Next to the serving window of his outdoor restaurant, Pedro Robin rings a bell, summoning from the kitchen a few skewered samples of tri-tip smothered in a creamy green sauce. He distributes them to the growing line, clapping shoulders and pausing occasionally to stomp and smack his enormous hands together in rhythm with the samba currently blowing out the speakers. This is the Robin that regulars come to see. On this particular night, he is also granting three wishes, explaining the Brazilian tradition as he ties on each customer's wrist a nylon bracelet using a triad of knots.
"You must keep your wishes secret," he says. "That's how we do it in Brazil."
See also: East Bay Bite: Ethiopian at Café Colucci
For fourteen years, Robin has exercised a mission of bringing Brazil to Berkeley. He owns Brazil Café, that explosively colorful hut shouldered up against the UC Berkeley campus that, over these fourteen years, has amassed an enthusiastic following. But whether that's the doing of Robin or his sandwiches, it's unclear. He is 47 years old, the exact number of years he reports as being in the restaurant business. Robin was born into his father's restaurant's kitchen, moved into his own café at 17, and fifteen years later, moved stateside and started his Berkeley-based empire.
Robin decided early on that tri-tip would be the best and most popular entry point to his food. As far as we can tell, he was right. The stalwart favorite and out of the house is, appropriately, Pedro's Favorite. The sandwich is the uncomplicated mix of tri-tip -- chopped up into flavorful, juicy bits -- dark lettuce, sliced olives, tomatoes, and a good smothering of an rightly famous garlic cilantro sauce. Ask Robin what makes the grilled tri-tip so good, and he'll say nothing but "love." Robin is a substantial, effusive man, a warm and ebullient spring in what sometimes feels like a culturally defunct corner of town. This is what keeps the hoards coming; this, and the beef.
Recently, Robin moved his second location from just around the corner to just down the street. A third will be opening up on May 18, at 1280 Gilman Street, just in time for the World Cup. Robin calls it a beer hall, allegedly the kind of beer hall that hosts yoga classes in the morning and samba classes at night. From the sound of it, the space also features a fountain and lots of opportunities for yelling at sports. The menu will extend beyond the current tri-tip heavy offerings to things like salads and desserts, and variations on deep-fried meats and more refined sandwiches. As an influx of money and new culture continues to warp the landscape of the East Bay, there's a certain kind of colonizer we'll never object to: the Brazilian. Keep on, Pedro Robin, keep on.