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Dear Culinary Backstreets,
I hear that prices in Rio are Olympic-sized. How can I eat the best the city has to offer, without spending an arm and a leg?

It’s true that prices in Rio aren’t what they used to be. As a recent New York Times article notes, Brazilians pay extremely high prices (particularly relative to wages) for just about everything from food to automobiles, due to both high inflation and a tax system that’s skewed in favor of consumption taxes. The high prices hurt both consumers and businesses. As NPR reported, one Italian restaurant in Sao Paulo recently went as far as taking tomatoes off its menu because the cost had shot up so much. Meanwhile, an influx of money – from the construction boom ahead of the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics and from the growing oil and gas sector developing off Rio’s coast – is driving up prices even further. Indeed, what’s most surprising about Rio’s priciest locales is how oversized the lines to get into them are.

But good carioca eats – even of the non-junk food variety – can be found at reasonable prices by following a few tips.

Check the Map
Neighborhoods in the most touristy corridor of Rio’s coveted Zona Sul (South Zone) – such as Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblon and the Lagoa – are the most expensive in the city. But some of Rio’s best watering holes and food stops are to be found in residential neighborhoods like Flamengo, Catete, Botafogo, Glória and Laranjeiras along Guanabara Bay; in the downtown, called the Centro; and in Tijuca, the beginning of the Zona Norte (North Zone). Restaurants in these areas focus less on being on the carioca social scene and more on what’s going on the plate.

Drink Local
Cariocas love draft beer and caipirinhas, and the prices of these drinks are far more accessible than, say, a mixed drink with tequila or an imported liquor. The same goes for coffee: for an affordable brew, drink the sugared, milk-free cafezinho (about R$1.50, or US$0.75) or a média with milk (about R$2.50, or US$1.25) like the locals. Espresso, cappuccinos and anything that imitates Starbucks will cost accordingly.

Sidewalk Snacks
When it comes to street vendors in Rio, candied nuts or popcorn – slathered with sweetened condensed milk – are as ubiquitous as chocolate bars. But there are snacks to be had while on foot that somewhat resemble a meal. Hot dog vendors offer such exotic toppings as raisins, hard-boiled quail eggs and potato sticks. The white podrão vans that come out mysteriously after dark open their side windows to serve up loaded cheeseburgers and egg-and-cheese sandwiches with frosty cans of beer. (Don’t let the name podrão – “rotten” – scare you. Let the line in front of the van speak for itself.) Churrasquinhos (“little grills”) on the sidewalk serve up skewers of grilled beef, sausages and chicken hearts, along with smoky queijo coalho, a white cheese that doesn’t melt and can be eaten warm. A local favorite is the tapioca (around R$4, or less than US$2), in which ground manioc flour is spread into a pan to make something of a chewy tortilla, which can be filled with meat, cheese or sweet fillings like banana and cinnamon.

Going Green
A culture of ordering a salad as a main course is still in the making in meat-heavy Brazilian gastronomy, and the cheapest food in Rio is likely to either be fried, greasy or stewing in its own fat. Still, a lunchtime refeição or prato feito – a serving of meat, rice, beans and veggies – will often include plentiful vegetables, such as pumpkin (abóbora) or collard greens (couve), for about US$6 (R$12). The feiras, open-air markets that take place across the city on scheduled days each week, offer the best Brazilian produce at bargainable prices. Try the Brazilian way of adding greens to a drink and ask for couve with a citric juice, like tangerine or orange, at one of the city’s ubiquitous snack bars called lanchonetes.

Order Wisely
If a restaurant dish seems overpriced, ask the waiter how many it is supposed to serve. Don’t be surprised if he says three or four. Brazilian food is made for fellowship, meaning heaping portions to happily serve a whole hungry crowd. After all, as Brazilians have long known, sharing a large meal with friends is, well, priceless. – Taylor Barnes

(photo by Jimmy Chalk)

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