We’re talking an endless array of rich, sweet coconut and sweetened condensed milk cakes, puddings, and desserts behind one display case. Another hot case is loaded up with savory street food, like ham and cheese croquettes, yucca and beef fritters, and miniature hearts of palm pot pies, to name a few.
Nestled between Banco do Brazil and Boca Brazil Supermarket, Casa do Pão, which translates to “House of Bread,” is a big draw for Brazilian locals, who stream in for chicken and yucca or squash and dried steak soups for breakfast when the doors open at 6 a.m. Many linger, noshing on codfish and ground beef croquettes, until it closes at 9 p.m. (Sundays at 6 p.m.). It has become popular among non-Portuguese speakers as well who are drawn to the fresh sweet and salty treats, smoothies, and sandwiches, all offered at very reasonable prices by a contagiously happy Brazilian staff.
“My father and mother started the business in 2005, when I was thirteen, and I have been working here since then,” says Gabriel Arruda, the owner’s charismatic youngest son explained to me between greeting customers.
Izaias and Silvana Arruda came to the United States in 1988, settling in the Northeast, where they owned a restaurant in New York called Café Brazil. Izaias ran the restaurant while Silvana worked the kitchen, preparing recipes passed down to her through her family and creating new dishes with ingredients she found locally. “Basically, 90 percent of all the recipes here are hers, both savory and sweet,” Gabriel says. “She has blessed hands, my grandma always says."
The couple started their family, raising three boys in Greenwich, Connecticut.
In 2004, the family moved to Florida and opened Casa do Pão the following year. It is now run by Gabriel. One of his older brothers, Felipe, manages the family’s other location in Deerfield Beach, Casa do Pão Express (100 S. Military Trl. #23, Deerfield Beach), which is smaller and focuses only on takeout.
It is easy to get overwhelmed at the Boca Raton outpost. The choices of baked goods seem endless: flan, coconut bread, coconut-pineapple cake. “It is set up like most bakeries in Brazil,” Gabriel explains. “You can sit down and have sandwiches and smoothies, but you can also find hot pastries that are sweet and savory. Here, smaller versions of those are sold frozen and can be used as hors d’oeuvres. Everything is made in house.”
Silvana hails from Minas de Gerais, the southeast state of Brazil, and many of the dishes at Casa do Pão originate from her home region.
One is the coxinha, a deep-fried, tear-shaped croquette made with seasoned shredded chicken and cream cheese, which roughly translates to "small chicken drumstrick." It is by far the most popular pastry, says Gabriel. “I always joke that I could close down every other item and only sell that and still make a killing.”
Another fan favorite is the brigadeiro, a legendary Brazilian treat made from a mix of chocolate and condensed milk coated in chocolate sprinkles. Shaped like a truffle, it translates to "little sweet." The chocolate is traditional, but experimental chefs and home cooks have long played with other ingredients and flavors. “Technically, they’re no longer called brigadeiro if they have a different flavor,” Gabriel explains.
That technicality doesn’t stop Casa de Pão from offering multiple renditions. There’s the coconut version called beijinho, or "little kiss," as well as the satirically titled olho de sogra, "eye of mother-in-law," which is coconut topped with a dried plum. “People hear of something with prunes and think they are not going to like it that much; I think that is why it has the connotation of the sogra,"says Gabriel. "Then you try it and think, 'This is amazing… my mother-in-law isn’t so bad!' Brazilians have a lot of sweets like that, that have to do with the mother-in-law. I don’t know why.”
The bakery’s most popular dessert, however, is the Fresh Fruit Cake, four layers of fluffy white cake filled with a rich condensed milk custard topped with sliced strawberries, pineapples, and peaches. Once it's stacked, the pile is iced with homemade whipped cream and finished with a crown of fresh fruit. “We never use buttercream — it’s taboo here," adds Gabriel. "Always whipped cream.”
There's more to the menu than just sweet treats. One huge blackboard lists available smoothies and juices ranging from healthful (orange juice, carrots, and beets) to decadent, like the Strawberry Dream, a blend of fresh strawberries, coconut, milk, and condensed milk.
The second board highlights health-conscious wraps and made-to-order sandwiches, most of which are made on the bakery’s signature pão francês (a football-shaped French roll which is the staple bread in Brazil), like the pão com linguiça (Brazilian sausage, onions, lettuce, and tomato) or the Brasileirinho (pork loin, ham, bacon, grilled tomato, onions, cheese, and mayo.) Traditionalists can go for a simple ham and cheese, misto quente. A fried egg can be added to the mix.
Only one sandwich, the X-Tudo, is prepared on a hamburger bun, which is also baked in the premises. The X-Tudo is made with your choice of hamburger, chicken, or steak, with ham, bacon, egg, cheese, corn, lettuce, tomato, potato sticks, and mayo. “People love it because it is very big and very affordable. You get all that for under $7. Some people even get all three meats — if you want, if you can. I can barely get through half of a regular one,” says Gabriel with a generous smile.
A wide selection of frozen food is an added bonus to the bakery. Everything is preservative-free, made from fresh ingredients in-house, packaged with simple heating or cooking instructions. There are frozen Brazilian-style pot pies, lasagnas, and miniature versions of all the croquettes and pastries sold daily as well as pão de queijo, baked gluten-free cheese rolls that are the signature stamp of Brazil.
One of the many freezers lining the perimeter of the store offers up to 15 different varieties of frozen breakfast soups that can be bought to take home, such as hearts of palm cream soup, caldo verde (potato, kale and sausage soup), canjiquinha com lombo (cracked corn and pork soup), and canjica doce, a sweet soup made with white corn, condensed milk, and peanuts. “Brazil is really big on soup in the morning, depending on your profession,” Gabriel explains.
Casa do Pão exudes warmth, from the kitchen-themed knick knacks that serve as decoration, to the freshly baked goods regularly streaming out of the kitchen, to the laughter and chatter of families sounding as if they were comfortably sitting around their own kitchen table. “I’m very proud of my baby,” Gabriel adds, looking around at his family’s bustling bakery, before briefly switching from English to Portuguese to greet and embrace another of his many regular customers.
Casa do Pão. 22829 US-441 in Boca Raton; 561-852-8390; casadopaoboca.com.
Alona Abbady Martinez lives in Plantation. She writes about food and family on her blog, Culinary Compulsion, and is currently working on her book, My Culinary Compulsion, a global food memoir with recipes. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.