Meatless Monday

Sin Carne: Vegetarian Tamales at Brasil

It's the small things that make Brasil loom large in Montrose.

By Katharine Shilcutt July 6, 2015

Left: vegetarian tamales; right: Brasil's daily specials are listed in colorful chalk.

One of the things I love most about Brasil, the casual cafe hidden in plain sight at the intersection of Dunlavy and Westheimer, is that nothing here is an afterthought. Not the fresh flowers that greet guests as they enter, not the colorful chalkboard listing daily specials, not the efficient counter service that gets large volumes of customers fed in record time each day. To me, this thoughtfulness is one of the reasons that the cafe has not just survived but thrived in the midst of the fraught Montrose scene since it first opened in 1992.

2604 Dunlavy St.

When you order Brasil's popular Eggs El Salvador at breakfast, you're getting a lot more than just freshly prepared pupusas topped with poached eggs and salsas that are also made in-house. You're also getting a side of well-seasoned black beans and cool, crunchy curtido, the traditional condiment/side dish that pairs with pupusas in Salvadoran cuisine. It would be easy for Brasil to use beans straight from the can and eliminate the curtido entirely—would the average Montrosian know that a crucial component is missing? who knows?—but they don't. Moreover, at $10 it's not a breakfast that's going to break the bank.

At lunch, an $8 lunch special of quiche and soup could stop there, but it doesn't. Brasil adds a thoughtful side salad gratis, full of fresh tomatoes and perky frisee or whatever greens are in season at the moment. To your dish of quiche and soup—both of which are baked and cooked, respectively, fresh each day—you can even add a glass of sparkling water for free. Where other restaurants may be content to nickel and dime customers to death (which...we admittedly understand to an extent; profit margins are often thin, and beverage upselling helps the bottom line considerably), Brasil instead offers endless refills of sparkling water on tap.

In fact, Brasil continually has an excellent draft selection, and not just of sparking water. The smartly curated craft beer selection is well-regarded, and challenged only by the nearby Hay Merchant, while another new addition turned my head this past Friday afternoon: kombucha. Full disclosure: I'm in a long-term relationship with one of the owners of Kickin' Kombucha, but I was still surprised and excited to see that Brasil is now offering special flavors of the locally-made fermented, sparkling tea on draft. The flavor of the day on Friday was a blend of hibiscus, mint and lemon (a flavor available only in kegs, not in bottles) and paired perfectly with my lunch that afternoon. I ate my vegetarian tamales with a tall glass of the hibiscus-heavy kombucha, a sort of hippie twist on a more traditional Tex-Mex meal of tamales de puerco and jamaica.

But back to those little extras... Even on my plate of plump tamales—one filled with butternut squash and poblano, the other kale and black beans—a beautiful salad had been piled up right in the center, topped with a few fanned-out slices of deep green avocado. I ate the salad first, savoring the sweet orange slices and crisp jicama and pungent red onion and peppery watercress, before I headed into my tamales. The red and green sauces on the side were as memorably hot as ever, and I almost regretted pouring so much of each on top, but the silky-smooth masa on the tamales managed to soothe the burn in each bite. In fact, the trade-off only made each bite more compelling, and before I knew it I'd polished both off, marveling that the entire affair had only cost $9.

Not too long ago, our restaurant critic (and editor in chief) Scott Vogel was bemoaning the prevalence of restaurants whose offerings—in both quality and quantity—often fall short of their price tags, opining: 

No amount of artisanal smarts or tenacious sourcing or culinary wizardry can justify the price that a margherita pizza commands in some of our finer establishments (average cost of ingredients: $3 and change). And while there are several plausible explanations for the inflated numbers proliferating on today’s menus, one thing’s for certain: they’re creating expectations almost impossible to meet.

One more thing is for certain, however: Brasil does not inflict such high prices on its customers, and it's better for it. Indeed, it's turned the paradigm on its head by instead setting such high expectations for itself that customers are hard-pressed to set them any higher. That's a recipe for success in any industry—service or otherwise—and an unexpected, well-constructed side salad is as good a place as any for a restaurant to start.


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