Restaurant Reviews

At Regina's Farm in Fort Lauderdale, Enjoy a Huge Brazilian Backyard Feast

It's just before 5:30 p.m. on a warm spring day in the sleepy Fort Lauderdale neighborhood of Sailboat Bend. A line of people young and old has been forming at the front gate of the house located at 1101 Middle St.

They're eager dinner guests, patiently waiting to enter the home's spacious backyard, which doubles as an open-air kitchen and dining room for what has become one of the most unique underground dining experiences in South Florida.

Once past the gate, guests gather at picnic tables. Children tackle each other for a chance to climb a tattered rope swing. Chickens, loosed from their roost, roam the yard freely, darting between diners' legs.

At the end of the meal, they unveil the most anticipated course: dessert.

tweet this

At the center of all of this is an outdoor kitchen, a massive hand-built cement stove fueled by burning wood, housed beneath a simple wood shelter. Kitchen staff work feverishly to prepare the feast, scuttling from the main house to the stove carrying giant steel pots filled with food.

The evening's hosts — Brazilian natives Regina Rodrigues and Elizeu Silva — are on hand as well, coordinating the entire affair with open arms and warm, wide smiles.

Any Brazilian nostalgic for the homestyle fare of her country's southern region, will feel perfectly at home. Many of the guests here have come for a taste of their country — both physically and spiritually.

"In the past few months, more and more Americans are coming," says Rodrigues, a petite woman with a waterfall of curly brown hair and dressed in a yellow floor-length dress dotted with bright-red flowers. "It's now half and half, whereas before, not that many from outside our community knew about this."

Rodrigues and Silva met at seminary in Brazil, and came to the United States in 1992. That same year, they began attending the Las Olas Worship Center in Sailboat Bend, located across the street from their current home. When the former pastor retired, Silva — who also runs a tree service business — took his place.

Rodrigues says she first began cooking large, family-style meals for friends and church members in 2010, first to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions. As time went on, the events became so popular, the couple began accepting contributions to help buy additional provisions.

Three years later, Rodrigues, Silva, and their two sons began hosting more and more dinners, opening the gates to their fazendinha — or little farm — as a way to transport guests to a miniature, more rustic version of Rodrigues' hometown in Minas Gerais, Brazil.

Now, about three Saturdays a month, Rodrigues will host her pop-up-style dinner — what has become a charity-fueled mission she's dubbed Fazendinha da Regina (Portuguese for Regina's Farm). A $25 donation will get you entry to her all-you-can-eat event. There's free water and plenty of coffee but no liquor; guests are welcome to bring their own wine or beer.

It's a successful format: so far, the family has raised more than $10,000 for the church, which it uses to make renovations and fund missionary trips.

Several weeks ago, Rodrigues hosted her largest dinner ever, for 137 people. She paced the yard in nervous excitement all night, worried if there would be enough to feed everyone. There was. Rodrigues says she learned to cook for large groups by working in the kitchens at Fort Lauderdale's Westminster Academy, where she prepared meals for close to 1,000 students.

Regina's Farm dinners always begin with bread. To quell hunger and hold guests over until the first course, Rodrigues' helpers carry giant baskets filled with steaming-hot pão de queijo, tiny balls of doughy Brazilian cheese-stuffed bread. Children follow behind with hands lifted and palms spread open, begging for a second or third helping.

Soup is next — several variations, ladeled from giant steel pots and customized with toppings like mozzarella, chopped chives, and chirarrones. The caldo verde is a popular Portuguese classic, a pale-green soup the consistency of porridge, made with potatoes, kale, olive oil, onion, and salt. It's heated over a campfire at the center of the dining area, where guests spoon some into bowls themselves.

As they nosh on starters, Silva hand-cranks long stalks of sugarcane (delivered from a Homestead farmer) through an old iron grinder. After a few passes the sweet, milky-opaque cane juice is dispensed to guests in glass cups chilled with a few ice cubes. Rodrigues and Silva's sons — Matthew, age 23, and Caio, age 28 — clear plates or cart children around the yard in a wooden train their father built and attached to a riding lawn mower.

You'll know the main meal is ready when, around 7:30, people begin to line up near the kitchen, plates in hand. The meal is served buffet-style, selections laid out across the massive iron-topped stove. Hurried guests will drop morsels of food as they heap servings onto their plates and the chickens rush through to peck up what falls. They are Rodrigues' informal cleaning crew.

The menu never changes: giant, steaming pots of roasted chicken with okra, moqueca de peixe (fish stew), oxtail, beef, polenta and rice, ribs, and more. Rodrigues' specialty is the feijão tropeiro, a staple typically cooked in small, roadside, open-air kitchens across southeastern Brazil. This basic, filling meal consists of black or pink beans cooked with garlic, onions, pork sausage, eggs, and cassava flour. It is often consumed by traveling cattle ranchers, known in Brazil as "tropeiros."

Here, Rodrigues cooks the dish in a massive steel pot over wood-burning heat. As with much of the food here, the process of cooking the beans actually begins the night before, when a massive portion is slow-cooked until it thickens and the beans become tender.

From there, Regina adds sautéed onions, garlic, chopped pork sausage, and a few handfuls of chard before adding the defining ingredient — a grainy, gluten-free cassava flour that cooks up into a fluffy couscous as it absorbs the juice from the beans. It lends the dish a unique texture and is one of the few products she sources straight from Brazil. The final touch: a dozen or so fresh-laid eggs from her own chickens, their golden yolks cooking to a pale yellow over the simmering bean and meat mixture.

At the end of the meal, close to 10 p.m., the kitchen staff unveil the most anticipated course: dessert. Silva or his sons make coffee, brewed the old fashioned way. Water is boiled in steel pots over the wood stove, then poured over cloth coffee filters that hang from wooden stands.

Then the real treats are brought out from a mesh canopy inside the house, a spot where both flies and guests can be held at bay. Here, on the family's long communal dinner table, platters are filled with cakes and pies. There are usually ten or so desserts, including a traditional coconut and condensed milk-sweetened bolo de coco pega marino (cake to catch a husband). Tonight, there's also a dense corn cake, dulce de leche, passionfruit mousse, and a basket filled with handmade sugarcane candies and guava and cheese pastries.

The flan is the most popular, whispers Rodrigues; when it's turned over to serve, the jiggly custard cracks at the edges, the pale custard stained brown from an ooey-gooey deluge of liquid sugar that cascades over the sides, hardening to a crystalline candy shell at the edge of the plate.

"This is how we eat where I am from in Brazil," says Rodrigues. "This is not the churrasco of the north, or the meats-heavy Brazilian foods that most Americans are familiar with. This is homestyle — how do you say — comfort food?"

Regina's Farm
1101 Middle St., Fort Lauderdale. Dinners are $25 donation per person and are held three Saturdays each month from 5:30 to 11 p.m. Reservations are required. Call or text 954-465-1900.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Nicole Danna is a Palm Beach County-based reporter who began covering the South Florida food scene for New Times in 2011. She also loves drinking beer and writing about the area's growing craft beer community.
Contact: Nicole Danna