Greasy spoon series: Richmond café harbours South American secret

The third in the series sees the News pay a visit to a rather unusual eatery in the gritty north tip of the city

It’s that time of year when the days get shorter and the craving for comfort food kicks in. With that in mind, the Richmond News is featuring a series of family-run, independent "greasy spoon" cafes, as nominated by our readers. At the end of the series, we’ll ask our readers to vote for which eatery deserves the News’  “Greasy Spoon Award.” 

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Sandwiched between thick slices of industry and topped by the hard-working north arm of the Fraser River lies what appears to be – on the surface at least – your stereotypical greasy spoon joint.Serving the local workforce, be they from neighbouring autoshops, logistics or manufacturing businesses, the River Road Café welcomes them all with open arms.

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But what you won’t notice if you drive by this very modest section of River and No. 5 roads is that the family-run café has a little secret, a South American one.

For the River Road Café is run by a Brazilian born and bred couple – Leo and Roberta Tonioly – who are slowly, but surely, exposing their regulars to their native cuisine.

Sure, the obligatory “greasy spoon” staples are chalked on the menu overlooking the basic tables and linoleum-tiled floor. Your all-day breakfast, your home-made burgers, etc. etc are all there.

However, a closer inspection of the choices reveals the true passion of the Toniolys, who took over the running of the café a year ago from a Taiwanese family.

“People can come and eat our home-made burgers, which are very good, but then they see some Brazilian items and they think, ‘let’s have a try,’ said Leo, the former food and beverage director at the Sheraton in Richmond, who came to Canada nine years ago from Sao Paulo, via a three year stint in San Francisco with a French-based hotel chain.

“The Brazilian rice and beans, for example, that’s what I love to serve people. The rice is long grain, seasoned with onions, garlic and salt and the pressure-cooked black beans are finished in the pan with onions, garlic and salt. It’s great for vegans and vegetarians.

“Then you can add meat if you like, chicken, meatballs. I take a lot of pride in that dish. We sell a lot of it.”

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Brazilian items are sneaking onto the 'greasy spoon' cafe menu. Alan Campbell photo

The Brazilian-inspired contents of the fridge at the counter and the freezer cabinet is where Roberta comes into play, even though she only started cooking for a living when they took over the café.

“I worked in accounting. I learned my skills here,” smiled Roberta, who came to Richmond in 2002 to study English and fell in love with the city.

“People come in and say, ‘can you make this? Can you make that? I say, ‘no, but I will learn.

“Last week, I baked a cake because someone asked me to make it out of one of the deli items I make. I said, ‘I don’t make cakes.’ But she said, ‘I like your sweets, so can you just make it out of that?’ She loved it. It was for a work thing.

“And then someone from that event came in and said she wanted that cake. I said, ‘what cake?’”

Her Brazilian deli items – which include savoury and sweet pastries – are now so popular, they are packaged and sold to Brazilian stores in the Lower Mainland.

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Brazilian jams are available at the River Road Cafe, along with several other home-made Brazilian pastries.

“We are finding that everyone, not just people from Brazil or Portugal, are loving the food,” added Leo who, along with his wife and two sons, employs two part-time staff for the Tuesday to Saturday, daytime operation.

“That was our goal, to introduce Brazilian food to people who might never have tried it. There is nothing like this in Richmond. In Vancouver there are three or four.

“We have Brazilians coming in from Richmond, Vancouver, Burnaby and Poco. When they come to Ikea or are picking up someone from the airport, they will drop in.”

The couple, who live in the Kingswood area, said they close on Sunday and Monday, not because it’s quiet, but to have a little family time and to prep for the week ahead.

“People still come in on Monday, even though the sign says closed,” said Roberta.

“But that’s just us, we love our customers and I think they quite like us.”

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As well as offering some Brazilian cuisine on their 'greasy spoon' cafe menu, the Toniolys have the staple fried breakfasts, grilled cheese and home-made burgers. Alan Campbell photo

Case in point, as the Richmond News was finishing off the interview, in walked regular Kartell Beswick.

“There are a lot of other places that we could go to eat, but we choose to come here because we love Roberta and we love the positive energy here,” he said, completely unsolicited.

“I could be in a bad mood coming here, but it’s very difficult to remain in a bad mood once you come in here.”

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Their regular customers love popping in to see Roberta and often leave in a better mood than they arrived. Alan Campbell photo

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