On a pretty but otherwise unremarkable block in East Harlem, a narrow vacant lot, weedy and graffitied, once sat adjoining Ramiro Silos's Brazilian catering and take-out business, Tapas Bites. This past summer, as reported by DNAInfo, inspiration hit Silos, and over the course of several months he and his crew transformed the empty outdoor space into a festive little restaurant called Vidigal.
Vidigal is a bit of a work in progress, infrastructure-wise. The plastic roof is still not fully completed, and those standing heaters are arriving soon (the warm, mostly dry fall has really worked out for Silos), but otherwise things are reasonably ready for a pleasant, comfortable night of food and booze. There are strings of colored lights, ample seating choices (at the small bar, at the many slatted wooden tables), and the kitchen and bathroom were already in place (and indoors) as part of Tapas Bites.
Two flat screen TVs hang from the walls, both of which were showing sports on consecutive nights this weekend, and both of which went largely ignored by patrons. Classic torch songs and Brazilian pop dominate the soundtrack, played at considerable volume. Service is genial but loose—you might have to get up and find your server with requests for more water, food or the check—but the overall relaxed atmosphere of the place makes it difficult to feel impatient.
The Vidigal menu is pretty much a Brazilian comfort food greatest hits list, and most everything I ate was terrific. You could do well here with just drinks and snacks, the appetizers section is loaded with temptation; perhaps unsurprising for a restaurant that sprang from a catering business. A crucial part of any Brazilian dining experience are those chewy, tapioca-laden balls of cheese bread, the Pao de Queijo, and Vidigal serves an outstanding version. A must order if you're a fan, and who isn't?
Also satisfying are the Bolinho de Bacalhau, or codfish balls. The crisp exterior/soft interior balance is perfect here, and the homemade "hot" sauce (it's not hot) works as a nice complement. Less skillfully-prepared was my Bife Acebolado, a pan-fried steak that was way overcooked and bitter with raw garlic. It's a ton of good-looking food for $21 (you also get rice, a big bowl of brothy beans, some salty fries, and a crock of farofa, the seasoned, toasted cassava powder), so hopefully they figure this dish out soon.
Fortunately, the Feijoada do Mano, Vidigal's version of the black bean stew that's Brazil's national dish, is superb, loaded with chunks of tender beef, well-marbled Brazilian and Portuguese sausages, and served with rice, farofa, and garlicky collard greens. As is tradition, the dish is only served on weekends, so plan your visit accordingly. After all those heavy flavors you'll be craving something sweet, and both the fudgy Brigadeiros and the gooey Beijinhos, made from coconut and condensed milk, deliver a sugar injection potent enough to get your heart racing.
Vidigal's pretty, unique set up and (mostly) first-rate food make this both a solid local hang as well as a destination-worthy spot for homesick Brazilians.
Vidigal is located at 352 East 120th Street, just west of First Avenue, and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and on Sunday from 11:30 to 4 p.m. Closed Monday. CASH ONLY. (212-380-6464)