527 Julia St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
Napoleon's Ratings - ***/*****
It's natural that the idea of Brazilian dining might bring meat to mind. After all, the most popular and common Brazilian style restaurants we see on these shores are steakhouses. But Carmo, a tiny lunch spot in the Warehouse District, is a Brazilian dining experience of a whole different order. This place specializes in fresh, different, often complex tropical cooking with traditional Brazilian dishes and many other influences from Africa to Asia. While it is not a vegetarian restaurant per se, vegan substitutions are available for many of the dishes, providing an intriguing meatless option.
Small, bright and open, Carmo is structured like many other downtown lunch delis. There is not much seating, so many customers bring takeout back to their offices. The tables they do have are rather small, and it can feel cramped here, especially if you have more than two plates on any one table at once. The open kitchen also means the small room can get loud. For all that, this is still a pleasant enough place for a quick lunch.
You order at the counter and in doing so you can see the entire kitchen operation right there before you -- clean, organized and cheerful. The owners are right there running the show and they're very attentive and accommodating. Dishes are prepared to order but come out quickly. Note that Carmo serves lunch only, Tuesday through Saturday.
The short, printed menu doesn't look like much, but it doesn't tell the whole story either. The kitchen makes just a few specials each day, and these are usually so refreshingly different, if not downright exotic, it's hard to order anything else. There's always a soup, which might be a seafood gumbo done with such unusual additions as smoked tuna, or something completely exotic, like a number called kabocha, made with black-eyed peas, cabbage and coconut.
Again, the specials are the stars here, unless all you really want is one of the familiar deli sandwiches off the printed menu. The dish to get on any given day could be a creamy stew of shrimp and yucca over rice called bobó de camarão, or a dish called caruru, which is a thick stew of smoked shrimp and fish, okra, peppers and tomatoes and toasted cashews and peanuts and over rice. In look and texture it was somewhere between a gumbo and a curry, though it tasted like nothing I'd had before. Another recent examples was the coconut rum chicken, with smoked, shredded, liberally peppered chicken mixed with potato, sweet potato, peppers and onions. Like so many of the specials here, it was unusual without being particularly challenging or far-out. It's also typical of Carmo's cooking because it was available as a vegan dish too. The kitchen makes thorough and skilled use of "mock meats," replacing ham or chicken with smoked and seasoned soy products.
One don't-miss item on the regular menu is the "rico sandwich," which is an open-faced affair with a grilled plantain patty taking the place of bread. It's the foundation for smoked pork (or a vegan replacement), melted cheese and salsa fresca. Among the salads, check out the salpicão, a traditional Brazilian chicken salad mixed with ham and a fresh hash of vegetables and crisp, shoestring potatoes for crunch. The menu also features "banquette breads," which are ultra-crisp sheets of cracker with various toppings. These are more like snacks than meals, though the most unusual of the lot, called the Maqaquito is a creamy-sweet indulgence of bananas, cinnamon, sugar and, incredibly, havarti.
While the range covered by this is highly varied, the café unfortunately offers very little of it at any one time. That's a concession to the tiny space it now occupies, where an open kitchen surrounded by a broad service bar leaves little room to work. It's sort of a tease of what could be possible if a week's worth of specials were featured all at once at a larger space.
Homemade baked goods are wrapped and ready at the counter, though that Maqaquito described above makes a memorable, unconventional dessert too.
Carmo serves soft drinks only, though there are some interesting options in this department. Look for exotic tropical juices, like a mango juice or the mellow, pale, surprisingly non-chocolatey cocoa juice.
Carmo is quick and inexpensive. I haven't paid more than $10 for any item here and while meals tend to be light they always feels like a good deal.
Carmo is so different from anywhere else in New Orleans, we really don't have a good standard for comparison. But the way it serves up such fresh - and often refreshing - lunch dishes, the way it combines flavors, textures and often unfamiliar ingredients, the way it caters to meat-free customers and provides a novel lunch experience for just about anyone - all of this recommends it as a place to keep in mind when you're ready for a change of pace.