“Have you been to Bahía, Donald?”
José Carioca, a dapper, green-and-gold, happy-go-lucky parrot, poses this question to Donald Duck in the (mostly) animated 1944 film The Three Caballeros. For its beauty and charm — and, oh, the food! — José insists that Bahía (buy-EE-ah), a coastal state in northeastern Brazil, has no rival. It’s a full-throated endorsement, particularly from José: His surname, Carioca, identifies him as a native of Rio de Janeiro. Even for a parrot-about-town who has experienced the beauty of Rio’s beaches and the excitement of its nightlife, Bahía is a magical place.
That spirit has been transported to Astoria, Queens, not by magic, but by the devotion of Bahían sisters Elzi and Erli Botelho Ribeiro. Each time we walk in the door, we recognize afresh how the sisters have distinguished Point Brazil from the other casual Brazilian restaurants nearby. Several of those neighbors, it’s true, also offer a pay-by-the-pound steam table and salad bar and a churrasco station of sliced-to-order rotisserie meats. Few, however, enjoy big windows like those that brighten Point Brazil’s dining room, and none presents such sunny faces to its guests. Although many conversations are in Portuguese, we are inevitably greeted warmly in English, always by the staff and often by fellow diners.
In 1988 the reception was just as warm, we imagine, when Elzi traveled alone from her home city of Itabuna to visit an older cousin in New York. What was planned as a short stay, to get a feel for U.S. culture and to learn English, proved more beguiling than Elzi imagined, and in 1990 the sisters were reunited when Erli flew north to join her. In the years that followed, while the sisters’ home cooking won many compliments, a restaurant of their own didn’t seem within reach. Babysitting, housecleaning and similar jobs paid the bills and supported such small luxuries as ballet lessons for their young daughters at a neighborhood dance studio.
Their big break came when the studio closed. It was small, and a block away from the foot traffic on busy Steinway St., but the light was marvelous from morning through afternoon. Drawing on their savings and on the support of family and friends, Elzi and Erli transformed the studio into a restaurant in 2008; five years later they expanded into the adjoining space next door. The daughters, we understand, did keep up with ballet lessons elsewhere, at least through their grade-school years, but nowadays the only dance at Point Brazil is a do-si-do around the buffet.
And around the display case of desserts. When we arrive, we do our best to avert our eyes — more about dessert later — until we’ve had a proper meal. (By this we mean lunch or dinner. Breakfast reportedly brings its own assortment of interesting fare, but we are not early risers.) To be honest, we rarely spend much time on the salad side of the buffet, unless to snag a helping of shimmering collard greens, lightly sautéed in garlicky olive oil. But when those same collards are offered on the hot side of the buffet as feijão tropeiro – all a tangle with pinto beans, fried egg, bacon and pork sausage – the simpler salad-bar presentation pales in comparison.
Every small bite of the coconut cream cake brings us a little closer, in our hearts, to Bahía.
In short order we look past the collards to weightier options, which change daily; we keep our eyes open for fish stew, oxtail, baked chicken and pork ribs. It’s also essential to make room for a scoop of rice, a ladle of beans and a scattering of farofa – the sandy appearance of the coarse toasted cassava flour belies its deliciousness. The buffet is not vast, but it is fresh; during the busiest dining hours, replenishments are continually walked out from the kitchen.
The price of the buffet ($6 to $8 per pound) depends on our indulgence at the churrasco station, where a server tends to rotisseries bearing a dozen or so different meats, unskewering and slicing at our bidding. Some folks favor salty pork sausage, or chewy chicken heart, or beef ribs sprinkled with a little more of that farofa; we always clear a little space on our plate for top sirloin, on the rare side.
On the first Saturday of the month, the sisters serve a “taste of Bahía” ($12) that partakes richly of palm oil, a culinary connection to Bahía’s West African heritage that figures in nearly every bite. The sampler includes vatapá, a creamy, nutty, seafood-y paste; caruru de quiabo, an okra gumbo laced with onion and ginger; bacalao salad, prepared with the namesake dried codfish; and a local rendition of the fish stew called moqueca. Without fail we also ask for an acarajé (ah-cah-rah-zhay, $5). This beloved street food consists of peeled and mashed black-eyed peas that are fashioned into an oval, deep-fried until crisp, sliced open and overstuffed with vatapá, caruru and bacalao. Afterward we lick our fingers (only, of course, so that we don’t use too many napkins). Alas, these specialties are available only on first Saturdays, and not at all during July and August; at the height of a New York summer, firing up additional burners makes the kitchen too hot even for Bahíans.
We promised dessert. A display case and the countertop above are crowded with cakes, pies, mousses and flans (most $3-$4 each) made in-house by the sisters themselves. Bewildered by choice even after many years of visits, we haven’t come close to trying them all. Our current favorite is a coconut cream cake snowed under by shredded coconut and gilded with a swirl of condensed milk; every small bite brings us a little closer, in our hearts, to Bahía.