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Sticks and cones to feed your bones

By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review

The small, assorted kebabs that are requisite to street festivals in Brazil have arrived in the heart of Hillcrest.

So have the sidekicks that go with them, including yucca fries, conical-shaped coxinha (chicken croquettes) and toasted manioc flour known as farofa, which Brazilians sprinkle onto meats and veggies to give them a little extra texture and a slight nutty flavor.

A newcomer to Hillcrest for Brazilian street food (Photos by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Unlike the decadent meat feasts (churrascaria) found at Brazilian steakhouses, espettos are inexpensive snack-size skewers of beef, chicken, seafood and veggies. They’re eaten on the go or as noshes while lolling over a few drinks.

(l to r) Mixed meat and veggie skewers

Espettos Brazilian Skewers is the radical rebranding of Sushi Co., which Brazilian transplants Ramon Barros and his friend Andre De Paula decided to close due to increasing competition.

“This is better because it’s our own street food,” Barros said while cutting up the prized cap of tri tip (picanha) from a slab of top sirloin. Both sections of beef end up on thin, wooden skewers measuring about 9 inches long.

With my spouse in tow on the first visit, we ordered four different skewers and the yucca fries. It was a Sunday afternoon and Champions League soccer was streaming on two flat-screens. Due to the deafening shouts by a handful of jocks rooting for their teams, we fled and ate the food at home.

Yucca fries

Every skewer was delicious, especially the picanha. Priced at $3.99, it’s the most expensive on the menu, seasoned only with a little salt and pepper so that the rich, beefy flavor shines through. And it did.

The mixed skewer contained an appetizing threading of top sirloin, chicken and pork sausage; the latter faintly resembled kielbasa. Another skewer yielded a few ounces of cubed chicken thighs. Barros says it’s the only protein that gets marinated before hitting the grill.

Nonetheless, all of the meats were succulent and flavorful, even without the support of excellent chimichurri vinaigrette or above-average honey mustard sauce.

A tasty combo of zucchini, bell peppers, eggplant and onions comprised the vegan skewer, which served as the lean, healthy component to our meal. The powdery farofa struck a particularly good friendship to this skewer.

Yucca root is a starchy Brazilian staple used in a number of dishes throughout the country. It turns up here in the form of deep-fried logs resembling short, chubby french fries. Delicately crispy on the outside with fluffy mashed potatoes on the inside, they shouldn’t be ignored.

Returning solo a few days later for lunch, the atmosphere was pleasantly mellow. A Brazilian TV channel played at very low volume. So I parked myself at a table and plunged into a six-piece order of chicken coxinha and a small paper basket filled with fresh potato salad.

The coxinha are made offsite by a Brazilian cook who encases trace amounts of shredded chicken breast and cream cheese into potato dough. Tailored after croquettes, they’re shaped into teardrop cones, deep-fried to order and yield about two bites each.

An order of coxinha, also known as chicken croquettes

They arrived with ketchup, which steals their joy. Ask instead for chimichurri and you’ll discover the perfect fit.

The potato salad was a simple, satisfying construct of finely cubed potatoes and tiny pieces of celery in a light mayo dressing. A liberal sprinkling of black pepper made it sing, although I had to ask for it at the order counter.

Potato salad

In addition to house wine, the eatery is stocked with domestic, craft and Brazilian beers in cans and bottles. Prices start at $1.75 for Bud Light. There are also weekday lunch deals from 11 a.m.–3 p.m. featuring salad, a side dish, two skewers and a fountain drink for $9.90.

Lindo maravilhoso Espettos! You’re a marvelous addition to this block of Fifth Avenue. I don’t miss the sushi at all.

— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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