranging from traditional Brazilian dishes to things like lasagna and seafood risotto. Everything’s homemade. One of the most popular dishes is the jerk chicken: boneless thighs coated in a traditional Jamaican spice rub (made more Brazilian by the addition of extra cumin and black pepper) and then grilled until tender and succulent. The dish has a pleasant heat that’s unlikely to inspire coughing fits — but if you’re a spice junkie, you can doctor it up with the house-made tomato-based chili sauce. The plate comes with a side of rice (clumpy-looking but tasty) and a green salad with a refreshing cilantro-cream dressing.
Another day I ordered fish tacos: mild grilled tilapia fillets that served as a blank canvas for sliced avocado, sour cream, and a sweet-and-spicy corn and tomato salsa with just enough kick to leave my mouth tingly.
The one item you should never pass on when it’s available, on Wednesdays and Thursdays — the one I’d drive across town, or even navigate a tunnel or bridge, for — is the feijoada, Araujo’s version of Brazil’s national dish. It’s basically a bean stew: black beans slow-simmered until tender with bacon and pork loin and three different kinds of sausages (Portuguese linguica, a dense Cajun-Brazilian sausage, and a kind of mini Italian sausage with the soft texture of Spam). The stew is served with rice, tender-crisp collard greens, and skillet-toasted yucca flour. You can mix it all together or, if you’re a daintier eater, mix a little at a time, with a dash of hot sauce, making sure you get a little of everything in each bite. The dish is the marriage of disparate elements that form a cohesive whole, and it’s hard to identify which component is the star: maybe the beans, cooked until soft and oozy; or the yucca flour, which by itself is like coarse sand, but softens when mixed in the beans, adding texture and a bit of savoriness.
Best I can figure, almost everyone who eats at Rio California is a regular to some extent. Araujo greets everyone at the counter and takes their order, and then the customers shuffle off to a table inside or out on the patio, which I’d argue is as peaceful a place as you’ll find in all of downtown Oakland. There are a disproportionately high number of solo diners, and you get the sense that this is their getaway — their “moment of Zen” in the middle of a busy workday. Everyone takes their time.
I never wanted to be that guy who blows up someone’s secret lunch spot. But, in the end, some things are too good to keep to yourself.
“Keep it a secret,” Araujo said conspiratorially to one first-time customer, who marveled, as I had, that he’d never guessed there was a restaurant here. “We can only do what we can do.”