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Poor one day and rich the next, our correspondent samples the best of Sao Paulo's street food and haute cuisine. Both are scrumptious and far more varied than you'd expect.
When eating out in Sao Paulo, I lead a double life. In one, I’m a starving freelance journalist without a Brazilian real to spare. In the other, I’m a part-time food writer for The New York Times with a generous expense account.
In the latter life, I’ve sampled some of the best of contemporary Brazilian cuisine at pricy spots — posh establishments where European-trained chefs create masterpieces using tropical freshwater fish like pirarucu and Amazon fruits like cupuacu.
On my own time, I fill my belly with hearty Brazilian standards like salty, hot-off-the-spit picanha , barbecued beef dipped in pico-de-gallo-like vinaigrette and farofa, a tasty toasted manioc-root flour.
In Sao Paulo, bars and restaurants are central to the spirit of the city. Endless places serve traditional lunches of meat, rice and beans. The sit-down neighborhood bars called botecos sell Skol and Brahma beer and snacks like pasteis, Brazilian empanadas filled with cheese, heart of palm or, if you’re lucky, dried beef called carne seca and a sweet squash called abobora.
The streets are packed with restaurants specializing in regional cuisine from states like Minas Gerais, home of Brazilian soul food, and Bahia, famous for Afro-Brazilian dishes heavy on palm oil. There are also plenty of churrascarias, all-you-can-eat steakhouses that originated in the south but have come to represent Brazilian cuisine abroad.
Anyone visiting sophisticated Paulistas will struggle against the Sao Paulo natives’ desire to show how cosmopolitan their city is by taking you to its high-end Italian restaurants, sushi bars and French bistros.
Do yourself a favor and fend them off. Say you want to try feijao tropeiro (a hearty bean and pork dish from Minas Gerais) or moqueca (fish stew from Bahia). Ask to have lunch at a kilo (pay-by-weight) spot and drinks at the bar with the best caipirinhas (lime and cane liquor cocktails) in town.
Who needs fancy foreign fare when you can gorge on these tasty native foods instead?
Around the corner: Sabor e Arte
“Kilo” and “self serve” restaurants are everywhere in Sao Paulo, serving lunch by weight. If this sounds like a bad, even unhygienic idea, don’t worry, Brazilians have mastered the art of the buffet. You get traditional cooking and fresh salads for reasonable rates, choosing your own ratio of healthy items to those loaded with delicious fat.
I’ve tried all the self-service spots near my home in the city center and nothing comes close to this one, popular with staff from the Hospital Santa Casa across the street, who pack its tables in their scrubs.
Set in a red house with an outdoor patio filled with tables around a fountain, the buffet starts with dessert to tempt you, followed by a super-fresh salad bar with items like watercress, marinated eggplant, beets and heart of palm.
A hot steam table offers dishes like rice and beans, pasta, quiche, Brazilian-style beef strogonoff and piles of sausage, chicken and beef hot off the spit. They also serve fresh squeezed, made-to-order juices. Tangerine is a very tasty choice.
Take the metro line 3 to Santa Cecilia, then walk straight out Rua Dona Veridiana. It’s across the street from the Hospital Santa Casa.
I’m in love with Minas Gerais, Brazil’s most populous land-locked state, which is northeast of Sao Paulo. It’s (obviously) short on beaches but long on waterfalls, quaint country roads and the soul food of Brazil.
Traditionally cooked in cast-iron pots over wood fires, the food in this region consists of hearty chunks of pork loin, creamy bean dishes and bunches of garlicky kale.
This antique-filled restaurant, whose name means “The Minas Gerais Consulate,” has all the classic dishes in a pleasantly festive setting, with outdoor seating that looks out onto a plaza.
There’s a huge menu, but first-time visitors should stick to Minas classics, like lombo (pork loin), feijao tropeiro, (a hearty pork and bean dish) and desserts like