I have about a dozen topics to spew forth, more perhaps. And not sure where to go. I don’t want this to be a blow-by-blow travel journal, though it started that way, but now I’ve missed a few highlights and may try to get to some here.
A couple of days ago I visited a local cafe/bar/restaurant (boteco) recommended by Dr. Robert Patterson from Austin; Dr Patterson is the leader of the Austin Samba School (NOT a school) who travels to Rio for a month or so every January during the run-up to Carnaval.
He stays near my hotel and frequents a boteco, also referred to as a pé sujo (which translates as dirty foot owing to the less than pristine conditions of these places) called Bar Guanabara; it’s about two blocks from my hotel. They feature a handful of simple, cheap lunch specials geared toward quick eating and small budgets. I opted for a grilled chicken breast served with a small salad, rice and a bowl of black beans–lots of food for about seven bucks, the cheapest eats I’ve had yet on the trip. Food was good, nothing special, but tasty, solid and very filling; maybe coffee was included? Places like this are all over Rio, some suck, but some are very decent, such as Bar Guanabara. I may go back, maybe not, but it certainly was worth more than I paid and that doesn’t happen much in Rio these days.
I had a similar lunch yesterday in the Botafogo neighborhood at an old place called Adega da Velha (adega loosely translates as wine cellar and is used in Portugal a lot, velha means old woman…probably referring to the first owner of the place who was Portuguese).
Now they feature a menu from Brazil’s northeast, and it’s become well-regarded for their very good versions of this food. I had carne de sol (meat dried a bit in the sun) which came topped with sauteed onions, baião de dois (beans and rice mixed, with a bit of sausage and cubed cheese tossed in) and collard greens. Was quite delicious, more than I could eat, and only about 15 reais, maybe seven bucks.
A woman sitting at one of the sidewalk tables was drinking beer after beer, chopp (from the tap), and, when ordering her second or third, told the waiter to make sure it was better than the previous one which she described as “aguado“. Aguado means watery, watered down. Now with booze or fruit juices, this can be a valid complaint, but with beer drawn from a modern metal keg, it’s not possible to water down the beer (unless you put water in the glass with the beer, which, though could happen, doesn’t (anymore). There’s no time to add water to the glass, the beers fly out as quickly as two or three per minute.
So her complaint was bullshit. Funny thing was, earlier in the day, I was reading a review of another boteco, and one of the web-reader comments was that the place was nothing special, and the chopp was aguado!!! Here’s my take: I’ve heard this complaint before, and others like it. There is a certain tendency among some Brazilians (and Americans) to always find one or two things to complain about regarding a restaurant which, I think, gives them a feeling of superiority, like they are in the know, and on top. Has nothing to do with reality. I’ve noticed it a lot in Brazil. I can’t think of other examples, but if I do, you’ll be the first to know….
Heading back to the subway after lunch, I saw a small grouping of barracos (covered market booths) and resolved to check them out since I’ve needed a new watchband for the last year, and you usually find a little watch place among these sellers of herbs, batteries, used books, books on spiritualism, fast food and so on. I scored a cheap leather band, so now I know what time it is without pulling out a cellphone. Nice. This group of booths had five or six selling sandwiches, and all had signs pushing their X-Burger, X-Bacon, X-Salad, and 10 more variants at least on the X theme. So, what is “X”? If you speak Portuguese you know, otherwise, you’d never get it in million years, it ain’t in the dictionary. X means cheese. “But,” you say, “I thought the word for cheese in Portuguese was queijo???” (you googled it, right?) Well, the word for cheese in Portuguese IS queijo. However, the concept of burger is an imported one here, as is the name: hamburger, cheeseburger, etc. So when a Brazilian wants a cheeseburger, they ask for a “shees-burger”. Simple right? But since the pronunciation in Portuguese of the letter “X” is “shees”, the written form has evolved into “X-burger”. Really quite cool. So, x-bacon, I suppose is a bacon cheeseburger, x-salada has lettuce and tomato, and so on. So, calm down, these are not pornographic sandwiches.
Yesterday on the street near my hotel, I saw two dudes on specialized bicycles which had wheeled carts attached to the fronts, and these carts were stacked with brand new twin mattresses wrapped in plastic. I assume they were moving them to an affiliated shop down the street. Hey, talk about green! And no parking problems for a large truck along the busy street. Portland, eat your bike-lovin’ heart out.
A few years ago, a friend of mine in Austin discovered she had celiac disease which is a severe allergy to gluten…she used to get sick after nearly every meal, but no longer since she avoids gluten like that plague. It’s something you hear more and more about at home these days. But in Brazil, they are ahead of the game. EVERY food item, from beer and carbonated water, to bottled peppers and cookies has to state on the label IN CAPITAL LETTERS whether or not the food has gluten or not. So now, on everything, I see Não contém gluten, or Contém gluten posted very visibly. This seems like a brilliant move, and I’m surprised we haven’t added this yet to our growing list of label warnings. And I would have never imagined Brazil doing this, at least not yet. Very cool.
