It was really love at first bite for me. The first time I did a story at Sinhá, the Brazilian gem of a restaurant on the West Side, I was treated to a feast beyond anything I had ever had in my eating experience. The restaurant is only open on Sundays, for starters. Owner Jorgina Pereira has a catering business during the week, but on Sundays, she opens her narrow brick home on Adams Street, almost directly across from the United Center, for two seatings of a magnificent Brazilian buffet. The best time to go is when it’s warm out, so you can sit in her charming backyard. But frankly, I would go any week if I knew she was making acarajé.
Acaraje with an Indian accent at Vermilion (photo by Steve Dolinsky)
These shrimp-stuffed, black-eyed pea fritters, for lack of a better word, are pure street food. Pereira first rubs every last pea, until the “black” part is gone. She grinds them into a chunky batter, then frys them until golden brown. When they’re still warm, she’ll slice them open, then stuff in a shrimp vatapá, made with coconut milk and spices. Finally, she douses each one with a mildly spicy salsa, containing tiny bird chiles and a few drops of oil. I hate going to the brunch, because on one hand, I know I’m going to devour the pork, bean and rice dish called feijoada, not to mention the grilled vegetables, the vibrant greens and myriad of seafood dishes. But then there’s the colorful platter of acarajé before me, and I’m like a Chicago alderman presented with a donation from a developer – I just can’t resist.
Some other restaurants have tried to make their own versions of acarajé, like Vermilion in River North. This restaurant fuses Latin and Indian together, so it’s not a total stretch, but chef Maneet Chauhan uses black beans instead of black-eyed peas, and adds a few Indian touches like mango powder, cardamom and lime juice. She forms her fritter, then embeds a giant shrimp into the top, before frying it all together. Rather than serve it as-is, she plates it over some mint chutney and then garnishes the plate with a bit of mango-pepper salsa. Not exactly the Brazilian ideal, but not exactly bad either. I’ll be featuring both versions on the 11 a.m. news today, or, as always, you can check out the video here.