Carioca Soul: The Boteco Culture

ArticleMauricio PeltierComment

Rio de Janeiro, or simply Rio, is one of those global cities that has a truly unique lifestyle. Very few cities, some might say. No other, insists a carioca.

In Flying Down to Rio, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers together for the first time, Hollywood offers the world a picture of a 1933 idyllic Rio. Since then, the city became a contemporary, tropical myth. This first wave continued in 1941 with the world premiere of the picturesque Luso-Brazilian Carmen Miranda in That Night in Rio, and ended in 1953, after countless films set in Brazil, with the emblematic Latin Lovers, starring Lana Turner and as local native, Ricardo Montalbán.

Post 1953, new mythical cycles—both on and off the screen—built a Rio, indeed a Brazil, propelled by eroticism, samba, summer drinks, and later, by Pelé’s goals and bossa nova music, culminating with complex nuances and urban violence, as in the Oscar winning film Cidade de Deus.

Today, Rio and all that it represents and offers, is back on spot. Walking through different neighborhoods of the city we have an opportunity to experience, first hand, one of its most idiosyncratic gastronomic treasures: the bars proudly known as botecos, or, when we fondly refer to “ours”, botequim.

The boteco´s delicacies were defined occasionally as popular Brazilian cooking or unpretentious everyday-food, and by some deeply wrong snobish critics, low gastronomy. As they say in good portuguese: Tudo besteira! – Nonsense. Everybody can understand the pleasures of the streets´ culinary– delicious, varied, succulent and with a magic ingredient that empowers human brotherhood. The boteco is a unifying and socializing core, outdoor or indoor, it is the true emblem of the plural and open to dialogue style of the city and the country in general.

We choose four botecos from various neighborhoods in the city, from the popular Northern Rio to the glamorous South Zone, knowing that customers, facilities and menus are different, but they all also share the fundamental ingredients of a boteco, worthy of that name: the congregational, humanizing spirit, the tradition held with imagination and, of course, excellent food and democratic vitality.

Cachambeer (Rua Cachambi 475, Cachambi, Northern Rio de Janeiro.14,5 Km from downtown)

Under the already inclement sun of September, pedestrians and vehicles compete for the shadows of trees and low buildings that line streets in the Cachambi neighborhood. There is a bit of everything here: bakeries, clothing stores, hair salons, garages, hardware stores, an abundance of churches,  and, of course, a lot of botecos. Cachambeer customers form a line on the sidewalk. In that public space, as invaders, whimsical metal kilns expel fragrances from meats cooked in thermal bags -bafo style-, awakening and exciting our taste buds. Inside the place is packed. Mario Novaes leads the bar, along with his squire Zé, and Pança, the cook. The place is loud, simple and authentic. Waiters move about swiftly, balancing full trays of supercold beer glasses and offering food wonders with amazing names such as Total Infarction, Hypertension, Shrimp Risottón and Goat Explosion. Goodbye cholesterols and neuroses: here we all know that health is less important than the superb ingredients and tasty flavors, worthy of the gastronomic awards adorning the tile walls. We enthusiastically recommend the Lamb Cachambeer, Steamed Pork Ribs and superlative stuffed shrimp with Catupiry cheese pastries. In addition, Cachambeer offers mooth and refreshing draft beers and excellent Cachambique cachaça. And, if you still have room for dessert, you can have it!

Aconchego Carioca (Rua Barao de Iguatemi, 379, Praça da Bandeira. Phone 2273.1035. Rio de Janeiro Northern Zone. 5 Km from downtown)

In between the famous Maracana Stadium and the Sambodromo, on a narrow tree-lined street, stands a pink corner house with green awnings, a typical example of early twentieth century suburban architecture. On the opposite sidewalk, a tiny veranda still harbors the old, original boteco, remaining true to its roots, but not afraid of refinements. Local and tourists, both domestic and foreign, come from all over to line up at the door of Aconchego Carioca (Cozy Carioca). The place lives up to its name: cozy, homey, not too noisy, and decorated with sensitivity and pragmatism. It is full of comfortable chairs and tables, as well as a very efficient, and very friendly wait staff. What about this restaurant incarnation/boteco’s food, beautifully directed by Katia and Rosa Barbosa Ledo? Loud applause, or if you prefer, a well deserved standing ovation. The delicate quality performed in everything they served makes it hard to decide which is the best dish of the house; nevertheless we emphasize the appetizers, the dessert based in Jaca fruit, and the perfect caipirinhas.

Bar do Serafim (Rua Alice, 54, Laranjeiras. South Zone, Rio de Janeiro. 6 km from downtown)

The neighborhood of Laranjeiras is situated between hills covered with vegetation, right at the foot of the Corcovado Mountain. The main streets mix residences, art workshops, studios, cultural centers, schools, small shops and, certainly, a number of botecos. The Bar do Serafim, Serafa for regulars, is a carioca with a strong Portuguese lineage. One of the more traditional cariocas, founded nearly seventy years ago, Serafa gathers together old bohemians with the new generation. We enjoyed the simple tables along the street, far away from the excessive pasteurization of the neo-pseudo-botecos infesting the city. Juca Ribeiro, the successful and sympathetic, but now deceased, partner, boasted a big, proverbial Portuguese mustache, as well as a love for cooking and good drink that are engraved into the bar´s DNA. The culinary highlights are, obviously, the cod, the squid and the octopus, as well as the Pururuca (grilled) Pig and the ubiquitous Oswaldo Aranha steak. The cod balls, generous and perfect, honor their history. The Alentejan Octopus Rice is simply excellent.

Bar Bracarense (Rua José Linhares, 85, loja B, Leblon. South Zone of Rio de Janeiro. 17 km from downtown)

The Bracarense, established in 1948, is situated at the heart of Leblon, one of Rio’s chicest neighborhoods. We arrived at the restaurant late one weekday evening, sitting at a sidewalk table to enjoy the refreshing sea breeze. The draft beer was really impeccable, cold and dense, with a kind of European taste, certainly the best we experienced along our gastronomic journey. For a carioca, beer that good more than justifies the New York Times choice of Bracarense as the best pub in town, a position that has been annually confirmed for many years on the surveys made by the main Rio magazines. Additional explanation: two of the more experienced “choppeiros” in Brazil have worked at the house for nearly 30 years. We ordered several appetizers, starting with the classic cassava fried roll with shrimp and Catupiry creamy cheese, a true delight. The party went on with cod croquettes and chickpeas and continued with very tasty dumplings. The first round stuffed with sausage and jilô fruit, and the second with dried meat and pumpkin. We ended with a small bean soup. Though the soup is certainly recommendable, the white beans and fried buns stuffed with beef do not match the originals from Aconchego Carioca.  As snacks don’t feed humanity, towards midnight we ordered another classic of the house, the ham with onions and olives, perfectly seasoned and exemplary flavorful. The waiters were already dismounting tables and chairs and the lights were fading as we left, totally happy and fully satisfied.

Photos by Camila Valdeavellano. Special thanks to Gonzalo Maldonado and Rolando Ruiz-Rosas.