The Brazuca burger includes corn, bacon, sausage, potato straws, ham and more, and is served here with dragon fruit juice. (Alan Chazaro)
On an episode of Parts Unknown, the late food philosopher Anthony Bourdain had this to say about the unwavering swagger of Brazilians:
“No beach? Hire a water truck. Economy in the shitter? Turn up the music and dance. It’s known here as the ‘little slippery way.’ You adapt. You survive. No matter what, you have a good time. And you don’t go it alone.”
Read: Brazilians can alchemize bad situations into good ones. They also know how to indulge — and how to feed others with whatever is at their disposal.
Few places in the Bay Area’s culinary scene uphold this spirit of Brasileiro transcendence as plainly as Brazuca Açaí and Brazuca Burger in Richmond. The açaí shop and food truck are owned by Christopher dos Santos, a 21-year-old semi-professional soccer player, and his immigrant father, Romilson dos Santos. Between their two homestyle businesses, the dos Santos family serves açaí bowls, juices, salgados and various twists on Americana, like a Brazuca hot dog and the Brazilian-style cheeseburger — known to Brazilians as “x-tudo” or simply “x” (pronounced “chis” in Portuguese) — which is a cult favorite in some parts of Brazil.
With their unabashedly Brazilian approach to food, the dos Santoses are certainly standing out. And they’re doing it all from the ground up.
“[Before Brazuca], I was working at a warehouse sorting boxes. Every day I worked the whole day, then would leave for soccer practice. I slept for four, five hours. I was drained,” Christopher says. “I was 19. I had nothing — no business, no plans. A pastor at my church pulled me aside after service one day, and God spoke to me. I knew I would be blessed with a food business.”
When a shop in the area went out of business, the younger dos Santos felt divinely moved to invest in the location to open his Brazilian enterprise. Prior to that, his father had been selling food out of their home and was a former restaurant owner in his hometown of Goiânia, Brazil, before arriving in the Bay Area 25 years ago as an undocumented laborer. (He has since gained citizenship.)
Since opening Christopher’s açaí shop last year, the father-and-son duo have doubled down on their Brazilian pride by importing even more ingredients and ideas from South America to “bring the taste from back home.”
The burgers, like the vibrant energy of Brazilians, are massive and unbridled. For the elder dos Santos — a construction worker by day who runs the food truck in the evenings — Brazilian burgers remind him of his upbringing, which was defined by poverty and a relentless determination. Building out his food truck took over three years, and he focuses solely on the burgers, which were his idea to serve.
“I do it my way,” he says. “If you’re cooking just for the money, it’s not worth it. You have to cook from your heart. You have to put your ‘alma’ in it.”
Each loaded burger — and I don’t say that lightly — will likely fall apart in your feeble hands with each bite. The version I tried comes with the usual fixings of a large American cheeseburger, but adds pineapple, bacon, egg, ham, sausage, corn and potato straws. It seems odd at first. Yet, miraculously, it all works. After trying to cram it into your mouth, you’ll need to recalibrate your angle once you comprehend its epic proportions — and how different it is from any burger you’ve likely eaten.
While the dad is busy slinging “x-tudos” from his flamboyantly decorated yellow and purple food truck parked out front, the younger dos Santos prepares fresh juices (including dragon fruit, maracuya and acerola), açaí bowls (Brazilian or American style) and salgados (traditional small bites like coxinha and kibe) with the help of his brother, Matthew, and their mother, Leonice.
“We just love home-cooked meals,” Christopher says from inside the tiny restaurant’s open kitchen. “The authenticity is important. Condensed milk and powdered milk are common in Brazil. That’s why we have that option here. It’s not common [in açaí bowls] in the U.S., but I just decided to bring it to the people, Brazilian style.”
When it comes to notable Brazilian eats around here, there’s Cafe de Casa in South San Francisco — which the dos Santoses mention as one of their favorites in the region — and The Brazilian Spot on Valencia Street. There are Brazilian sandwich shops and steakhouses, and a handful of humble sit-downs where you can get a great plate of feijoada scattered around the Bay, too. But none of these quite capture the oddly angled imagination of Brazuca, with its simple, savory snacks and food truck lovingly snuggled on the corner of an unassuming neighborhood.
Most of the time, Brazilian food in the United States gets flattened into a choice between high-end churrascarias — where the servers slice prime cuts of meat right in front of you in an endless, all-you-can-eat supply — or hyper-trendy açaí shops on posh avenues near a Lululemon. Rarely, however, will you find a Brazilian “lanchonete” — a style of working-class Brazilian luncheonette that serves bite-sized, fried and microwaved snacks on-the-go.
At Brazuca, that’s the focus. Inside — away from the swirl of a busy neighborhood intersection beneath an I-80 overpass next to someone’s driveway with toys scattered out front, a cell phone repair shop and a tattoo parlor with a blow-up doll hanging above its entrance — you’ll be psychologically transported beyond U.S. borders. Whether sipping a tropical smoothie, spooning the legendary properties of purple açaí or munching on a batter-fried ball of shredded chicken, you’ll forget you’re in California for a moment. I know I did.
Painted in bold shades of yellow, green and purple, the house-turned-eatery emanates a funkified atmosphere that adds a feeling of legitimacy to it all. Though the two-story unit is crammed with a stairway that leads up to a micro dining area and not much else, it’s more than enough space for the dos Santos family. The elder dos Santos tells me how his country of origin has long been underscored by economic struggle, police wars and favelas (literal “slums,” in his words, that are haphazardly built on whatever slope of territory one can find). But here, he and his family have carved out a cement slice of Americanized success, and brought Brazil with them.
Certainly, açaí is easy enough to find around the metro Bay Area. But I’ve never seen it presented in such a truly Brazilian context. Though Brazuca’s version is a bit sweet for my taste, it’s the little details like hyping up the powdered milk that remind me of my own trip to Brazil, where the interactive nature of street vendors is more of a loose freestyle than a formal transaction — and where it’s more about making human connection than it is about rushing on to the next thing on your to-do list.
In multiple visits to Brazuca, I’ve overheard patrons hanging out at the counter and chatting in Portuguese while a wall-mounted TV plays Brazilian news or soccer highlights. Time suddenly becomes warped — everything is slowed, relaxed. It’s unpretentious and even unconcerned, a hub of exchange where immigrant folks can casually loaf around to experience some level of comfort and familiarity.
Like Bourdain said, “You adapt. You survive. No matter what, you have a good time. And you don’t go it alone.”
Brazuca Açaí (4500 Barrett Ave. Unit B, Richmond) is open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and until 8 p.m. on Sat. and Sun. The Brazuca Burger food truck is open daily from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
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