One of my first cultural lessons as an exchange student in Rio de Janeiro was about the popular Brazilian bar known as a botequim or boteco. My bedroom window was directly above this South American version of the watering hole, which serves a bit of food, and can be found on almost any block in the city. I'd fall asleep to the sounds of Tropicalia and the boisterous chatting of patrons sitting outside, drinking cold draft beers, and eating bolinhos de bacalau (little balls of codfish) or mandioca frita (fried yucca).
With the opening this month of Boteco, a version of that Brazilian staple has arrived to Main Street, Alhambra. The draft beer is there, but, as well as the liquor, décor, and cuisine, it is more upscale than the botecos I knew in Rio. In addition to the standard caipirinhas – the traditional Brazilian mixed cachaça (a sugar-cane rum), sugar, and lime drink – the restaurant has fruit-juice variations including passion fruit and mango. Appetizers draw from standard Brazilian favorites: a puffed cheese bread that you can pop into your mouth,the fried yucca which looks like French fries but tastes much better, and chicken croquettes. But the rest of the menu is much more sophisticated and extensive than your standard boteco.
"Here it's a bar, with small plates, like Brazilian tapas," one of the owners, João de Paula, said. Though it serves grilled meat, which literally translates to churrasco, it's not an all-you-can-eat meat fest. "It’s what a boteco signifies, a place where Bohemians go and have a good time with friends," de Paula, who is Brazilian and previously was general manager of Havana House, explained.
For the 40-year-old de Paula, opening Boteco is a chance to return to his roots — with a globalization twist. As a young man in São Paulo, he briefly played professional soccer, but realized he would never come close to achieving his dream of being the next Pelé. Instead, he left and ran a busy downtown cafeteria with his cousin. Opened only during lunch hours, it served 600 people a day, serving 20 salads, 30 different hot plates, 20 desserts. All of these were available in a traditional Brazilian by-the-kilo arrangement, where patrons fill up their plates and then weigh them.
The business was a success, but de Paula was hit hard with the travel bug. He had relatives in the Pasadena area and decided that he would move to California to live with them. “Everyone wants to come to LA,” he said simply. He sold everything: his condo, a brand new washing machine, and the share of the restaurant. From playing video games he learned English. He arrived on a student visa, and was taking classes at Pasadena City College, when his cousin introduced him to Richard Valenzuela, an owner of Havana House. They were set to expand their popular establishment in Whittier to Alhambra.
For the next 10 years, de Paula dedicated himself to growing that business. Other than his wife, who is Brazilian and from the Northeastern State of Fortaleza, he did not interact much with other Brazilians. The idea was to “look forward, can’t look back,” he said. But since his children were born, he felt “like I had to pass the culture to the kids,” he said.
That’s when de Paula came upon the idea of creating an upscale Brazilian restaurant that would include the bests of his native food, a classy bar atmosphere, Bossa Nova — and, of course, a place to watch soccer. When Cuban Bistro closed and the property was available, he seized the opportunity. Teaming up again with Valenzuela, who is a part owner, he went to work on opening Boteco. To find a chef, he put out a call on Craig's List. More than 40 Brazilian cooks responded from which he selected Adriana Andrade Maradyan, who moved from a state in Brazil’s vast interior four years ago and is a graduate of the Cordon Bleu.
Since the restaurant opened, de Paula said he has met more Brazilians than he ever knew lived in the area, with a new one coming in every day, ecstatic about the addition. (According to Census data, only about 28 Brazilians live in Alhambra. According to de Paula's numbers, just about every one of them has now made an appearance). And not only Brazilians have been curious. On a recent weekday afternoon, most of the city government of Alhambra was checking out the new restaurant and flavors. But it's on Sundays when Boteco gets closest to its Brazilian roots: feijoada is featured, a national dish made of beans and pork; Brazilian soccer is on television; and once a month, the samba band Brasilidade plays live.
28 W Main StAlhambra, CA 91801(626) 281-1777
Opened Tuesday – Sunday: 5pm-2am