A tribute to my friend:
I was so sad when I looked at my friend Elvia’s Facebook page a few days ago and saw a memorial posted there. A heavy heart at losing another dear friend. Unbeknownst to me, she passed away last month in her native country of Brasil to which she returned about a decade ago.
We had been friends for a long time. I met her around 1990 when I had a part-time job teaching at a language institute in the City. Her husband Paulo who was teaching Portuguese at the same school invited me to come by and have lunch at her restaurant “Café do Brasil – Brazilian Fruit Basket” on 7th Street. It was a tiny hole in the wall and she was in the middle of moving to a bigger space just across the street at the corner of 7th and Mission Streets. It was there that I tasted a smoothie for the first time, long before they became popular. Elvia’s smoothies were called vitaminas, and my sons as well as my favorite one was the Banana vitamina which had honey in it.
As I was underemployed at the time, I offered to do some work in setting up some shelves and moving stuff in what turned into a delightful exchange of labor for food. I am not really mechanically inclined to put it mildly, but am always willing to help. So I got to work and promptly made a couple of mistakes in cutting some wood – and Manuel, the chef cooking there started to sing a song: “Matthias, es un hombre de papel”, while giving me a big smile. It took me a bit, but I figured out what he had sung and I laughed, as he was absolutely right. Elvia named one of the delicious chicken entrees on her menu after Manuel, and the dish became a staple in our home cooking repertoire – chicken cooked in dark beer with plenty of spices. Later on I designed a menu for Elvia, applying some freshly learned Pagemaker skills, and thus gave credence to Manuel’s song.
Café do Brasil became almost a second home for my sons and me. On birthdays, and whenever I could afford it, I would take them to lunch or dinner there, driving over to South of Market from our tiny North Beach apartment. We loved the food: Feijoada completa with rice, black beans, farofa, collard greens, and a pork chop on the side, fried bananas with cinnamon, empanadas, coquinas. Elvia’s restaurant opened up a whole new culinary experience for us.
We attended the opening celebration of the new restaurant space of course. I recall Elvia – surrounded by a multitude of helium-filled balloons – being so happy to have ample space now for cooking, and room for more customers. The restaurant was bright and airy, with picture windows on two sides. We celebrated with our favorite drink: Guaraná Antarctica, a delicious Brazilian soda made from the Guaraná berry.
A few years later, Elvia had to move her restaurant location again, I think she either lost her lease, or they had raised her rent. The move was close – just up to Market Street – however, gritty would have been an understatement for this section of Market Street at the time, not that it has changed all that much. But: Elvia’s restaurant being there raised the bar and became a lone bright spot between 6th and 7th Street. Inside and outside, the restaurant was painted in the Brazilian colors of bright yellow and green, and there was now also space for the occasional musical performance, or for watching soccer games. World Cup games were rather lively.
When Elvia got sick, the restaurant closed as her employees were unable to help to keep it open. It was a big loss for the many people that loved Elvia and her food, and to have a place to go where you felt welcome and were not rushed. Cafè do Brasil was so much more than just a restaurant and Elvia made sure of that.
I was able to see her in the hospital one more time and thankfully she looked like she was going to be fine. In fact, she was bossing the nurses and attendants around a bit, in the manner of keeping her employees on the their toes, which made me smile. I think she was tired though and wanted to go back home to Brasil to retire, which she then did.
I love you my friend, when I come to knock on heaven’s door, it would be delightful to have some Feijoada together. I could make some Schnitzel the next day too.
The drawing of the palm tree – to be included in a future cookbook – is by my son Patrick – circa 1990.
Here is Elvia’s recipe for a Banana vitamina:
2 bananas, 2 cups low-fat milk, 1 tablespoon honey, and a dash of cinnamon
1. Put all the ingredients in a blender and then blend until smooth (it is advisable to peel the bananas before you put them in)
2. Serve in chilled tall glasses