Five years ago, Diogo Gomes, the owner of Art Chopp, a bar in the Jacarepaguá neighborhood, was seated at one of the bar’s 36 tables. There were no customers: only him, the cook and two waiters. The heavy rain falling outside began to drip from the ceiling and soak the floors.
Even wetter, though, was Diogo’s face – he was crying, he later explained to us, because he was sure that he would have to shutter the empty bar and give up on his lifelong dream. In addition to the lack of customers, he was facing a mountain of debts; Diogo was one step away from bankruptcy.
But the next morning the sun rose and Diogo received a miraculous phone call: the bar had been accepted into “Comida di Buteco,” one of the most important food competitions in Brazil. Held in various cities throughout the country, the contest is straightforward. In Rio, for example, around 60 botecos (bars) are selected and each bar creates a new tira-gosto (a light snack that would typically accompany a beer) that fits the parameters of that particular competition. Members of the public and culinary experts then visit the participating bars to taste their snacks and rate them. (Although winners are crowned, one gets the sense that every bar wins, as the competition brings a large increase in business to all participants.)
It was just the opportunity that Diogo needed, and he didn’t throw it away. No more than three months later, Art Chopp’s creation, a meatloaf cake with a side of fried banana chips, won the competition. Diogo won a substantial monetary prize, but more importantly, the customers were now streaming in.
This is, in a few lines, the main history of Art Chopp, the most beloved botequim in Rio’s West Zone, or the “far West” as some people call it. It’s an area where poverty is prevalent and rapid urbanization has led to air and water pollution, congested roads and, in some places, increased lawlessness due to the growth of the drug trade. On top of that, there aren’t many good food options. In such an environment, Art Chopp is like a balm, an oasis of great food and drinks that also happens to be a lot of fun.
The bar has a huge kitchen that serves standard botequim fare: deep-fried bean and rice cakes; feijoada (a meat and bean stew); pasteis (pockets of dough that are stuffed and then deep fried); and sandwiches. But outside – literally in the middle of the street – is where the magic happens.
“The smoker was completed the same week that my first son was born. So, I say that I had two sons at the same time.”
It’s here that Diogo has parked his massive barbecue smoker, which can prepare more than 60 pounds of meat at once. Designed by the U.S. barbecue expert Daniel Lee, the all black, wheeled apparatus is nicknamed caveirão (“big skull” in Portuguese), a reference to the black armored vehicles Rio’s police use against the drug dealers and gangs in the favelas. But inside this caveirão, instead of a heavily armed police squad, there’s only wood-smoked meat: beef and pork ribs, steaks and hundreds of burgers.
The burgers are actually the main attraction, not only because of their tastiness, but also because they come with a side of fun. On the “smoked burger nights,” which are usually held on Wednesdays, Diogo and his crew involve customers in the cooking process, letting them choose their own burgers from the grill and sometimes even handing over the spatulas so that they can flip the burgers themselves.
“Having this smoker is something I wanted for a long time. First, I learned how to correctly use it, especially how to pick the best wood. Then I ordered the design from Mr. Lee. But it was actually built here, by a Brazilian company,” says Diogo, who treats his apparatus almost like a baby.
And it is, in a way. “The smoker was completed and ready to use the same week that my first son was born. So, I say that I had two sons at the same time,” he says, laughing.
Speaking of family, Kelly Gomes, Diogo’s wife, also plays an important role at Art Chopp. She oversees everything, making sure it runs smoothly, and is responsible for the drinks. On that end, the bestsellers are the fruit batidas, fruity drinks usually made with juice, sugar and cachaça which are very popular in Rio’s botequims. Kelly’s creations are more exciting than your average batida; some of her best make use of uncommon ingredients, like peanuts, green corn, ginger or coconut. The bar also produces a very popular drink made of cachaça, honey and cinnamon.
While these drinks are popular, the real star at Art Chopp, drinks-wise, is the beer. They stock several different brands, with some excellent IPAs and an assortment of Brazilian beers, all of them very fresh and very cold, the better to accompany a smoked burger from the caveirão.