Downtown Rio, full of historical monuments, colonial architecture and daytime bustle, grows emptier during the evenings. But for the last half century, one cobblestone street has given commuters a reason to stick around: sardines. Salty, crispy, scrumptious fried sardines.
Sitting at the foot of the Matriz de Santa Rita church, Beco das Sardinhas (Sardine Alley) is a cluster of five bars that pour into Rua Miguel Couto, a pedestrian-only street dedicated to the little fish, and is both a favorite after-work destination and jumping-off point to downtown Rio’s nightlife.
On a recent Friday evening, customers – some in suits, some in shorts and flip-flops and others dressed for a night out on the town – sat at the plastic tables that fill the alley. Waiters scurried in and out of the fluorescent-lit bars, offering one round after another of the fried sardines. A group of sambistas gathered between two bars while vendors hawking flowers, peanuts, and candy passed from table to table.
Bar Ocidental was the first bar on the block to serve the street’s fried claim to fame. Brothers Fernando and Eduardo Barbosa de Ascenção, today 80 and 77, immigrated here from Portugal in the 1950s – to avoid compulsory military service, Fernando says – and took over the bar from an older brother who had come to Brazil a few years before. The two started “experimenting,” as Fernando puts it, with the fish in early 1960s, breading the filets in wheat and corn flours – “too soggy,” he says – and serving them for free in exchange for feedback.
They found that coarsely ground manioc flour, a staple of Brazilian cuisine, kept the fish nice and crispy, and it was a hit. They opened a second location, O Rei dos Frangos Marítimos (The King of the Chicken of the Sea) across the street in 1982, and by the end of the decade three more sardine-centric bars opened down the block.
The sardines are meaty – not too bony – and the hearty manioc crust and cold Brahma beer offset the fish’s pungency. Even the tails go down like sturdy potato chips. Customers have their choice of lime juice, garlic sauce, and hot sauce.
By 9 p.m. the crowd began to thin out as waiters collected the outdoor tables. The sambistas and vendors had moved on. Though many customers come here to wind down at the end of the day, others, like us, were just getting started. The alley is a stone’s throw from Praça Mauá, a newly revitalized port area that hosts food trucks, art expositions and live music, and Pedra do Sal, a twice-weekly samba party in the nearby Saúde neighborhood.
Bellies full, we made our way to the samba.
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