For Keyla Nogueira, her cooking is about more than just nourishment; it’s a means of cultural preservation.
“When I had my son, I wanted to share that culture with him. He was born in Brazil, but he came to the US when he was 11 months old. Part of me cooking here was keeping our culture alive, sharing the food that I know.”
At Casa Brasil, she serves up home cooking with a menu deeply rooted in family. Nogueira grew up on a ranch in Juquitiba, a small town outside of São Paulo. Her family would harvest corn, beans, and yuca, an edible root that is a staple in South American cuisine.
She comes from a big family as the youngest of seven children. “What I’ve cooked is what I’ve learned from home, with my mom, with my dad, with my sisters and my brothers. I’ve always liked home-cooked meals. Growing up, the most amazing meals that I had were either at home or at somebody else’s home.” When she was seven years old, her mother showed her how to make rice. In her voice, I could hear the seriousness she felt even as a child. She knew that she had to learn to make rice not just to eat, but as the foundation of Brazilian cooking.
I dined at Casa Brasil on an unassuming Thursday night. A couple passed us on the sidewalk on a walk with their dog. Inside, natural wood tables and a black leather banquette balance the vibrant artwork decorating the space.
At my server’s recommendation, I ordered a Classic Casa Caipirinha, a refreshing limey cocktail made with Cachaça, a popular Brazilian spirit.
For appetizers, I started with pão de queijo, yuca fries, and frango a passarinho. Pão de queijo are delightful cheese rolls that are, shockingly, gluten-free. Most of the menu at Casa Brasil is gluten-free. During our conversation, Keyla mentioned that yuca fries are her absolute favorite thing in the world, so I had to try them. Each bite was salty and fluffy, like a french fry but way better. The frango a passarinho is a fried chicken served with a lime and yogurt sauce. The chicken is marinated in the lime and yogurt for 24 hours, producing deliciously tender and moist chicken meat with a seasoned and crispy skin.
Keyla jokes that sometimes she thinks of Casa Brasil as a “stew house,” because they have a variety of stews on the menu. Frango com quiabo is a chicken and okra stew, a traditional dish from Minas Gerais, her dad’s home state. She admits okra is a “love or hate” ingredient, but she loves the flavor it brings to the dish.
I decided to try the moqueca de camarão (shrimp). Moqueca is a coconut milk stew made with tomatoes, peppers, onions and cilantro. At Casa Brasil, the stew is prepared with your choice of cod, shrimp, tofu, or plantains. The dish was silky and warming, served with a side of the best rice I’ve ever tasted and a small dish of farofa. Even though I was in a restaurant, I understood with that simple plating that this is a meal designed to be shared. The rice mixes with the stew, the farofa goes on everything. It’s easy to imagine a family passing dishes across a crowded table, talking over each other, laughing.
On weekends, Casa Brasil serves feijoada, a slow-cooked black bean stew with pork shanks, bacon, and smoked sausage. “In Brazil, most places don’t serve feijoada every day, usually either Friday and Saturday, or Saturday and Sunday, or Wednesday and Sunday.” The dish has a special place in Keyla’s heart, as the first dish she decided to cook professionally. When she worked at an office in downtown Pittsburgh, her coworkers would marvel over her packed lunches. She decided to take orders on a Friday, and bring feijoada to everyone on Mondays. “Feijoada has been with me since the beginning.”
For dessert, I felt it was my journalistic duty to try the flan, or pudim de leite, a dish inspired by her sister’s recipe. Other options for sweets include the bolo de amêndoas, a gluten-free almond cake served with whipped cream and dark chocolate, and a popular favorite, churros.
“Brazilians Like to Party”
Nogueira met her business partner, Tim Guthrie, when he was deejaying a popular Brazilian event. Casa Brasil regularly hosts events in the space below the restaurant with live music and plenty of dancing. “The music and the food definitely go together,” she tells me. You can find out more about upcoming events on their website or on their Facebook page.
I asked Keyla what she wants to share with our readers. “Come with an open heart, try something new. I always like to say it’s like taking a trip to Brazil without leaving Pittsburgh.”