Last night’s dinner was at one of Rio’s most traditional restaurants, Nova Capela, established in 1928 in the Lapa neighborhood. Lapa hasn’t changed much, physically, in the last 100 years, it’s still packed with old buildings, shops, bars on labyrinthine streets, some narrow, some less so. It was the home to Rio’s bohemian set, vagabonds, prostitutes, and, of course, musicians.
Thirty years ago, it was nearly deserted, mostly in ruin. But in the past 15 years, there’s been some gentrification, which is great, it’s saved the neighborhood from destruction, and, since most of the new activity is music, it’s given samba, choro and other forms of music that were quite rare, really in 1980, a new lease on life as well. On a Friday or Saturday night, it can make Bourbon Street seem like a church social; far more crowded, much louder, and just as much public intoxication, only difference being it goes until about 5 or 6am. Anyway, Nova Capela sits in the middle of all this and remains unchanged through the ups and downs of the surrounding ‘hood. My very traditional friends will only go here, or a place two doors down called Bar Brasil (more on that in a few days). Nova Capela is famous for its roasted goat served with broccoli rice, so that’s what I had. (But I also had the codfish balls as an appetizer and I have to say, they just might be the best I’ve ever had, moist and flavorful inside, properly crunchy exterior.) I don’t think the goat was totally oven roasted, maybe boiled a bit to tenderize, then roasted, but I think it may have been lightly fried before serving.
It was good, not great, and I’m not a fan of broccoli rice, but the potatoes that came along for the ride were spectacular. Probably boiled in salted water, then dried, then deep fried—chunks, quarters of potatoes, perfectly tender and delicious on the inside, crunchy and golden outside. Really one of the tastiest potatoes I have ever had!
Like most of these places, there are career waiters, all in their late 50s, early 60s. White jackets, black bow ties. I love it! They kept the chopp coming, I think I had four (remember, the glasses are only about 8 ounces, and I’m not driving…). I heard a couple a few tables over speaking English but couldn’t tell if the guy was Brazilian or American. After they ate (they were the only diners in the place to get real cloth napkins!), they were trying to get a photo of them together at the table by extending the camera out far enough to grab the shot, you know that new routine folks have with cell phone cameras, and such (we’ve become so isolated, we have to take our own pictures ourselves! Weird.). I got up to go to the john and passed the table saying, “It’s really better is someone else holds the camera.” And asked if they wanted me to take the photo. I did, and we chatted for a moment; they are filmmakers in town for the Rio Film Festival with one of their films. Nice folks from NYC. The woman knew my old high school chum David Rodowick who is the head of Film Studies at Harvard. Oh, by the way, it seemed like 9 out of 10 diners had gotten their goat….
Leaving Nova Capela, I walked through Lapa (which has its questionable parts) toward a samba club a Brazilian had recommended to me on an online Brazilian music forum. I was a bit nervous on the way over, but once there, I was in samba heaven. The Beco do Rato (the Alley of the Rat) is a newish place that has taken over the outside alley next to the main bar. In this improvised courtyard is a large table around which sit the musicians who rotate instruments and singing duties. Great atmosphere, lively, enthusiastic and all of them were loving every minute. The music was good, not stellar, but the soul was vibrant, and very obvious. A true Rio experience. I stayed for about 90 minutes and on the way out, heading toward a street where I might find a taxi, I heard someone shout: “Are you from Texas?!!!???”
Wow, how did they know? No hat, no boots, no pearl buttons, no giant belt buckle, and I don’t think my accent in Portuguese reeks too much of Houston or Austin. It turned out to be Jorge Amorim, one of the musicians from Grupo Saveiro who have come from NYC to play carnaval in Austin for the last 6 or 7 years. What a coincidence! We had a nice chat, I’m sure he was very surprised to see me, as I was him.
But this happened to me once before. In late 1979, a Brazilian music group was invited by Neiman Marcus to play around Dallas for a month or so. On one of their weekends off, they wanted to play in Austin, so they had contacted me (somehow the word has already gotten out that I was the Brazilian guy in Austin) and I arranged a gig or two for them. There were 8 in the band, and most stayed at my house. I got to know a couple of them pretty well including a guy who had taken a leave of absence from his letter carrier job in São Paulo to stay in the US to play music for a couple of months. I last saw them in 1980 when they had another gig in Austin and a couple in Houston (all of which I’d arranged for them). Fast forward about 8 months. I was then living with my dear friends Waldimas and Walminho in São Paulo. At least once a week I would walk down our street to a main drag where I would catch the bus headed downtown so I could tear through bookstores and record stores. Part of my “job” at the time! On one of these excursions, waiting for the bus, I saw a mailman delivering mail, headed my way. As he got closer and closer, I started staring. Could it be? Could it be a guy I met in Texas? And indeed it was, the very musician I had befriended in Austin was the mailman on the route a block from our apartment! And I just happened to be there as he passed that certain bus stop. Amazing. Especially when you realze São Paulo is a city of about 20 million! How many postal routes might there be in a city that large? Thousands for sure. And he had THAT one! Absolutely mind bending. I invited him over for beer that very day after his route, and he invited me over to his house to have dinner with his family a few days later. Such a warm, wonderful, unexpected reunion. Maybe the world really is a small place….