Mention of Brazilian food is often enough to ignite cravings for meat. After all, the popular notion of Brazilian food in this region is usually informed by churrascarias — steakhouses where waiters rove the dining room with meat-strung skewers.
Cafe Carmo also is Brazilian, but it doesn't follow that script at all. This tiny Warehouse District cafe specializes in vegetarian and vegan dishes prepared along a tropical theme, but not to the exclusion of shredded pork, smoked chicken and local seafood in other dishes. From day to day, the options are few on the small menu, but whether meaty or vegetarian they're usually different from anywhere else in town.
One day the choices included a heady, hearty stew with at least four kinds of beans (purple hull, red, black and garbanzo) and a dish called bobo de camarao, which resembled a smooth curry of yuca cream smothering large shrimp, served over rice. On another day, choices included a pot pie with a crumbly soft crust like savory pound cake filled with browned shreds of pork, and a vegan soup of soybeans and potato that tasted as creamy as a bisque.
Husband-and-wife team Dana and Christine Honn opened Carmo last spring, basing the concept on what Dana describes as a "tropical rim" mix of Caribbean and Gulf Coast cooking with recipes from Christine's native Brazil. To this, add the couple's own interest in vegetarian and vegan cooking and you have the full picture of a unique menu.
Those accustomed to constructing vegetarian meals by stripping away unacceptable ingredients will find a refreshing approach here of dishes designed from the ground up. Mock meats are in heavy rotation, so almost any dish that lists meat has a vegan substitution ready to fill in. But Carmo is by no means a vegetarian restaurant, and that's probably a good thing given the poor track record of strictly meatless ventures in this town. One of the marquee dishes is salpicao, a traditional Brazilian chicken salad mixed with ham and fresh vegetables. One daily special I'd love to encounter again was a rendition of the Puerto Rican jibarito sandwich, made here as an open-faced affair with pork piled over a fried plantain pancake that had been trussed with melting panela cheese.
The fixed menu is small, anchored by an assortment of satisfactory if standard deli sandwiches, but also by "banquette breads," which are cracker-crisp flatbreads. One unusual example is covered with bananas, cinnamon and Havarti, but is not as odd as it sounds. It tastes rather like a warm, gooey, crunchy breakfast treat.
Carmo's open kitchen hides nothing, and fruit piled around the cash register as well as adjacent displays of cookies and chocolates are not there for show. This is a colorful place, though the house clearly prefers green. The Honn's are making a bid for certification from the Green Restaurant Association for sustainable business and kitchen practices, such as composting, recycling and using biodegradable packaging for takeout and leftovers. I had to take the Honns' word on that bit about packaging though, since I always seem to lick my plate clean here.