As alluded to in a previous entry, one of my favorite ways to get to know a city is through its food, and the local bars and restaurants that lend the city a great deal of its character and charm. In advance of any trip, I normally try to solicit food recommendations from locals or past travelers, and tend to keep a travel guide handy in the even that I find myself without a good option nearby. From there, it’s usually a vague plan that involves a lot of walking, and some meals interspersed in between.
My Saturday in Rio was no exception. I started the day in search of one of my favorite Brazilian exports, açai, the delicious berry often served frozen and pureed with sugar or the sweetening guarana syrup. More seasoned palates than mine have likened the taste of açai to chocolate, with a less heavy / more refreshing aftertaste. As an added bonus (I would eat the stuff on taste alone), açai is purported to have health benefits and be a natural source of energy, though I’m still unclear how much marketing or legend has seeped into this popular conception.
Açai is found in the rainforest-laden, Amazonian region of northern Brazil, and is notoriously difficult to maintain and preserve. This accounts for its absence in restaurants across the world, aside from the occasional comically overpriced version found in urban health food stores. In search of a more authentic style of açai, I walked up from the Botafogo neighborhood I was staying in to the adjacent Flamengo neighborhood and the lunchonette (lanchonete, in Brazilian Portuguese) Tacacá do Norte, which specialized in food from in the Brazilian state of Para, (fact about the Amazon River).
I ordered my açai with very little sugar, which I soon noticed was the way that most of the other morning patrons were ordering it as well. The açai tasted considerably more like the terrain it was picked from than the sugary, sweet version that I was accustomed to, but it retained the essential flavor that makes it so popular here in Brazil. To quell my curiosity more so than accompany my açai, I ordered the house specialty, the tacacá soup. The soup is principally made from tucupi, a yellow sauce of wild manioc root, which seemed to be an accoutrement on nearly everything the patrons were eating, including the acai, and came served with a collards-like stewed green called jambu leaves at the bottom, and some shelled shrimp floating on top. Tacacá is most notable for its distinct taste: a tart sweetness (similar to some Filipino dishes I’ve had) albeit a sweetness that leaves your mouth feeling slightly numb after. The soup gave me the sensation of a low-intensity shot of novacane at the dentist’s office. Though it was better than it sounds, I doubt I would rush to order it again.
Tacacá Soup, the specialty of Rio’s Tacacá do Norte lanchonete
After, I made a brief visit to the Museu da Republica (Museum of the Republic) housed in the Palacio de Caetete, the one-time Brazilian “White House.” The museum’s main attraction is the third-floor bedroom of Brazilian President / autocrat Getúlio Vargas, the location of his infamous suicide. The room was eerily preserved to look and feel the same as it was on that date in 1954, including the sparse furniture and the gleaming revolver (under glass) that he used to dramatically shoot himself in the heart. For whatever reason, the accompanying will, in which Vargas preserves his populist appeal for eternity by stating: “if the birds of prey want someone’s blood, if they want to continue bleeding dry the Brazilian people, I offer my life in holocaust” was just a facsimile – maybe the original is kept in one of Brazil’s many history museums. Adjacent to the Palacio are stately gardens, with less shade than you’d expect to protect its current visitors (and the Brazilian political elite, at one point), from Rio’s sweltering heat.
The revolver used by Getulio Vargas to kill himself in 1954, at the Museu da Republica in Rio de Janeiro
From there, I set off for another museum / park combo, climbing up one of Rio’s many steep-inclined sets of concrete steps to reach the Santa Teresa neighborhood, and the Museu de Characa de Ceu and Parque das Ruinas (Ruins Park.) The museum had a beautiful collection of paintings capturing the city of Rio de Janeiro from its colonial origins to more modern depictions of the city. My favorite painting was titled “The Big City,” and I think it managed to more capably depict the improvised, chaotic nature of Brazilian cities better than any photograph.
