Best Bites of 2016 in Rio | Culinary Backstreets
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Our best eating experiences of the year include dishes at botequins old and new, as well as unexpected finds elsewhere in the city.

Ajota Bar’s rooster

One of the most delicious discoveries I made in Rio this year was the rooster from Ajota Bar, a very humble botequim – or traditional family-run bar – in Vila Isabel, a working-class neighborhood in Rio’s North Zone. Chickens and galetos (three-month-old chickens) are very common in botequins, but not roosters, as they’re hard to cook well. Only a few bars have the guts to serve it, and of those, Ajota’s is the best. The owner and chef, Mr. Francisco, buys the rooster on Friday and brines it with spices overnight. On Saturday morning, he stews the rooster for more than three hours, and voilá, you have one of the most original botequim lunches in town, accompanied by potatoes and other vegetables. The line is daunting, but if you get to the bar before noon you’re pretty much guaranteed a portion. While waiting, we like to have a cold beer, chat with the locals and watch soccer on the bar’s TV.

Riba Botecagem’s pork leg sandwich

This new trendy venue in Leblon does the seemingly impossible: it mixes botequim traditions with the sophistication of an upscale bar on Rua Dias Ferreira, Rio’s top dining destination. While Riba has an Italian lineage, it’s also completely carioca. First, it’s a bar without a barroom, so everything happens out on the sidewalk (just like in a traditional botequim). From the windowed kitchen come Italian sandwiches made in a Brazilian style, like the outstanding pernil, a huge pork leg with cheese and pineapple.

Bar Madrid

Tijuca is known as the best neighborhood in Rio to find traditional botequim gastronomy, with the highest concentration of top working-class bars there. And although Bar Madrid is one of the newest, it’s already among the best. This tiny, spartan bar belongs to two young Spanish restauranteurs who have profound respect for botequim culture. Their milanesa with cheese is a substantial sandwich consisting of a breaded beef filet with cheese on classic French bread – simple and delicious. Another typical botequim appetizer they make better than anyone else is the meat croquete. And like any Iberian botequim, Bar Madrid also serves great seafood. A harder to find specialty is the jiló, a kind of African eggplant, which can be very bitter but is absolutely delicious if made the right way – which is totally the case here.

— Juarez Becoza

Emerson Gama of Quetzal, photo by Taylor BarnesQuetzal’s toasted coconut and curry bar

A former airport electrician with a penchant for Latin American mythology and sustainable agriculture is the man behind the purest chocolate bar to be had in Rio de Janeiro. You might expect Rio’s cult chocolatier to be someone more conventionally jolly, but it was Emerson Gama’s earnestness that got him to sweet success after he quit his job to start a business in his small family home in Rio’s blue-collar outskirts – and during the Brazilian recession to boot. “In times of crisis,” Gama says, “you either cry or sell tissues.” And now he’s giving all of us a new reason to smile – he’s taking his workshop to a glass-paneled factory in the Bonsucesso neighborhood (get a drink at nearby Bistrô Estação R&R afterward!) for those of us who like watching and smelling our beans become their tasty bars.

Simsim’s green apple and apricot couscous

Arab snack foods are proliferating anew in Rio as a wave of Syrian refugees makes homes in open-door Brazil like their compatriots did a century ago across Latin America. The first wave established kibes and esfihas as Brazilians’ go-to junk food (see: ubiquitous fast-food chain Habib’s). Simsim’s Anas Rjab favors a baked-not-fried experimental approach to his dishes, and his muhammara and labneh are Rio’s most flavorful – this in a city with no shortage of affection for creamy, cheesy, savory pastinhas. Catering and special orders are available upon request; if not, look for him at the rotating Junta Local fair.

Vinhetica Rosé

Think you know everything there is to know about Brazilian wine – which is to say, nothing? Your loss if you miss out on Vinhética’s extraordinary rosé from the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. I’ve spotted this refreshing and richly flavored wine at the Junta Local fair, upscale Amazonian joint Espírito Santa and Ipanema’s Frenchiest wine bar, Canastra. Beachy Rio diners traditionally rely on cold beer to get them through their melty summers, but I’ve found that serving this chilled rosé to guests will make even the proudest carioca admit that the gringo mandou bem (done well!).

Marcelo Ramos Andrade of Bistrô Estação, photo by Jimmy ChalkBistrô Estação R&R’s Nova Brasília Weiss

I’m happy to report that since I first wrote about an unlikely upscale beer bar in a garage in the Complexo do Alemão favela, Marcelo Ramos’s brews have been a hit not just in the residential becos of the low-income community but also at Rio’s official Summer Olympic food fest, suburban shopping malls and even, recently, in Colombia. Ramos’s tasty new brew happily bears the name of its place of origin – no small marketing feat for an entrepreneur from a favela so recognizable from nightly news casts and telenovelas you’d be hard pressed to find a Brazilian who doesn’t get wide-eyed when you tell them you’ve been to the Complexo. Turn back to your new acquaintance and say, “Yes, a special place, that Alemão. Have you tried the weiss?”

— Taylor Barnes

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and Juarez Becoza and Jimmy Chalk and Taylor Barnes

Published on December 15, 2016

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