It’s been said that business and family shouldn’t mix—but take one step inside Samba Taste of Brazil in downtown Hopkins, and you’ll run into an exception to the rule. The Pantano family—Joe, Maria, Gabriel and Victor, all hailing from Brazil, manage the restaurant that always ensures its guests are leaving with warm hearts and full bellies. With offerings that include traditional Brazilian cuisine and more familiar fare with a South American twist, there’s bound to be something for everyone at the restaurant-cafe-grocery store, from the adventurous eater to those simply seeking something out of the ordinary.
The Pantanos came to the United States from Brazil in 1995, finding themselves like many immigrants do: trying to make the most of their time in the States, while still holding onto a piece of where they were from. In the Pantanos’ case, the place they wanted to preserve was Sao Paolo, Brazil. Despite not knowing much about the business end of owning a restaurant, the Pantanos knew they were masters at the most important part of developing a long-lasting, high-quality restaurant in the community: serving really good, authentic food.
“There weren’t any Brazilian restaurants [in the Twin Cities] at the time,” says Gabriel Pantano, reminiscing about the spark of inspiration that launched the culinary hotspot in the first place. Pantano is a tall man with a big smile, who presides over his family’s restaurant. His passion and pride for the Hopkins gem is heard in his voice as he delves deeper into Samba’s origin story. “We learned about the restaurant business on the fly,” Pantano explains. After a bit of trial and error, Samba became the vibrant place it is today. Nine years ago last December, the Pantanos opened the doors to Samba, inviting the Hopkins community and beyond to step inside.
“The people [in Minnesota] are very warm,” says Joe Pantano, restaurant co-owner (he’s also Gabriel and Victor’s dad). Joe is a fun-loving and enthusiastic personality who will tell you anything you need to know about his home of Brazil and its ever-evolving culinary landscape. “[We] were really well-accepted,” Joe says of Samba’s opening almost ten years ago. With a piece of prime real estate on Main Street in downtown Hopkins, Gabriel says that their best way to get the word out about their delicious dishes is still word of mouth. “If you haven’t had Brazilian food before, you’re going to be surprised by how good it is.”
That’s not just talk, either. All recipes are tried and true, tested by the most brutally honest people anyone could find: family. “They were all things we ate growing up,” Gabriel says of the traditional dishes offered at Samba. “We taught our chefs how to cook things our way.” One of the house specialties is feijoada, a black bean stew that’s made with pork meat and sausages—and yes, bacon. Stewed together with rice, collard greens, and a vinaigrette, the dish is one that’s enjoyed across Brazil. So much so, that it’s considered the country’s national dish. It also happens to be a personal favorite of both Gabriel and Joe.
“It’s hard to compare it to anything else we normally have [in the United States],” Gabriel says. Listed as a house specialty on the restaurant’s menu, feijoada might have to make it onto your to-try list before the cold and blustery months are behind us. If you’re looking for more meat, Samba offers a variety of grill options, including churrasco, which is possibly the more recognizable of Brazilian cuisine. It’s what you see when visiting a place like Fogo de Chao or Rodizio Grill—a grilled protein that’s carved directly onto your plate from its skewer. Churrasco, as it’s called, can be enjoyed as top sirloin, pork loin, chicken or sausage. Fried yuca is a good bet for a quick bite or a side dish. Not quite fried plantain but not really fried potato, the starchy vegetable makes for a tasty plate that’s authentic to Brazil.
Joe says that he’s found a lot of people (especially humble Minnesotans) carry the misconception that Brazilian food is inherently spicy. “It’s not so much spicy as it is flavorful,” Joe explains. “Mexican food is spicy. We’re not Mexican food.” With Brazil’s culinary tradition being influenced by all of those who ventured to the country way back when (including but not limited to Portugal, Japan and countries in Africa), Joe encourages folks who have tried other foreign cuisines to take a stab at the food of his people.
Of course, for diners who don’t want to stray too far off the beaten path, Samba offers their own unique takes on restaurant staples, including pizza and pasta. “Everything has that Brazilian influence,” Gabriel says. Another one of his favorites is the Samba pizza, which swaps out mozzarella for Catupiry, a traditional Brazilian cream cheese.
For those who get a taste and want to re-create that same magic at home, Samba is also home to a small grocery, where products that are featured in the restaurant’s best dishes are stocked on the walls, prepared to be plucked off and cooked into whatever your heart desires. Before opening Samba, Joe had owned a Brazilian food market with his wife, Maria, in Hopkins. “We knew we needed to have that in the restaurant,” says Gabriel. “We wanted it to have that same feeling as Cosetta’s in St. Paul, where you’ve got the market right in the restaurant.”
As far as the family connection is concerned, the sense of comfort and camaraderie can be felt the moment you walk in the door. Gabriel says that the regulars who come in feel like an extended arm of that family. “We want to be that spot for people where they can come and feel at home,” he says. Surely, with homecooked meals made from family recipes, it shouldn’t matter the country of origin—everyone can understand the universal language of good food and good company.