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Among some food fascists, cocktails are derided as palate killers and thus deemed uncouth. I’ve always found such positions a touch, well, stupid, partly because I love bourbon, especially before beef, and partly because booze can be such a very good friend to chefs of a certain aptitude.
Witness the man at the table yonder on the patio of Vida Loca: To judge by the way he treats his date, whose existence he barely seems aware of, the guy’s a crab. But he’s happy about his caipirinha, the classic Brazilian cocktail composed of Cachaca, sugar, and lime, and, after downing a few, he perks up considerably. He indulges in an assortment of other exotic cocktails (“What else you got?” he keeps asking his waiter) before his steak arrives, after which he inquires about the farofa, or yuca flour, riding on his plate—the contents of which he devours as if he’s spent the day splitting logs. Far from sober—but not yet slobbering—and a full octave more cheerful than when he arrived, the man gushes, upon signing his credit card slip, “That was the best meal I’ve ever had.”
The moral of this story is that the steak may have benefited as much from those cocktails as the guy who drank them. The hard drinker and I ordered the same thing, a “special Brazilian cut” of rump steak tossed in sea salt. After just a few beers, the meat’s imperfections aren’t lost on me. By steak standards, it seems fairly priced at under 15 bucks. The problem is that the chewy, scantly seasoned, supremely unjuicy beef doesn’t meet any of the standards by which one would normally judge a steak. If the jazzbos churning out Latin grooves inside were taking requests, I’d ask if they were down with old-school punk: “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
The meal is neither an aberration nor a clear sign of things to come, because at Vida Loca, the quality of the food seems almost spiritually linked to the quality of the moment: There’s no question I would have looked at that rump cut more fondly had I lived la vida loca myself, and, on most nights, this is the place to do just that. The restaurant’s location has served as a Brazilian outpost before, and the new owners seem to get the drill. On one night, a bossa nova balladeer makes good on what the restaurant’s name seems to promise: His voice is sexy without being too throaty or overbearing, making it a fine foil for food that could be described in roughly the same way.
Brazilian food is somehow both totally unknown and easily familiar; most Americans couldn’t guess what would be on a menu like Loca’s, yet it contains few things that a typical diner hasn’t seen before. Loca’s appetizers, which run from deep-fried yuca to beef carpaccio, offer a good primer on a cuisine that’s Latin American by nature of its geography and European thanks mostly to a strong Portuguese influence.
Nothing is so exotic as to be an acquired taste; casquinha de siri is the funkiest starter of the lot, and it’s basically really good crab dip flavored with palm oil and coconut milk. Risole are not unlike the chicken croquettes you’d find at a tapas bar—breaded, creamy inside, and flavored with a bit of sherry vinegar. The watercress sauce bathing steamed mussels doesn’t do much for the mussels, which are a touch skunky. But the dish’s big clay pot breeds camaraderie as everyone around it dunks bread into the green juice sloshing around inside.
Entrees are only slightly more ambitious, although with many priced in the high teens, it’s hard not to wish that the main attractions offered a little more in the way of razzmatazz. Given that Loca’s owners also operate the Dancing Crab next door, it’s not entirely surprising that the seafood entrees are the only ones that seem worthy of the cocktails that come before them. Deep-fried shrimp rolled in coconut are a plain and simple seasonal classic dish, sweet and crisp and flanked by grill-striped hunks of pineapple. Another shrimp dish, this one involving a thick, spicy puree of shrimp and nuts, is less approachable but equally delicious. If you arrive at the restaurant hoping to try something new, ignore the broiled salmon. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but the wilted-spinach-and-salmon combination strikes me as only slightly less familiar than mashed potatoes with garlic.
It wouldn’t be total hyperbole to equate Vida Loca with someone who’s trying to kick smoking by feasting on chocolate; its ever-changing moods reflect off the plate. On a balmy, rowdy Friday, I don’t give my mercilessly dry chicken dish much thought. The guy at the bar’s a mensch (“Grab a stool!”), and the cocktails flow well enough that grousing about wrinkly peas and limp fried potatoes seems a little priggish. But on a deafeningly dead Tuesday night, when my only company’s an insipid New York steak—a piece of meat I’m inclined to douse in a fiery pepper sauce that makes everything it touches taste only of it—I’m tempted to cry about the injustice of it all. I order another drink instead.
Vida Loca, 4615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 537-3200.
One reader who loves Japanese food but can’t understand raw fish (“I’m human!”) is heavily into Miso So, which looks like a sushi bar but doesn’t serve sushi. The grilled skewers are uniformly decent—and the calamari-stuffed salmon skewer is better than that—but if I return, I’ll be thinking about the beef short ribs, sticky with teriyaki goo and plump with soft, stringy meat. As for the no-raw-fish rule, the diner to my left can’t help but ask a staffer, “Are you guys allergic or something?”
Miso So, 7929 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, (301) 656-9225. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.