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Restaurant Tours: Brazil, Portugal, and Albany Park

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Rio's Casa Iberia, in Albany Park, bills itself as "the only Portuguese and Brazilian restaurant in Chicago." Such a claim invites not only the usual question--how good is the food?--but also the question of how well it represents Portuguese and Brazilian cuisine. The answer to the first question is easy. Certain gastronomic principles apply universally--quality of ingredients, complexity and intensity of flavor, balance of tastes and textures, seasoning, presentation, appropriateness of garniture, and so on. The second question may be more difficult.

I've been to Brazil, and the food at Rio's is better. I've also been to Portugal (whose cuisine is superior to Brazil's), and Rio's food, though good, can't compete with the best of Lisbon, Setubal, or the Algarve. Its offerings are on the level of meals at small, family-owned establishments that dish out simple, hearty food from limited menus. (One-third of Rio's menu is devoted to Spanish specialties, which I did not try, concentrating instead on Brazil and Portugal because their cuisine is less accessible to Chicagoans than Spain's.)

A storefront on an unprepossessing stretch of Kedzie Avenue near the Ravenswood el tracks houses the restaurant. As you walk in, a bar in dark woods with red Leatherette stools looms on the right. The room, painted white, is long and narrow with tables going all the way back to a small private area created by a dropped ceiling and wood paneling. Toward the back and to the left is another room, decorated with dingy striped wallpaper and carpeting in need of a cleaning. This is a good place to sit if you don't feel like being bombarded by the music (there is entertainment every night), and the plush-covered chairs here are more comfortable than those in the outer room.

Ameijois cataplana from Brazil ($4.95) makes a nice beginning to a meal: six clams steamed in tomato-and-white-wine broth and stuffed with ham, onions, garlic, green pepper, and parsley, the clams fresh and sweet, the broth rich and full-flavored. Another good starter is the Portuguese polvo a' moda da feira ($4.95), steamed octopus marinated in a tangy, peppery vinaigrette and served cold. Brazilian-style steamed mussels fared less well only because the bivalves could have been fresher. An excellent tomato broth, spicy and tart with garlicky overtones, made the most of 17 mollusks that ranged in quality from just acceptable to good. Camarao estoril sol, from Portugal ($5.25), turned out to be three medium-sized, somewhat rubbery shrimp in a delicately sweetened, light-bodied sauce redolent of herbs and garlic.

Two soups are listed on the menu at $3 apiece: Portuguese caldo verde, a vegetable melange made from veal stock, pureed potatoes, cabbage or collard greens, and Portuguese sausage, and a soup of the day from either Brazil or Portugal, depending on availability of ingredients and the whim of the chef. On one occasion the caldo verde succeeded admirably, flavors and texture nicely balanced; on another, the sausage had unaccountably been omitted and the broth oversalted. The one time we opted for soup of the day it was a robust seafood stew, chock-full of fresh-tasting crab (in the shell), scallops, mussels, whitefish, cod, and potato. A parmesan-sprinkled salad of romaine lettuce, red cabbage slivers, raw onion slices, and tomato wedge in a tart vinaigrette is included in the price of the entree.

If there is such a thing as a national dish, it would have to be feijoada, a stew made from black beans and chunks of fatty, gristle-studded pork, sausage, ham hocks, beef tongue, and various other animal parts that most Americans don't eat. It is a peasant dish, coarse and cheap. Rio's version ($10.95) had more animal than vegetable, an inverse ratio to the feijoadas I've sampled in Rio de Janeiro and parts north. Its meat was lean and high-grade--pork, sausage, beef, with tiny bits of bacon--and the result was a far cry from the fatty, bony, strong-flavored gelatinous mixture many Brazilians scarf down once a week (it's traditionally served on Saturday). The beans at Rio's had a rich intensity that offset the tender, spicy meat. The dish was accompanied by the traditional farofa (a cereal made from manioc root), whose texture here was authentically dry and gritty, like couscous mixed with sand, and flavored with sausage, egg, and spices. A mound of rice on one side, an onion-tomato salsa on the other, and orange slices perched on top of the stew completed the presentation.

Muqueca de camarao ($13.95), a specialty from Bahia of shrimp stewed in coconut milk with green pepper, onion, and tomato, was creamy and satisfying. Alentejana ($10.95)--cubed pork marinated in wine, cooked with paprika, garlic, and bay leaves, and served with white rice and clams--was good but did not match the best of its Portuguese counterparts. The pork had been allowed to become dry despite a rich, meaty sauce, and the three clams that graced the plate were too few to add any real flavor, they were little more than a garnish. In Portugal, the dish incorporates dozens of baby clams, which impart a characteristic sweetness that Rio's version lacked. Roast duck with Portuguese sausage ($11.95) did not distinguish itself any way. Half a duck, overdone by most standards though perhaps not by the Portuguese, shared a platter with a tough, dry sausage link, a mound of rice, and a couple of orange slices.

Only two desserts are offered, flan ($2.50) and orange cake ($3.50). The flan--eggy, chewy, and slightly grainy--rested in a dark pool of caramel and was topped by very untraditional whipped cream. The sweet and dense orange cake, rolled jellyroll fashion, was soaked in a tart, fruity orange sauce. Fair cappuccino ended the meal on a comfortable note.

Wines are moderately priced. On one visit, we had a 1980 Sao Domingos Reserva ($14), an ordinary table wine that went pleasantly with the food. On another, a 1978 Condo de Santar ($18) was better, a full-bodied accompaniment to the meaty fare. Erratic service occasionally caused long waits between courses.

Rio's Casa Iberia, 4611 N. Kedzie, is open Monday through Friday 5 PM to 11 PM, and 5 PM to Saturdays. All major credit cards are accepted. Call 588-7800 for reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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