Those who knew Newark’s Ironbound 10 years ago would be astonished to see it now. Amid a general exodus of the Portuguese population, this working-class neighborhood that follows the meandering Passaic River has been infilling with Ecuadorans, Mexicans, and, especially, Brazilians. Wilson Avenue, a thoroughfare that begins at the end of Ferry Street and sets off in the general direction of Newark airport, is now lined with pretty little Brazilian cafés, all of which barbecue meat to one extent or another, causing plumes of delectable smoke to amble down the honking thoroughfare more readily than cars.
It made this Texan’s heart quicken to see the 50-pound bag of irregular hardwood charcoal slouching beside the barbecue pit at Tapajos River Steak House, named after an Amazonian tributary that’s rapidly becoming polluted with mercury residues from gold mining. The dining room is a plain one, with families sitting around tables and single men occupying stools at the angular lunch counter. As we contemplated the menu, a dude popped up with a skewer of nicely blackened chourico and teased a complimentary sausage onto each of our plates, winning us over immediately. The menu is evenly divided between seafood and meat. The waiter warned us that a half-order ($18) of the churrascaria for two would be enough meat for the three hungry diners in our party. Not quite believing him, we also ordered muqueca ($12) from the seafood menu.
As we finished the sausages, the waiter pointed to the back of the room, directing us toward the salad bar. We could have skipped it, because it demonstrated once again that Brazilians—in area restaurants at least—have only the most perfunctory appreciation of veggies. The centerpiece is the so-called Russian salad, a mixture of overcooked potatoes and carrots whose main constituent is mayonnaise. There’s also a shredded slaw that caused one companion to look up and note— “Hey, I think there’s turkey in this.” But then the sides began to arrive. First, there was a plate of rice; second, a bowl of exceptional black beans; third, a formidable platter of french fries, fried yuca, and fried bananas; fourth, a bowl of farofa—a condiment of toasted manioc meal flavored with meat fragments; and finally, a bowl of vinegary salsa spiked with fresh chiles.
It took a good 20 minutes, but when the meat mountain appeared a hush fell over the table. Picking through the morass, we identified marinated chicken thighs, giant cubes of sirloin, meaty beef short ribs, a couple of pieces of pork tenderloin, and, the Brazilian favorite, picanha, coarse-grained beef carved from the rump and rimmed with fat. Cut thin so it absorbs maximum smoke, picanha tastes like beefy bacon when you bite into it. We were nearly sated when that Afro-Brazilian standard, muqueca, showed up in two shiny cauldrons. The first immersed four large pieces of tilefish in coconut milk flavored with palm oil and heaped with peppers, tomatoes, and onions, reminding me of New Orleans Creole cooking. In the other vessel was fish broth bound with rice flour and flavored with dried shrimp to make a tasty orange pudding called vatapa.
As we pushed back from the table, my friends—who’d been in Brazil just the week before—noted that it was one of the best Brazilian meals they’d ever had.