One of the South Bay’s most popular Brazilian restaurants, Panela’s, has expanded into a much larger space. And it’s not popular because they serve churrasco, or Brazilian barbecue, but rather because they’ve committed to serving lunch plates that stays true to traditional flavors.
Gaucho cuisine from Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, has historically been the most successful style of Brazilian food in the US. Think churrascarias (steakhouses) like Fogo de Chão (pronounced fo-go dèe shoun), which first opened in the city of Porto Alegre and recently launched an IPO in 2015. These rodizios (another word for all-you-can-eat steakhouses), where diners tug at tableside-carbed sizzling beef and other carnivorous delights, are Brazil’s biggest culinary hit. Also popular are “por kilo” buffets, where restaurant charge for grilled meats, plus hot entrees like stroganoff and cold salads like heart of palm, by weight.
However, the ubiquitous lanchonetes (luncheonettes), lanches (lunch counters tending to have lots of sandwich options) and botecos (pubs) that found in every neighborhood in Brazil haven’t been as popular in Los Angeles. There are some old standbys like Cafe Brasil in Culver City, plus Wood Spoon in Downtown, but few nail those traditional flavors as well as Panela’s Brazil Cuisine in Redondo Beach.
A few remaining Brazilian lanchonete-style restaurants have watered down their menus only to close, like El Sereno’s Taste of Brazil. Leticia Barth originally opened Panela’s, which means pans in Portuguese, in a tiny space in Redondo Beach in 2013. Marcia Delima, who has a catering background, was a frequent customer of the original Panela’s, and decided to partner with Barth on an expanded space. In late 2017, the co-owners took over a large slot next to the original restaurant, and business has been booming ever since. Most of the customers are Brazilian, but there’s a large contingent of locals, many of which are Korean-American.
Panela’s tries its best to serve food like in Brazil, with daily specials that hew closely to what one might find in Brazil’s big cities. On Mondays, a popular dish in São Paulo is the virado à paulista, a plate representing the many cultures of Brazil with a simple tutu de feijão (beans with yucca flour), rice, a fried banana, couve (thinly sliced, sauteed collard greens), a fried egg, farofa (toasted yucca flour) and a lightly breaded and fried pork chop. Panela’s will often serve the pork chop lunch on Mondays to reflect the tradition in São Paulo.
Barth and Delima also focus on every day comfort fare like delicious salgadinhos (savory pastries), petiscos (snacks) like bolinhos de bacalhau (salt cod cakes), and porçoes (sides) such as mandioca frita (yucca fries). The menu even gets into traditional sandwiches called bauru and prato feito, a sort of blue plate special with meat and a few sides.
One of Panela’s most requested dishes is carne de panelas, a tangy pot roast served with beans, rice, and yucca fries. Says Barth, ”It’s the plate that reminds me most of home back in Porto Alegre.” Porto Alegre is known for it’s churrasco, or Brazilian grilled meats, though according to Barth, there’s a lot of Italian and German influence there.
When she lived in Brazil, Barth operated a branch of Sancile, a popular por kilo chain in Porto Alegre until it closed in 2004. There she prepared local dishes like frango à parmegiana (chicken Parmesan), a classic Italian-Brazilian specialty. They also made celebrated national dishes like bobo de camarão (shrimp in dendê and coconut milk thickened with yucca) and moqueca de peixe (Bahia-style seafood stew).
Those dishes show up here at Panela’s as daily specials, although the iconic feijoada, a hearty bean stew packed with pork cuts, adheres to Brazil’s weekly routine of delicacies. Panela’s only serves feijoada on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as in Brazil. At Panela’s, they throw Sunday feijoada into the mix too.
Finding dishes like virado à paulista in LA is a rare treat, especially with a refreshing glass of cashew fruit, graviola (soursop) or cupuaçu (Amazonian fruit) juice. It’s small touches like serving these traditional dishes with native fruit juices that completes the Brazilian experience at Panela’s.
When Marcia Delima was a customer, it was Barth’s potato salad, called maionese in Brazil, that brought tears to her eyes because it reminded her of home. Brazilians are as serious about potato salad as they are about soccer and sertanejo, or Brazilian country music. And Brazilians pine for humble plates like maionese, stroganoff, and bauru, that remind them of meals at home in the motherland or at lunch counters. It’s these recipes that draw rabid regulars to Panela’s.
Together, Barth and Delima are staying true to the flavors of their shared hometown of Porto Alegre, both as good at the restaurant business as they are behind the sizzling panels in their kitchen. LA might not be ready for Ivete Sangalo, but Panelas Brazil Cuisine is here to prove that there’s more to their culture than steak and samba.
Panela’s Brazil Cuisine. 2808 Phelan Lane, Redondo Beach, CA. (310) 214-4143, panelasbrazil.com.