If you haven’t been to the Grove Street stretch of Jersey City’s once-dowdy Newark Avenue in the last few years, you won’t recognize it. The discount variety stores, dusty law offices, and mom-and-pop groceries have largely been replaced by fast-casual cafes, Irish gastropubs, multi-story Italian restaurants with roof gardens, and a cookie store with a bright orange neon sign that reads, “I Got Banged In Jersey City.”
Right next door to said cookie store is one of the avenue’s newest tenants, Tamborim (“tambourine”), a Brazilian restaurant that opened last December, just a few steps from the PATH station. It was founded by Michael Casalinho, who is Portuguese and grew up in a Brazilian neighborhood in Newark’s Ironbound. He previously ran the Portuguese sandwich shop Broa (which is currently shuttered, but may reopen).
Tamborim is a cave of a place, with a Brazilian theme to the décor, including distressed wood walls opposite a long bar with basket-woven stools, and a ceiling that soars to two stories, dwarfing intimate tables set in niches. A wall of sugarcane stalks stands at the end of the room, while the open front of the restaurant spills tables tucked among potted palms onto the sidewalk.
Brazilian cuisine not only incorporates indigenous and Portuguese elements, but also African and Middle Eastern ones in a cuisine loaded with seafood and river fish, pork and beef, and tropical fruits and vegetables. Starch staples favor corn, tapioca, and yuca, but little wheat.
That said, wheat is at the heart of one of the menu’s most appealing offerings, kibe (two for $14), submarine-shaped hand pies filled with oniony ground beef, flavored with cinnamon, and coated with a cracked wheat shell. Though they originated in Lebanon, their long sea voyage left this version pretty much the same as they taste in the city’s modern Levantine restaurants. Less characteristic of kibe’s origins are the sauces Tamborim serves with them: one is orange, spicy, and mayo-based; another mild, green, and herbal; a third is a chopped salsa something like pico de gallo, only more vinegary.
The appetizer section of the restaurant’s menu teems with things deep-fried and baked. Perhaps the most delicious is bolinhas de bacalhau. These finger-shaped fritters, four to an order for $14, are composed mainly of potatoes and salt cod. They are a culinary passion in Brazil, each briny bite redolent of sea and earth.
Other fritters feature shrimp or chicken, and there are beef empanadas, too, both small and large. Other apps feature fried pork and yuca, and if the three sauces served with all of these provide insufficient flavor, request the red relish called molho apimentado, which tastes wonderfully tart, garlicky, and oily, with a tongue-searing hotness.
The main courses represent an aspect of Brazilian cuisine far different from the appetizers. Foremost among them is the signature feijoada ($32), based on a simple dish of black beans that originated in Portugal, though the beans are indigenous to Brazil. These beans are stewed with assorted pig parts, here including coarse-grained pork sausage, fatty pork belly, ears, tails, and carne seca, a kind of beef jerky – making every stab into the seething black depths an adventure.
Brazilian feijoada is just as famous for its sides. At Tamborim, the dish comes in a cast iron cauldron with satellite dishes flanking it. These include kale — shredded and barely cooked into an oily salad, tangerine segments, a bowl of rice, and, perhaps most important of all, farofa – yuca meal toasted with tidbits of pig skin. Strew it over the feijoada each time you serve yourself from the seemingly bottomless cauldron.
The influence of Africa on the cuisine is incalculable, especially in the Brazilian use of root vegetables, coconut milk, and dende, the bright orange palm oil that is central to the cooking of Bahia, the northern coastal state that’s the home of Afro-Brazilian cooking. One illustration on the Tamborim menu is bobo de camarao ($23), a shrimp porridge thickened with yuca meal and laced with dende. Here, the dish is a bit bland until you stir in the molho apimentado.
Portugal is not the only European country that has influenced the country’s gastronomy. A friend and I ended our survey of Brazilian food here one evening with a taste of beef stroganoff, a dish supposedly created by a French chef in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1891 (but maybe not). Unlike the kibe, this dish has been changed from its original formulation, through use of cream, tomato, and South American vegetables rather than the traditional Russian thickening of sour cream. Your choice of chicken or beef is stirred into a pink sauce laden with mushrooms and corn. Served on the side are the kind of potato sticks usually shaken from a can.
These main courses are so voluminous, they typically serve two people, and even then you may have trouble finishing them. Perhaps you will regret having downed so many of the fritters, or the baked cheese balls called pao de queijo, which are an indispensable accompaniment to a Brazilian meal. Or you may have dabbled in the restaurant’s strong caipirinhas – the national drink made with the sugar cane liquor called cachaca mixed with brown sugar and lime juice.
The restaurant joyfully offers this beverage in several flavors, including watermelon, passion fruit, and blackberry – but if I were you, I’d stick with the lime, and don’t try to drink more than one.