This week, Eater NY staffers are writing about restaurants we love — ones that might not be hot and might not be cool but have special places in our hearts for one reason or another. They’re love letters of sorts, odes to the places that give us faith in restaurants, and New York, too. Today, reporter Carla Vianna writes about a Hell’s Kitchen restaurant that gives her a taste of her childhood and her South Florida hometown.
If there’s one thing my boyfriend and I can agree on, it’s our love for Rice ’n Beans — both the quintessential Brazilian dish and the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant.
It’s where his sister took us two years ago when we first visited her in New York, long before we began planning our own move here. It’s the first place we went to when I landed this job, and it’s the same place we celebrated Guil landing his. Now, it’s where we meet after a long, straining day for a $5 caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail made with cachaça, sugar, and lime (arguably the best happy hour in Hell’s Kitchen), or where we go on lazy Saturday afternoons to indulge in sweet ‘n creamy chicken stroganoff. As two Brazilians living in Manhattan, it’s become a nostalgic reminder of the food that anchored our childhoods.
Rice ‘n Beans is the only restaurant I’ve returned to more than twice since moving here last summer. And quite honestly, it’s not just the food that keeps me coming back: I’ll admit that it’s not the finest example of Brazilian cuisine in NYC, with its sometimes-inconsistent quality and hit-or-miss dishes. It certainly doesn’t top the stroganoff — my all-time favorite dish and a Brazilian classic — that I got for half the price at my former go-to spot in Miami, before making the move.
But just like that one spot in Miami — whose owner would cook whatever she felt like on any given day, regardless of what was printed on the menu — it’s the restaurant’s homey, quirky personality that keeps me returning.
Here, even the stroganoff comes with a side of black beans, a strange combination considering you wouldn’t normally mix one with the other on a single plate, unless you’re eating at one of the popular buffet-style lunch spots in Brazil. (I love it though, because it gives me the chance to fulfill both of my prevailing food cravings.)
The dining room is tiny and the lighting dimmed; it’s cozy, intimate, and even a little cramped, so that you can always hear the Portuguese conversation of your neighbor’s table. To get to the bathroom, you have to walk through the kitchen, often dodging a smiling cook and a piping-hot frying pan. The few servers who staff the place, whose faces are now familiar, always let us know when there’s 15 minutes left for happy hour, giving us the chance to put in one last order of caipirinhas.
And if there’s one thing that’ll keep us coming back, it’s that happy hour. Not much can beat $5 caipirinhas, which, by the way, always come strong no matter how much ice is lodged into the miniature glass, or the baskets of fried salgadinhos, a.k.a. Brazilian finger food like mini beef empanadas, cheese-stuffed rolls, and chicken croquette-like snacks called coxinhas, all on sale for $8. (Others seem to like this too, as Rice ‘n Beans is often packed, with both Brazilian and non-Brazilian diners alike.)
Luckily, the restaurant, open since 1991, does excel in the simple dish it’s named after. Considering I grew up in a non-meat eating, Brazilian household — as paradoxical as that sounds — rice and beans were a constant throughout my childhood, perhaps more so than other Brazilian-Americans that grew up in South Florida like me. It’s the one meal that’s sitting atop the stove every time I visit home, and here in Hell’s Kitchen, the black beans are spiced the way my family makes them, with ideal notes of salt and garlic. Plus, the ratio of bean-to-liquid is just right, 50/50 each.
In Portuguese, we have a word to describe the feeling of longing for someone or something: saudade. It’s a feeling that this unassuming restaurant has the power to cure, even if just for a couple of hours. It may not be the finest food in NYC, but the one thing Rice ‘n Beans does right is exactly what its name suggests: It gives me a little piece of home.