In honor of the Olympics, this month we're bringing you gold medal coverage of The Best of the Best.
Brazilian food around the world is typically represented by the staple churrascaria (“steakhouse”) that serves all-you-can-eat rodízio. Yet Brazil—the largest country in Latin America with a multiplicity of climates, landscapes and influences—is a food lover’s dream, with options for seafood lovers, adventurous eaters and even vegans.
In recent years, figures like chef Alex Atala have begun introducing Brazil’s gastronomic gifts on an international stage: The country’s food offers a complex range of textures and flavors from its diverse regions (see a recipe for traditional Brazilian cheese bread). Many are based on local ingredients and traditions, which are unique to specific corners of the country, while others—such as manioc (tapioca) root established in indigenous diets—is a versatile, ubiquitous ingredient that is never far from any Brazilian table.
And Rio, the country’s former capital, second largest city and host to this year’s Summer Olympic Games (kicking off Friday), captures the culinary prowess of Brazil in a nutshell: a variety of ethnic options from around the country and world, six Michelin-star restaurants and the possibility to be a local Carioca in Rio itself. Here are the spots that deserve a place on the medal stand:
Tacacá do Norte
The scent of stewing seafood spills onto the sidewalk from this tiny, unassuming joint featuring Northern Brazilian food from Pará. On any given day, elderly couples feast on flaky farinha sprinkled on deep purple açaí on one side of the bar, while energetic kids snack on fried chicken-filled coxinha (croquettes) on the other. The restaurant’s specialty is its namesake—tacacá—a traditional soup featuring tucupi, the yellow liquid from Brazil’s beloved manioc (tapioca) root that creates a numbing sensation. Locals regard it as the spot to get authentic, pure açaí—evidenced by purple-stained lips and teeth—and the most authentic cuisine from the distinct, distant region.
Café do Alto
On a bustling corner in the artsy Santa Teresa neighborhood—streetcar rattling by outside—is a yellow restaurant with a sign that says it all: nordestino. Northeastern cuisine is available but still considered a specialty in Rio, a major southeastern metropolis that is a melting pot when it comes to local grub. The warm yellow moqueca—colored from the dendê (“palm”) oil—is a traditional Brazilian stew served with rice, toasted manioc flour called farofa and yuca-based fish sauce called pirão. The earthy colors and flavors echo the restaurant’s interior, adorned with handcrafted dolls hanging in the window and regional paintings of pineapple farms.
Rotisseria Sírio Libanesa
In a sparse alleyway mall, a crowd gathers in a back corner around a glowing deli counter. Though Brazil is a recent home for thousands of Syrian refugees, this has been Rio’s beloved Syrian resto since the 1960s, evidenced by the symphony of diverse languages inside and steady line outside. On the mall’s benches, families pass around cheese-filled esfiha (a pizza-like dish) and spiced beef kibe. Customers stand at the counter and high-tops, or sit at one of the few coveted tables in the back, most surfaces covered with dishes full of rice with lentils topped with fried onions, stuffed cabbage and the favorite tender beef kafta on sticks.
Inside a generic central Rio mall at the top of an escalator is a treasured café, which has no door, no frills and no mandatory prices. The menu is simple: espresso, cappuccino, beans. Yet the chalkboard above the counter, which customers at the end of the never-ending line squint to see, has more to say: the café’s costs, source of the beans (small farms in southeastern Brazil where they roast their own) and the business model. The pay-what-you-wish arrangement enables Curto to pay farmers well and satisfy a city of caffeine addicts.
Bar do Mineiro
Mineiros—the term for inhabitants of the southeastern state of Minas Gerais—inevitably flock to this homey spot, but the line out the door suggests that it has been a local favorite since it opened in 1992. Best known for Brazil’s national dish, feijoada—a traditional seasoned bean stew with beef and pork—one order is a small banquet served with a pile of rice, fried manioc plus manioc flour, sautéed kale and orange slices. Surrounded by traditional wood carvings, metal pots and colorful paintings, diners are transported to another region, especially after a few sips of cachaça, the country’s alcohol of choice made from sugarcane juice.
Pizzaria do Chico
When Francisco Allevato—“Chico”—returned from Italy, he brought his newfound wisdom to his homeland and opened his pizza joint in 1998. Today, it’s hard to get a seat at one of the 20 or so plastic chairs in the nook of a garage, but so worth the wait. The thin-crust pies—topped with more than 30 assortments—are served on one dish, so go hungry and ready to share. Wandering between the kitchen and his guests, Chico’s warmth and humor is summarized in a modest logo: “Chico, the most beloved Italian after Roberto Baggio.
Not far from the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema is a neighborhood bar where patrons gather outside waiting for a spot at one of a few dozen alfresco tables or the inside metal counter. This classic Brazilian pub opened in 1961—a favorite evidenced by its fading accolades on the wall—and is best known for its ice-cold beer and porciónes, the equivalent of tapas in Portuguese. Almost every table is identically covered in booze and finger food: stuffed bolinho, pastel and empada pastries, and a pile of fried manioc.
Bar do Tino
The panoramic view alone—overlooking the city’s iconic Christ the Redeemer (reflected in its logo) and Sugarloaf Mountain—makes the strenuous walk to the simple terrace worth it. But Tino’s food and family vibe is what draws its diners, who gravitate to the traditional fire-roasted meats, fried finger food and specialty beef jerky. On Saturdays only, you can order the barbecue chicken—but don’t ask about the sauce; it’s secret!—which helped earned the spot the Comer & Beber da Paz prize for best food and view.
Thanks to Cláudia Menegatti, Mónica Rocha and Tiago Cacique for assistance with translation and research.
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