When many Americans think of tapioca, their minds might immediately jump to the plastic pudding cups they tucked into their lunchboxes each day and ate as kids. Or they might think of the boba pearls sitting at the bottom of their milk tea.
But for Delvira Rodrigues, owner of Brazilian Bread in Berkeley, “tapioca” means the crepes her mother made for her growing up — made of tapioca flour and stuffed with savory or sweet fillings. It’s also the basis of many other dishes on her menu, including the yuca fries and the namesake Brazilian cheese bread, or pão de queijo, made of tapioca, milk, eggs, and cheese.
Rodrigues grew up in Brazil — the central state of Goiás, to be exact. But when she moved to San Francisco 10 years ago, most of the Brazilian restaurants she encountered were steakhouses. Though you’ll find similar steakhouses in Brazil, they’re certainly not everyday fare. In San Francisco, Rodrigues couldn’t find any casual restaurants, or lanchonetes, serving the Brazilian staples she grew up eating, like tapiocas and pão de queijo.
“I really felt I would like to have some Brazilian — real Brazilian — things here,” Rodrigues recalled.
So Rodrigues started to bake her own pão de queijo using a variation on her grandmother’s recipe. She served it to friends, and it was a hit. “People started to like it, asking me to make more and more,” she said.
Though Rodrigues received her formal training in computer science — and taught it at the university level back in Brazil — cooking, she says, is her true passion. Three years ago, she started Brazilian Bread as a catering business. In February 2018, she opened her own lanchonete — a casual, cheerful, counter service joint — on Solano Avenue in Berkeley.
A little more than a year after its opening, the place has gained a following among the local Brazilian community, and you might hear Rodrigues conversing with customers in Portuguese. “I have a bunch of Brazilians come here and say, wow, it’s better than Brazil!” Rodrigues said proudly. For other customers, it’s their first time trying pão de queijo and other Brazilian comfort foods.
At Brazilian Bread, I like to start every meal off with a variety of pão de queijo — ask what’s fresh out of the oven. The original variety is the most popular in Brazil, typically eaten for breakfast, mid-day snacks, or at parties. Here, it’s made with even notes of nutty, salty cotija cheese throughout. Each golf ball-sized bun had a thin, crispy, golden layer on the outside, with toasty brown freckles that lent a hint of tasty flavor, and a comfortingly chewy, mochi-like center. The garlic variety adds garlic and rosemary for a fragrant Brazilian take on garlic bread; the jalapeño version adds mild, playful heat reminiscent of a jalapeño popper. The bacon version, meanwhile, is infused with smoky richness. But my favorite of all is the kind stuffed with guava jelly. The guava center, still molten and piping hot, was simultaneously tangy and sweet, tempered by the mild creamy flavor of the cheese.
The tapiocas — crepes made out of tapioca flour — make a good option for those looking for a lighter meal or side dish. The outside was pillowy, slightly chewy, and served warm. Though I sampled the version stuffed with prosciutto, cheese, and hearts of palm, I found it a little one-note. My favorite version was stuffed with tart guava jelly, plenty of shredded coconut, and a hint of Jack cheese that added creaminess and a touch of salt for balance.
While I often find açaí bowls to be too sweet, the version here was well-balanced and refreshing. The açaí purée, blended fresh to order with guarana syrup for its supposed energy-giving properties, was smooth and not too sweet. It was an ideal base for the crunchy, sweet granola, the creamy slices of banana, bursts of fresh blueberries, rich peanut butter, shredded coconut, and a drizzle of honey on top.
There’s also a couple of salgados, or fried savory bites, that are often served as appetizers, snacks, or party foods. The coxinhas are chicken croquettes shaped into squat cones; the risole are shaped like half-moons, with a cheesy corn filling inside. “Brazilians love coxinhas,” she said. “If they are going somewhere that doesn’t have coxinhas, they [go], “How [come] you don’t have coxinhas?” she laughed. Here, both the coxinhas and risole came bite-sized, with a crisp, thin crust and a creamy, cooling herbed aioli. I particularly enjoyed the risole, which were full of gooey melted cheese and sweet corn kernels.
For a more substantial meal option, there’s also a variety of sandwiches. I tried the linguiça sandwich served on ciabatta bread. (Note that this bread does contain gluten, so while the pão de queijo and tapioca crepes are gluten-free, they may not be safe for celiacs.) The linguiça, which Rodrigues purchases from Brazil, was perfectly browned and delicately flavored with garlic; a smearing of chimichurri sauce added herby, garlicky zest, while melted cheese helped tie all the flavors together.
And for those looking for a heavy meal, there is steak here. The picanha na chapa plate was generously piled with slices of top sirloin steak with grilled onions. Though the steak was tender, it didn’t have much grilled flavor. But I did like adding the farofa, or toasted cassava flour, to the steak; it soaked up the juices of the meat and added a hint of crisp texture and nutty flavor. The yuca fries served on the side were excellent — crisp on the outside, airy and light on the inside. While most of the other tapioca-based items I tried — the pão de queijo, the tapioca crepes — were chewy, the farofa and yuca fries showcased tapioca’s crispier side.
For dessert, Rodrigues offers brigadeiros, a beloved treat often served at birthday parties. Served in paper candy cups, they resembled round chocolate truffles covered with chocolate sprinkles. But the texture and flavor were completely different. The condensed milk made them creamy and airy, with a nostalgic, mellow chocolate flavor and melt-in-your mouth texture. I recommend taking a box of six with you on your way out — and a bag of frozen pão de queijo to bake at home.