When asked why she wanted to open a restaurant, Keyla Nogueira Cook has a simple answer.
“We were hungry,” she says with a laugh.
Three months ago, Cook and her friend Tim Guthrie opened Casa Brasil, a pop-up eatery in Highland Park. Located on Bryant Street in a building left vacant by Plate & Bowl, the BYOB restaurant is open Wednesday through Sunday and specializes in simple Brazilian dishes. It’s the type of food Cook grew up eating in São Paulo.
But unlike a Brazilian steakhouse that’s all about meat on a stick, Casa’s menu is a small assortment of appetizers, side dishes and entrees that highlight underrepresented regions of the South American country. Nearly all menu items are gluten-free and the main courses, which change periodically, can be made vegan-friendly or with beef or chicken. The Vaca Atolada is a yuca stew slow-cooked in tomato sauce, spices and yuca root that is served with white rice, beans and a salad.
On weekends, Cook, 35, prepares feijoada, a black bean stew loaded with smoked pork, sausage and bacon accompanied by white rice, stir-fried collard greens, farofa (toasted yuca flour with fresh herbs), oranges and Brazilian vinaigrette.
The self-taught chef moved to Pittsburgh seven years ago and did freelance meal prep and catering throughout the city. She puts her own creative spin on traditional dishes, adapting recipes to include local ingredients.
For Pittsburgh Restaurant Week she’s whipping up arrumadinho, a platter of black-eyed peas with bacon, farofa, chicken hearts, pico de gallo, collard greens and cucumbers.
Guthrie, a.k.a. DJ SMI, a former co-owner of the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty, met her through the Brazilian dance parties he hosted.
“Once you’re a fan of her cooking you absolutely trust that anything coming out of her kitchen is going to be great,” Guthrie says.
The pair have the Bryant Street space through August. If Casa Brazil is successful, they hope to become a permanent fixture in the neighborhood, which is dotted with various ethnic restaurants like a tiny United Nations of Food. In fact, they’re spearheading a campaign to get the city to brand it as such.
Cook and Guthrie are also bolstering Pittsburgh’s international culinary scene by inviting guest chefs into their restaurant. Depending on who is manning the stove, the meals can either be open to the public or ticketed events. So far, cuisine from Puerto Rico and China has been featured.
On Feb. 5 from 6:30 to 9 p.m., Casa Brasil will welcome Veda Sankaran and her Indian Tasting Dinner.
Cook says her experience as both an immigrant and a struggling chef prompted her to lend her foodie brethren a helping hand. Like Smallman Galley in the Strip District — where, in 2017, Cook was a finalist for a coveted pop-up space — Casa Brasil is an incubator for culinary talent.
The restaurant is exposing Pittsburghers to other cultures in other ways as well. In addition to the 24-seat dining room, the building has a large event space on the bottom floor where they’ve held poetry readings, live music and documentary film screenings.
Once a month, DJ SMI fills the place with the sounds of Brasil. This lounge and dance party, known as Beleza, celebrates the country’s diverse musical styles, including samba, bossa nova, funk carioca, forró and tropicalia.
Cook and Guthrie believe the restaurant isn’t just a place to get a great meal. It’s a community hub and learning center.
“I have a minor in anthropology,” Cook says. “Food is culture.”