The Portuguese greeting “Oi, tudo bem?” — meaning “Hello, how are you?” — is one you’re likely to hear when entering many of the businesses in the neighborhoods of Oxford Circle and Castor Gardens in Northeast Philadelphia. This area has long been home to immigrant communities, historically Jewish and European, but over the past several years has experienced a new wave of immigrants from all over the world.
Beginning at Oxford Circle and running north until it merges with Bustleton Avenue, the Castor Corridor serves as the major business hub of the lower Northeast. Along this approximately three-mile stretch you will find numerous Brazilian-owned businesses, from meat markets and clothing stores to pizza shops and bakeries. Although they are off the beaten path of Center City, these restaurants are “where Brazilians go” says Mariana, a Portuguese translator in the area.
The arrival of diverse communities to Philadelphia, including Chinese, Dominican, and Brazilian immigrants, have helped redefine the area. “The unique nature of our neighborhood is the diversity that dots up and down the Northeast and along Castor Ave,” says State Representative Jared Solomon, who has seen this area grow over several decades. Solomon says these family-owned restaurants are “authentic to their cuisine and have compelling stories to tell.”
Despite the popularity of restaurants like Chima and Fogo de Chão, the Northeast is the place to find underrated Brazilian food destinations like Picanha, one of the first rodizio-style (all-you-can-eat) restaurants in Philadelphia. But Brazilian cuisine extends beyond the well-known churrasco (grilled or barbecued meats) type dishes, blending styles native to South America — with its European and African influences — to create truly interesting flavors worth celebrating. To best experience the rich culture and diversity of Brazilian food offerings, you’ll find no better place to start your food tour than Oxford Circle in the Lower Northeast.
6501 Castor Avenue
Opened in 2005, Picanha is a staple in Oxford Circle, so much so that it has expanded to two new locations outside of the Northeast. Whether you choose rodizio-style or by-the-pound, start your visit at the “salad bar,” which is notable for non-salad options, like meats, seafoods, and pastries. Be sure to save room for the various flame-grilled cuts of beef, lamb, and pork carried through the restaurant and served tableside at your desired doneness. You’ll also want to try the popular sirloin picanha cut, the restaurant’s namesake. If you’re feeling more adventurous, keep an eye out for the skewers of coração de frango, or chicken hearts.
6905 Castor Avenue
Located just a half mile north of Picanha, Sergio’s is a must-stop for burger lovers and food adventurers alike. Although Sergio’s serves a wide variety of dishes, burgers such as the X Tudo Rump should be at the top of your list: Served with ham, eggs, bacon, shoestring potatoes, corn, and even pineapple, a fork is often necessary to tackle this sandwich. As if all of this on a burger wasn’t enough, you can get the X Tudo Rump with fries optionally topped with steak tips.
2311 Cottman Avenue
On Bustleton Avenue, the other major thoroughfare abutting Castor Avenue, there’s also a wealth of Brazilian food to try. The newest restaurant on this list, Rio has offerings unlike the others (plus it offers touch-screen ordering). While it may have the feel of a fast-food restaurant, the menu offers much more than your traditional burgers and fries. Be sure to try a cachorro quente Brasileiro, or a Brazilian hot dog, which is typically topped with corn, peas, or even mashed potatoes. If you prefer chicken instead of pork, try a frango com queijo, or chicken with cheese that’s fried and served on a skewer. No matter what you choose, leave room for dessert — Rio Store’s acai bowl is topped with fruit, Nutella, and M&M’s.
7518 Castor Avenue #4002
This aptly named pizza shop showcases Brazil’s Italian roots while incorporating the nation’s unique flavors into its pies. It’s very different from a pie you’d get from a local American-style pizza shop, owner Ricardo notes, as “there is more of an emphasis on the ‘massa,’” or crust, as well as the toppings. Ricardo’s personal favorite, the Tropical, includes toppings such as corn, hearts of palm, and catupiry — a cream cheese popular in Brazil that’s sometimes baked into the crust. Brazilian pies also tend to have less sauce than is common for American pies. For something sweeter, consider the thin-crust Nutella com banana. Wash it all down with the popular Brazilian soft drink guaraná.
7540 Castor Avenue, #7538
Having such a popular national soccer team, it makes sense that the Lower Northeast has an excellent Brazilian sports bar. Where else would you want to be to watch a futebol match? Situated in an unassuming shopping center, Ipanema offers popular Brazilian cocktails like the caipirinha, which is made with lime, sugar, and cachaça. Be sure to order a plate of coxinha, or fried dough with chicken, to go with your drink. If you prefer a bar that offers more of a club atmosphere, Ipanema transforms into just that with live bands, DJs, and even dance-offs at night.
7634 Castor Avenue
One of the newer rodizio-style steakhouses, Broncos offers a more family-friendly atmosphere than the upscale offerings of Picanha. Outside of flame-grilled cuts of meat, the restaurant also has a popular well-stocked and protein-filled salad bar, as well as an ample dessert selection. Broncos is also more modestly priced than some of its peers. While you can still enjoy an all-you-can-eat meal, the restaurant has more recently updated its menu to include combo platters and sandwiches for takeout. Don’t miss the grilled pineapple and be sure to order a slice of the chocolate flan for dessert.
8502 Bustleton Avenue
At the northernmost point of the tour, where Castor merges with Bustleton Avenue, you’ll find Chamas, a bakery, steakhouse, and pizza shop all wrapped into one. While the offerings are numerous, the standalone bakery is what separates this restaurant from others on the list. Serving a wide variety of Brazilian and French breads, rolls, and pastries, it also offers hot items such as coxinha or fried risotto balls called risole. One menu recommendation is the Brazilian-style carrot cake, which flips the traditional cake on its head: Instead of spice cake with cream cheese, it’s a more decadent chocolate style (and yes, it still has the carrots!). No matter the dish, be sure to grab a cup of the popular imported coffee Pilao to wash it down. On your way out, don’t forget to say, “Obrigado e tchau,” or “Thank you and goodbye!”
Shawn Ralston, Amanda Stahl, and William Callahan run The Northeast Life, a site that highlights restaurants and businesses throughout Northeast Philadelphia.