Beany Babies


Beans, beans— I don’t care what the rhyme says, I love the musical fruit. I delight in my annual Hoppin’ John gorge and never get enough of them in the Caribbean whether they’re called rice and peas in Jamaica or peas in rice in Barbados or Moors and Christians in Cuba. Cranberry beans, black-eyed peas, pintos, turtles, and navies, I love them all. But my favorite variant is the rich stew of black beans laced with sausage, smoked pork, sun-dried beef, salt pork, and more that is feijoada, the national dish of Brazil. I’ve savored it on a Saturday in Rio with the sands of Ipanema across the street. I’ve scarfed it down in homes where variations included chicken, cabbage, and carrots cooked in the rich bean juices. I’ve covered it with hot sauce and sprinkled it with the fine cassava meal called farinha. I’ve even sampled it in the oldest house of Candomble in Bahia as the ritual dish served to the orisha Ogum. A midsummer trip to Bahia rekindled my cravings and sent me to Cabana Carioca for a bean fix.

The multilevel spot has been a fixture for several decades and is now on its second generation of diners. In its current incarnation, the spot offers upstairs-downstairs luncheon options, with the climb reducing the price of the prix fixe. Feijoada is available every day on the à la carte menu at $13.95, but becomes a daily special on Wednesdays and Saturdays for $10.95.

On my first evening, my friends and I climbed stairs decorated with a tropical mural that takes kitsch to new heights. Short on ambience but heavy on portions is the best way to characterize the small, narrow upstairs room. A utilitarian salad bar dispenses all the iceberg you can chomp along with a few wilted tomatoes and onion slices. We served ourselves sparsely, leaving room for the legumes to follow. Only a hungry trucker could finish the steaming pot of black beans with pieces of chewy, garlicky sausage; smoky, streaky slab bacon; and fork-tender pork. There was enough juice to dye the accompanying white rice black as well as bits of sliced orange and a mess of well-cooked greens. Pimenta malagueta provided piquancy and grainy farinha added texture. Knowing that I wouldn’t finish, my companions nibbled on garlic-infused camarao paulista ($14.95) while awaiting the signal to attack my plate.

The vacation photos were developed a few weeks later and it was back again with a friend who’d accompanied me to Brazil. Ratcheting up a few notches, we tried the downstairs version. The ambience was marginally better and we sat across from the bar under another kitschy mural. Caipirinhas and the chattering of families of vacationing Cariocas set the mood. This time my trip to the salad bar yielded a fresher and more varied selection that included hearts of palm. My friend began with caldo verde ($5.95), a hearty soup of chopped greens and sausage that would have made a light meal. The beans were center table and again proved the hit of the evening— my friend’s crisp-skinned suckling pig ($14.90) was tender, but a bit too salty. Desserts were staunchly American, with not a quindin or a mango in sight, so we settled for dark cafezinhos ($1.75), content to have satisfied our beans jones with one of the cheapest and most copious feijoadas in the city.