A painting of Rio de Janeiro in an early stage of development at the Chacara de Ceu Museum
The view from the Parque das Ruinas provides an interesting comparison to the painting
The aptly titled painting The Great City, depicting modern day Rio de Janeiro, at the Chacara de Ceu Museum
Santa Teresa was certainly the most touristy place I visited in Rio – it has the feel of a pacified favela that has since become a popular haunt for visitors to Rio curious about the commotion taking place above the beautiful coastline of beaches and development. I eventually reached the Bar do Mineiro, a restaurant recommended to me for its famous feijoada – a black beans and meat-based stew that has its origins in the cuisine of Brazil’s slave population that has since become Brazil’s national dish, a testament to the strong and ongoing influence of Brazil’s immigrant population on its cultural development. Along with Wednesdays, Saturdays are one of two days of the week that Brazilians indulge in the meat-heavy, fat laden stew, though there are certainly places that serve feijoada any day of the week. Mineiro’s feijoada did not disappoint – it was truly among the best I’ve ever eaten, and the open-air, informal boteco (bar) atmosphere adding to the experience. While the serving “for one,” served with rice, Brazilian greens, and the ubiquitous manioc flavored flour called “farofa,” is normally well beyond the reaches of my appetite, in this case I managed to finish the whole serving.
The hearty feijoada stew, a specialty of the Bar do Mineiro in Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro
From there, I made my way down to Copacabana beach via the surprisingly well-run metro system (one of the few useful vestiges of the investments made in the froth-filled run-up to the World Cup / Olympics). After all, a day in Rio without at least a passing acknowledgement of the beach almost seems like a wasted day. Walking down the Copacabana promenade towards Ipanema, I was struck by just how unique, and how much of an international treasure Rio is. With the exception of Tel Aviv, whose beaches are mostly cordoned off by private beachside hotels and developments, I can’t think of a major international city which such a gorgeous and attractive beachfront. Along shoreline that stretches south x southwest across Copacabana, Ipanema, and past Gávea, Rio’s beaches are open and accessible to the public, and one can even rent their own chair and umbrella for the day at any of these beaches for less than $5. Hungry, thirsty, or under-adorned beach goers need not fret either – the beach is teeming with enterprising vendors selling everything from the Brazilian version of grilled cheese to fruity cachaça-based caipirinhas, and there are beach posts every km or so with restrooms, showers, and cafe fare.
I spent the next 2-3 hours sitting by Ipanema’s Post 8, which offers a beautiful view of the Pão de Açúcar Mountain and the sun setting over the mountains. Along with my book, I was able to people-watch my fellow beach-goers, with plenty of diversionary entertainment to be had. Brazilians are truly master beach-goers – they seem to manage to make the beach, and whatever space they have around them, into their temporary home, with the oftentimes revealing thong bikinis and ‘sungas’ (speedo-like swimsuits) testament to the comfort that Brazilians preternaturally feel on the beach.
From there, I made a quick stop at the flagship of the local Livraria da Travessa bookshop, which had a bit less majesty, but was no less functional and interesting, than the fantastic Livraria Cultura outpost in Central Rio. I bought a copy of Bolaño’s Distant Star at the recommendation of a friend who is writing about Bolaño for his doctoral thesis, before yet another meal to cap off my day. Somehow, the exercise and activity of a day filled with possibility manages to be a major appetite generator.
I ended the day at Bar Lagoa, another well-known restaurant recommended by a local in advance of my visit. Worried about my post-beach attire (namely my flip flops, which I think is pushing it, even for Brazil), I changed into sneakers before entering the open air bar adjacent to Rio’s Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. The first page of the menu explained the old-style feel of the restaurant, replete with waiters dressed in coats and ties. The restaurant was at one time a haunt for German immigrants to enjoy fare of their Fatherland and obligatory accompanying lager. The restaurant was initially called Bar de Berlim (Berlin), before changing its name during World War II (but unlikely changing the allegiance of its attendees), as Brazil was the only South American country to participate (fighting for the Allies). I was charmed by the prospect of eating German fare in such a tropical setting, and opted for an afpelstrudel and schlag (cream) to cap off my day, as well as a couple chopp (lagers), with the obligatory top quarter of the glass filled with a refreshing froth.
Bar da Lagoa’s apfelstrudel, with a healthy portion of schlag / crème
In all, it was an exhausting but rewarding day (as the best ones are), without incident. However, it must be stated that on that very Saturday, eight people were killed by the police in Rio’s Rocinha favela, an upsetting and important reminder that Rio continues to be in the midst of a violent war between the city’s police force and its poorer citizens. The activities of the day, in stark contrast to the events taking place miles away, provide a useful juxtpoisition of the very real contradiction that the city of Rio de Janeiro present to its tourists and diverse inhabitants.