By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
Honolulu Avenue in nearby Montrose seems an unlikely location for a restaurant specializing in an iconic Brazilian street food dish.
Espetinhos or “little skewers” are ubiquitous among street food vendors and markets in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Tony Park and his wife, Joyce Kim, opened Valeu Espetos in March intending to introduce Brazil’s skewer culture to southern California.
Satay, yakitori and kebobs are all found nearby, but not espetinhos.
“I am the first Brazilian skewer restaurant in California,” Park said. “There is no other Brazilian skewer restaurant here.”
His background and the couple’s foray into the restaurant business are as unusual as the presence of his restaurant on Honolulu Avenue.
“I was born in Korea and moved to Brazil, to Sao Paulo, when I was 1 year old,” Park said. “I lived there for a bit more than 30 years.”
Park worked in his family’s successful garment business and moved with them to the United States in 2000.
“At first, we ended up in New York, then Texas in El Paso, and now here in Los Angeles,” Park said. “We’ve been in Los Angeles for 15 years. We did garments here for a while. My parents are retired now.”
For the last several years, Park worked in automobile sales until the pandemic descended last year. Park fostered an interest in food and had long noted the relative dearth of novel and authentic Brazilian cuisine locally.
“I love to cook,” Park said. “I’ve cooked since I was little. I was always thinking of doing it (opening a restaurant). I did research here for a few years.”
Still, the decision to open Valeu Espetos came suddenly. His wife’s friend told him about the available storefront and kitchen. By the way, Kim has no experience in the hospitality business but encouraged the move nonetheless. The couple has been together for eight years.
“I met her at church. She’s my biggest supporter here,” Park said.
“I did the restaurant all of a sudden, out of nothing. Last year, a friend of my wife’s offered me this restaurant in October of last year. Everything was closed by then.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll take this opportunity. Let’s do it.’ I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot. Let’s give it a try.’ Because I didn’t see any restaurants that sell skewers, Brazilian style.”
Park said the couple lived in Glendale for years, so he was familiar with the neighborhood and said, “Why not?”
He also unwittingly tapped into the small but lively and supportive local Brazilian community.
“There is a little Brazilian community in La Crescenta-Montrose, La Canada and, in Glendale, there is, too. I see a lot of Brazilian people coming. I didn’t know there was that many Brazilian people around here. I was very impressed.”
After securing the location, Park returned to Brazil for some serious boots-on-the-ground research. Focusing on Sao Paulo, Park sampled skewers from humble street carts to high-end fine-dining restaurants.
“I got the restaurant in October,” Park said. “I went to Brazil in November, and I opened in March.”
When the restaurant launched in March, his on-site dining capacity was two tables on the sidewalk.
“It wasn’t easy at the beginning,” he said. “Now, I have 12 to 14 tables. I still have the outside tables. There are lot of people who walk their dogs. They like to eat outside.”
Procuring his license for beer and wine service in late June helped boost business. Cold beer is the traditional and perfect accompaniment to Park’s skewers. He’s still awaiting final approval from the city to fire up his custom charcoal grill.
“I have the grill,” Park said. “I bought it in Brazil. It’s not available here. They need to get approval from the fire department. The grill will add the essential smoky char, finishing off Park’s otherwise thoroughly authentic take on classic espetinhos.”
All skewers are $8.50. They include two takes with marinated beef — one is traditional with a spicy house sauce and cilantro; the other is inspired by the couple’s Korean background using a sweeter bulgogi-style marinade.
Asa de Frango and Asa de Frango Apimentado are skewered chicken wings, marinated in garlic-based sauce and then heated with piquant, hot and sweet prep. Pancetta features marinated, crispy pork belly, and Coracao de Frango is a traditional skewer of chicken hearts. Gizzards are another authentic option, as is the linguica, Brazilian cured sausage.
The menu focus at Valeu Espetos is obviously on skewers, but Park’s take on pao de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread) is also worth the quick trip up the 210 to Montrose. He uses three cheeses and blends them with manioc starch before pressing them into neat mini waffles. They come in a two-piece order for $6 or four pieces for $11.
Other side dishes include two classic croquette styles ($4.50): coxinhas with chicken or risoles with beef or shrimp. There’s also a kibbe croquette with beef ($6) and pastels ($4) Brazilian-style empanadas stuffed with chicken, beef or hearts of palm.
The chef’s special menu includes Frango a Passarinho ($18.50), the traditional dish of deep-fried chopped chicken thighs; Porcao de Moela Apimentada ($14.50), pan-fried chicken gizzards; and Feijoada ($20), the hearty black bean stew. Here, it’s served in frozen portions for takeout only.
A mini combo ($32.50) includes three skewers, a croquette of any variety and two cheese waffles. The larger family combo ($79.50) boasts eight skewers, two croquettes and four cheese waffles. All are served with housemade vinaigrette, Park’s own housemade hot sauce and the traditional condiment of farofa, or manioc flour, for dusting.
There are six bottled beers available, including the Brazilian black ale, Xingu ($8). Soju is also available, and there are two soju cocktails that nod to the classic caipirinha, cachaca rum cocktail of Brazil ($10).
Valeu Espetos offers a window into Brazilian street cuisine that is original and authentic. Park is uncompromising with his ingredients and technique; “99% of my food is made from scratch. It’s a lot of work. It’s fresh, made daily. It’s different. Everything is made from scratch. Handmade. You’re going to eat something very, very fresh. When you eat it, you’ll know it’s different. It’s always cooked to order. It’s like homemade food. My food is unique.”