Brazil’s economic crisis has hit Rio hard this past year, and the culinary scene was by no means immune from the downturn. Some famous restaurants and bars closed their doors for good. But the city hasn’t given up. In fact, if some doors have closed, a lot more have opened. Because now creativity is being used as a weapon against the crisis, and not only at newly opened spots. Established bars and restaurants have been reinvigorated with new ideas and processes.
In this atmosphere, many exciting culinary novelties have made their way to the streets, ready for us to indulge in, all without having to spend too much money. So my best bites of 2017 reflect this abundance of good and cheap novel eats that have become so popular in these leaner times.
The Moela at Bar do Momo
The recipe sounds like haute cuisine: chicken gizzards dipped in mashed sweet potatoes, covered in quinoa, fried and then slathered in a sauce made with oyster sauce, tonkatsu sauce from Japan, hoisin sauce from China and Sriracha sauce from Thailand. But this marvelous dish is an example of the best street food Rio has to offer. This mix between the traditions of popular botequims, where gizzards have been served for more than a century, and contemporary gastronomy is the creation of Bar do Momo. Located in Tijuca, a North Zone neighborhood known for its relaxed pace, Momo is often considered the best local bar in Rio, and the moela is just one of many unique dishes to come out of the tiny, nine-square-meter kitchen of this historic botequim.
The Octopus Patanisca at Zezimbar
Patanisca, fried fish cakes made with egg batter and salted cod, is a traditional Portuguese snack invented in Lisbon but very rare in Rio. Only a few bars have the ability to prepare this crispy delicacy – it’s no easy feat. But Zezimbar, a new botequim in Copacabana, has been able to perfect this dish and expand upon it. Not only do they make the traditional cod patanisca, but they also make two different versions of this fritter, one with tuna and the other with octopus. My favorite is the octopus – the soft, moist and delicious cake almost dissolves in my mouth, and it costs no more than R$8 (around $2.50).
This brand new restaurant has been revolutionizing Rio’s culinary scene. But unlike splashier spots, Kalango is humble and tiny, located in untouristed Praça da Bandeira. The restaurant made its name by putting out incredibly delicious food from northeast Brazil – their dishes exude creativity and bear some touches of sophistication, all at a very affordable price point. It’s not surprising, considering that the chef, Emerson Pedrosa, used to be a sous chef at the former Michelin-starred Roberta Sudbrack, which for many years was considered the best restaurant in town. But the crisis led to the shuttering of Roberta Sudbrack, and now Emerson is in charge of his own place, where he cooks the food he learned from his grandmother more than 30 years ago, in the distant state of Ceará. On simple metal plates or in metal square cans, he serves wonders like baião de dois, a mix of rice, beans, dried meat and secret spices. Or arroz de leite (milk rice, in Portuguese), a rare dish from the so-called sertão, or hinterlands, of northeast Brazil. But for me the best dish at Kalango is the bife de panela com purê de jerimum, a soft ox meat slow cooked for hours in a casserole dish and served with pumpkin purée.
The Mega Burger at Hell’s Burguer
It’s not new that, for many people, the best burger in Rio can be found at Hell’s Burguer. This mix between bar and diner has three branches in town and offers an excellent burger that lies somewhere between the overpriced and underwhelming “gourmet burgers,” which recently spread like a disease throughout the city, and the good old, albeit sometimes dangerous podrão, the cheap burger that can be found at just about any street stall. But this year, Hell’s Burguer went big: It now offers a giant version of its famous rib burger, made with two kilos of meat, 500 grams of cheddar cheese and a bun with a diameter of 45 centimeters. Perfect for house parties and beloved by kids, the burger – which costs R$200 (around $60) – serves six to eight people easily. Eating it, though, takes some advance planning: this burger has to be ordered 24 hours in advance.
Cachaça Chicken at Galeto Sat’s
Galeto, a very young chicken (no more than three months old) cooked over a big coal-fired grill and served with different kinds of sauce, is a very typical dish in Rio. There are many galeto places in town, especially in Copacabana. But at Galeto Sat’s, this meal takes on a different – and even more delicious – flavor if you order the sobrecoxa na cachaça, a generous piece of chicken leg perfectly roasted and served in a cachaça sauce. The notes of alcohol and sugar cane that come from the humble Brazilian spirit penetrate the meat, making the already tender and moist chicken taste even more so. It was definitely one of this year’s must-try dishes.