Brazilian Bread on Solano Avenue in North Berkeley. Photo: Anna Mindess

While growing up in Brazil, Delvira Rodrigues didn’t give much thought to the traditional puffy, cheesy rolls called pão de queijo. “I ate them everyday at breakfast and lunch with my family,” she said. “My mom and grandma are from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, which is famous for its cheese, and that’s the most important ingredient.”

The older generation still makes their cheese bread at home, but the younger generation frequents bakeries or tapiocarias (cafés that specialize in cheese bread, tapioca-flour crêpes, açaí bowls and strong Brazilian coffee). “In Brazil,” says Rodrigues, “these places are as common as churches.”

After she moved to San Francisco in 2009 to join her parents and sister, Rodrigues found that when the family missed Brazilian food, there were just two kinds of places they could frequent: upscale steakhouses or simple spots that served basic plates of rice, beans and beef. No tapiocarias for lighter fare.

Her parents asked her to make them cheese bread since she had always loved to cook. To find the right ingredients, Rodrigues shopped at one of the few nearby Brazilian markets, but, because all the foodstuffs are imported from Brazil, the price was prohibitive. So she experimented. It took five years for Rodrigues to develop her own successful recipes for cheese bread using locally sourced ingredients.

Delvira Rodrigues, owner of Brazilian Bread in North Berkeley. Photo: Anna Mindess

Thanks to her family’s encouragement, she shared her cheese bread with friends. A few years ago, when Rodrigues was still perfecting her recipes, her roommate (who coached Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) invited over one of his students to watch a match on TV. The student, Joule Sze, was also a native of Brazil. Rodrigues baked them some cheese bread to snack on. It must have made quite an impression, because two years later, Sze proposed and they were married last February. Rodrigues credits her husband for his contributions to her success. “He helps me with everything: financial support, emotional support and he’s a great handyman.”

Rodrigues eventually started a catering company called Brazilian Breads (note, the company’s name is Brazilian Breads, the café is named Brazilian Bread), serving at parties and events in the Bay Area like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Napa’s BottleRock music festival. Although she holds a BA in computer science and an MA in education, Rodrigues had always dreamt of having her own café. That dream came true today, Feb. 14, when she opened Brazilian Bread on North Berkeley’s Solano Avenue.

Brazilian Bread offers frozen cheese breads to bake at home, including, left, one with guava jelly inside. Photo: Anna Mindess

One natural audience for her golden rolls with the crunchy crust is the growing number of people who eat gluten-free by choice or necessity. Although this staple of Brazilian cuisine has always been naturally gluten-free thanks to its main ingredient, tapioca flour, it seems to have flown under the radar in the U.S., perhaps because it hasn’t been widely accessible.

While it’s possible to locate one or two brands of frozen Brazilian cheese bread, there has not yet been a local bakery or café offering freshly baked, warm cheese bread rolls, especially in the range of flavors that Rodrigues makes. She explains that traditionally, cheese bread in Brazil is made with just tapioca flour, eggs, milk and cheese. But the newer flavors that she and Brazilian expats in other states have created are now finding their way back to Brazil.

Her new bakery/café offers seven flavors: the original is made with cotija cheese, while the four cheese variety adds parmesan, provolone and cheddar. Then there’s garlic and rosemary, jalapeño, bacon, Catupiry (a Brazilian brand of soft, creamy cheese) and a sweet treat, stuffed with a nugget of guava jelly, which becomes molten when baked. All are most tempting just out of the oven so that the cheese stretches invitingly when you split open the ball.

Rodrigues plans to make the original flavor every day, plus at least two of her other flavors. After tasting the varieties in the café, she encourages customers to buy trays of frozen balls to take home and bake themselves. Twenty-five minutes in the oven at 350 degrees produces golden brown tops and a chewy interior.

Brazilian Bread café offers sandwiches made with pork, steak or chicken, and a vegetarian eggplant option. The cheese breads contain milk, cheese and eggs, but a vegan tapioca flour crêpe with eggplant or other fillings is also available. Rounding out the menu are salads, soup and yuca fries — made from the same plant that produces tapioca, called cassava or manioc, which is rich in fiber with a low glycemic index. For dessert, there are cakes, tapioca crepes with sweet fillings and sorbet fruit bowls made from the Brazilian Superfoods, açaí and dragon fruit.

The space, at 1707 Solano Ave., shares the block with popular spots Xocolate Bar and Vanessa’s Bistro. It seems like an ideal spot with lots of foot traffic but has been somewhat of a revolving restaurant door, and in the last few years housed Tangerine Food Bar, Jin’s Café and most recently Riveter Café. The remodeled cozy space features cheery red and yellow accents with eight stools plus six patio seats.

Opening morning on Wednesday Feb. 14 at Brazilian Bread in Berkeley. Photo: Anna Mindess

On Wednesday morning, a steady stream of customers had already come through, including Brazilians who drove in from as far away as El Sobrante. The first person in line was North Berkeley resident and flutist Jane Lenoir. She discovered pão de queijo at an open-air juice bar on one of her many trips to Brazil. Lenoir, whose group Choro Ensemble specializes in the traditional music of Brazil said, “I’m excited to have a little bit of Brazil in my neighborhood.”

Rodridges was thrilled with the enthusiastic response on opening day. “I worked two-and-a-half years for today. I am living a dream.”

The café will be in “soft-opening mode” for a few weeks, meaning it will be open daily, but Rodrigues is still toying with the hours and  menu. The hard opening is projected for the end of March.

Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley.