Dear Culinary Backstreets,
My husband and I are headed to Rio for vacation and neither of us eats meat or fish. Brazil sounds like a paradise for the carnivorous, but what’s a vegetarian to do?
Fat-rimmed picanha cuts roasting at churrascarias. Skewers of fat shrimp sold by hawking vendors on the beach. Assorted pork parts poking their rinds out beneath the thin sheen of grease on pots of feijoada. For a vegetarian, Rio de Janeiro seems like an enemy minefield: one look at a side dish of torresmo (fried pig skin) is enough for an herbivore to declare the mission failed and to beat a hasty retreat to the trenches.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Vegetarians can eat themselves green in tropical breadbasket Brazil if they know where to look. From the cupuaçú fruit of the Amazon to the soy of the central-west to the abundant and cheap couve (collard greens) in any Rio supermarket, Brazilians can make a heaping lunch plate with no help from the butcher. While any corner lanchonete (snack bar) offers a variety of fruit juices and açaí, we’ve listed the best vegetarian places in Rio for a full meal:
Located off Rio’s historical Praça Tiradentes, Reino Vegetal is a kilo restaurant, meaning a buffet where you pay by weight. It’s packed with Rio’s downtown workers during lunch hours. Items change each weekday and include empadão de abóbora (pumpkin pot pie), quinoa and tofu burgers, apricot quiche and onion esfiha, the Arab-inspired stuffed turnover elsewhere filled with cheese or meat.
This two-story restaurant in the largely residential Botafogo neighborhood offers both a buffet and daily specials: couscous, salads, various beans and patties of tofu or onion to be eaten like a burger. It offers a juice menu, too, with mixes like orange, mint and pineapple or lime with açúcar muscavo (brown sugar).
If Japanese food may not strike you as particularly Brazilian, we refer you to the numbers: Brazil is home to the largest population of Japanese immigrants in the world, concentrated mostly in São Paulo, where the number of sushi restaurants (600) recently surpassed churrascaria steak houses (500). It is estimated that São Paulo eateries turn out about 400,000 pieces of sushi a day. (For the sake of full disclosure, we will add that that data comes from the marketing team of Temakeria Makis Place, which owns about 100 sushi restaurants in Brazil.) While fish and meats are on Gohan’s menu, the restaurant offers a vegetarian lunch special every day, in addition to menu options like vegetable tempura, cucumber sushi and various noodle dishes. Go during the day to check out the colorful mosaic Selarón steps nearby in the grunge-chic party neighborhood of Lapa. Be cautious when walking alone to the restaurant on a weeknight, when streets are deserted.
This 100-percent vegan buffet sits in Rio’s Praça XV, which was once the municipal food market in the mid-19th century and is now a busy transit point for workers going to and from Rio’s neighboring city, Niterói, by boat across the bay. Tempeh is no-frills and almost undistinguished (there’s just one small sign for it, and it’s on the second floor), but diners aren’t here for the décor, they’re here for specialties such as the seitan burgers and bean puree.
It looks like a lanchonete and sort of is, but there’s also a lunch buffet. Besides the buffet, Dona Vegana serves up soups and sandwiches, including soy burgers with a tofu and green onion spread and falafel, not to mention a wide variety of sweets like rabanada, Brazilian French toast, eaten with cinnamon sugar rather than syrup, and panettone, the rich, fluffy yeasted sweet bread of Italian origin that Brazilians eat for Christmas. The venue hosts a vegetarian Happy Hour on the second Thursday of each month. Bring your own spices or ask for some, as dishes arrive on the bland side.
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