Resilience is a word used during the last year to describe Downtown restaurateurs who have simply refused to give up. The word implies a combination of qualities: steely perseverance, unshakeable confidence and a patient, tireless faith in one’s talents and abilities.
Then there is Natalia Pereira and her tiny bastion of Brazilian deliciousness, Woodspoon.
“When you come from a life of limitation, you embrace opportunities in a different way,” Pereira mused.
To look at the humble storefront and the simple menu of homestyle dishes from the Brazilian province of Minas Gerais, Woodspoon does not suggest a likely business model, even in the best of circumstances. Yet for the last 15 years, Woodspoon — with Pereira’s irresistible alchemy of culinary subtlety and ebullient, heartfelt hospitality — has consistently proven to be one of the brighter stars in Downtown’s dining firmament.
Pereira was raised as an orphan. The offspring of her married father and his niece, Pereira was raised for a bit by her dad’s wife before she gave the girl back to her birth mother. She was abandoned first at age 7 by her birth mother with her siblings and again at 9.
“She dressed us up, took us to church and gave us away,” Pereira said.
She was raised in relative poverty and barely finished grade school, shuffled from one foster home to another. By the way, she also speaks four languages and is writing her first cookbook.
In 1998, a medical condition brought her to Southern California for treatment. She lived there with a host family, who introduced her to the Santa Monica Farmers Market.
“I missed food and home so much,” Pereira said. “The family I was staying with pointed me to the market. I couldn’t speak a word of English. I began cooking. I would go out to the farmers market and I would make something, and people would ask, ‘How did you make that?’ I enjoyed doing it.
“I had fun doing it, and that escalated to this beautiful connection. I didn’t have to speak. I could look at a tomato. I could touch a vegetable. I was able to really enjoy myself on a different level, without the necessity to speak per se. It was more of an emotion. I met incredible people, incredible families. I cooked for the kids and hosted little gatherings.”
In 2000, she met the Radziner family (co-founders of the Radziner Marmol architecture firm) at the farmers market. The family had a connection to Brazil, and soon Pereira was cooking for the family twice a week. Five years later, she was hired as a private chef for a firm client.
“One evening I cooked for this particular gentleman,” she recalled.
“He’s very particular when it comes to cooking. He’s a phenomenal cook, and he was unhappy with my meal. So, he said, ‘I think you should go. I’ll talk to you later.’ And he didn’t call for a while.”
Finally, he called and invited Pereira over to have a paella he cooked. He quizzed her about her plans and aspirations. At the end of the meal, he handed her an envelope.
“I opened it. It was a check for $60,000,” she said. “Two weeks later, he drove me Downtown.” He had a business in the Fashion District and pointed to the small storefront on Ninth Street.
“He said, ‘You won’t be rich, but you’ll be able to be happy.’”
She bought out the previous tenants and then renovated the 850-square-foot space on her own.
“I painted the walls, took down the ceiling. I slept here,” Pereira said.
Three weeks later, Woodspoon opened for business.
“Bite by bite, here I am now 16 years later in Downtown Los Angeles,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Woodspoon had built a loyal following. Pereira had a booming catering business out of Woodspoon’s kitchen and employed up to 20 people.
“We were doing well,” she said.
Her immediate staff has been reduced to four for takeout and delivery only.
The combination of the George Floyd protests in June and the renewal of pandemic restrictions proved a double whammy for Downtown businesses and residents.
“Everything was closed,” she said. “I remember, for weeks we would throw our food away because not one person would walk in. It was empty. It was completely deserted.”
The ensuing sense of loss triggered painful emotions.
“This particular time has been personal to me because this is home to me,” Pereira said. “Growing up without a home, it felt like, ‘There it is again. The same feeling again.’ I don’t expect anyone to understand. This (Woodspoon) is home to me.”
The narrow front sidewalk doesn’t easily accommodate outdoor seating, but soon, Woodspoon will reopen its dining room with two tables. Pereira and her staff have received their first round of vaccinations. Once complete, the dining room will reopen.
Woodspoon’s small dining room and atmosphere is not so much charming as charmed — charmed and enchanted by Pereira’s imagination and spirit. The room blooms with an odd preternatural radiance and warmth, and that’s on a random, quiet Tuesday afternoon.
Assembled with colorful thrift shop remnants, curios, handmade candles and Pereira’s black-and-white photographs, the room is delightful.
Brazilian cuisine is most associated with churrascaria steakhouses. It’s known for roving waiters hoisting long skewers of grilled meat, supplemented with vast buffets of salads and seafood. It’s not a dining format likely to return anytime soon, nor does it represent an authentic regional cuisine in Brazil.
She said folks recognize Minas Gerais province for the gastronomy. Known for its humble preparations of fresh, locally sourced ingredients, Minas Gerais’s cuisine blends Portuguese, African, Indian and Mediterranean influences.
“We grow okra. We do polenta with fresh corn,” she said. “We make homemade sausage. We make jams. We make cheese. We make butter. I grew up with everything in my backyard. It has a very rich culinary (tradition), and a lot of people don’t know about it. They think Brazilian food is all about the meat.”
Highlights on Woodspoon’s menu start with eight small plates, including coxinha ($8). Known as one of Brazil’s most popular street foods, it’s a fried breaded orb oozing with a rich poached chicken filling. Also included is Portuguese pastel ($8), fried dumplings stuffed with shrimp and coconut; and a traditional potato croquette ($8). Each one has a tasty surprise inside.
Kibe ($8), ground beef and bulgur wheat with mint, reflects the cuisine of the Lebanese diaspora in Minas Gerais. There is a selection of Grelhas, or grilled meat plates with a choice of beef ($18), chicken ($16), chicken and bacon ($18) or tilapia ($18). The plates are served with rice; beans; collard greens; salsa; and the staple Brazilian condiment farofa, toasted manioc flour.
Woodspoon favorites feature frango com quiabo ($19), a chicken stew with okra and fresh polenta; costelinha com canjiquinha ($20), pork short ribs on corn grits; and the traditional beef stew, carne de panela ($21). Fresh red and white sangria is available for $8 a glass or $20 for a bottle.
Pereira hopes her book, “My Life in Recipes,” will be available soon. She resumed the project over the last year, and as the title suggests, is an autobiography and cookbook. It features her photography, poetry and artwork as well.
“In the book, you get me — the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Her staff fondly refers to Pereira as “the kitchen witch” for her otherworldly talent at the stoves, but there is something oddly bewitching about the entire Woodspoon experience that challenges full description.
“Being an orphan and a polyglot, I’m a citizen of the world,” Pereira said. “Maybe not having a home is OK. We are all just individuals in a world we create. Food for me is personal. It’s where I’m happy. It’s a bridge that connects us all. There is no racism in food. We can all sit at the same table.”
107 S. Ninth Street, Los Angeles