When eating out in Sao Paulo, I lead a double life. In one, I’m a starving freelance journalist without a Brazilian real to spare. In the other, I’m a part-time food writer for The New York Times with a generous expense account.
In the latter life, I’ve sampled some of the best of contemporary Brazilian cuisine at pricy spots — posh establishments where European-trained chefs create masterpieces using tropical freshwater fish like pirarucu and Amazon fruits like cupuacu.
On my own time, I fill my belly with hearty Brazilian standards like salty, hot-off-the-spit picanha , barbecued beef dipped in pico-de-gallo-like vinaigrette and farofa, a tasty toasted manioc-root flour.
In Sao Paulo, bars and restaurants are central to the spirit of the city. Endless places serve traditional lunches of meat, rice and beans. The sit-down neighborhood bars called botecos sell Skol and Brahma beer and snacks like pasteis, Brazilian empanadas filled with cheese, heart of palm or, if you’re lucky, dried beef called carne seca and a sweet squash called abobora.
The streets are packed with restaurants specializing in regional cuisine from states like Minas Gerais, home of Brazilian soul food, and Bahia, famous for Afro-Brazilian dishes heavy on palm oil. There are also plenty of churrascarias, all-you-can-eat steakhouses that originated in the south but have come to represent Brazilian cuisine abroad.
Anyone visiting sophisticated Paulistas will struggle against the Sao Paulo natives’ desire to show how cosmopolitan their city is by taking you to its high-end Italian restaurants, sushi bars and French bistros.
Do yourself a favor and fend them off. Say you want to try feijao tropeiro (a hearty bean and pork dish from Minas Gerais) or moqueca (fish stew from Bahia). Ask to have lunch at a kilo (pay-by-weight) spot and drinks at the bar with the best caipirinhas (lime and cane liquor cocktails) in town.
Who needs fancy foreign fare when you can gorge on these tasty native foods instead?
Around the corner: Sabor e Arte
“Kilo” and “self serve” restaurants are everywhere in Sao Paulo, serving lunch by weight. If this sounds like a bad, even unhygienic idea, don’t worry, Brazilians have mastered the art of the buffet. You get traditional cooking and fresh salads for reasonable rates, choosing your own ratio of healthy items to those loaded with delicious fat.
I’ve tried all the self-service spots near my home in the city center and nothing comes close to this one, popular with staff from the Hospital Santa Casa across the street, who pack its tables in their scrubs.
Set in a red house with an outdoor patio filled with tables around a fountain, the buffet starts with dessert to tempt you, followed by a super-fresh salad bar with items like watercress, marinated eggplant, beets and heart of palm.
A hot steam table offers dishes like rice and beans, pasta, quiche, Brazilian-style beef strogonoff and piles of sausage, chicken and beef hot off the spit. They also serve fresh squeezed, made-to-order juices. Tangerine is a very tasty choice.
Take the metro line 3 to Santa Cecilia, then walk straight out Rua Dona Veridiana. It’s across the street from the Hospital Santa Casa.
I’m in love with Minas Gerais, Brazil’s most populous land-locked state, which is northeast of Sao Paulo. It’s (obviously) short on beaches but long on waterfalls, quaint country roads and the soul food of Brazil.
Traditionally cooked in cast-iron pots over wood fires, the food in this region consists of hearty chunks of pork loin, creamy bean dishes and bunches of garlicky kale.
This antique-filled restaurant, whose name means “The Minas Gerais Consulate,” has all the classic dishes in a pleasantly festive setting, with outdoor seating that looks out onto a plaza.
There’s a huge menu, but first-time visitors should stick to Minas classics, like lombo (pork loin), feijao tropeiro, (a hearty pork and bean dish) and desserts like doce de leite and abobora squash with coconut. On weekdays, you can sample a little of everything at its all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.
Thankfully, the owners haven’t forgotten that Minas Gerais is also home to the sugar cane liquor called cachaca, which becomes a caipirinha, Brazil’s signature cocktail, when mixed with sugar, lime and ice.
The closest metro stop is Clinicas, seven blocks down Rua Teodoro Sampaio. Any bus headed down Cardeal Arcoverde or up Teodoro Sampaio will also work.
If you don’t love Mani, you’ll be the first person strong enough to resist its savory spell. The contemporary menu, created by a wife-and-husband, Brazilian-and-Catalan culinary team, is part Bahian beach shack, part upscale Barcelona tapas.
It’s also romantic. Candlelight, flowers and tropical plants set the scene, making you feel like you should pop a bottle of wine. But don’t pass up their list of caipirinha cocktails made with creative fruit combinations like blackberries and lima de Persia, a mild citrus fruit.
To go native, order the fish of the day with tucupi, a tangy liquid squeezed from a special kind of manioc root that’s cooked until it’s no longer poisonous. (The entire Amazon region runs on this stuff, also used in the famous duck dish pato no tucupi.)
If that’s too adventurous, order something you recognize that has a Brazilian touch. The rack of lamb, for one, comes with faux noodles made from pupunha, an Amazonian palm fruit, and farofa made with Brazil nuts.
It’s on Rua Joaquim Antunes just off Avenida Reboucas. There’s no nearby subway but it’s close to all Reboucas buses. If you can’t afford a cab, however, you can’t afford Mani.
This new bar adds an international touch to the traditional Brazilian boteco, where friends, families and couples gather around tables drinking beer. Set in the swanky Jardim Paulista neighborhood, this see-and-be-seen establishment screams hip with its globally-inspired menu and walls of subway maps from around the world.
Tables along the second-story balcony make great perches for observing the other patrons—20 somethings from that slim slice of Sao Paulo’s young professionals who can afford $9 cocktails with fancy names like the Folkets Rus and South American liquors like pisco (with kiwi, strawberry, pineapple and soda).
One sure sign of sophistication: besides the traditional creamy-headed draft beer called “chopp,” they offer four varieties of Colorado, a Brazilian microbrew. The pale ale is by far my favorite beer in this woefully under-microbrewed country.
Squat serves traditional Brazilian bar snacks like beef and cheese pasteis, along with a menu of street food from around the world. Try poutine, French fries with cheese curds and brown gravy from Quebec or cucur udang, a tempura-like dish from Singapore.
It’s near Rua da Consolacao three blocks south of Avenida Paulista. The closest metro stop is Consolacao along Paulista.
All about the flavor: Veloso
It looks like your typical neighborhood bar, but Veloso is hiding two secrets: delicious bar snacks and creative caipirinhas. Okay, let me rephrase that. To Sao Paulo residents, they aren’t secrets. The bar has won multiple awards from local magazines for best caipirinha, best barman and best coxinha.
Coxinhas, incidentally, are doughy fried croquettes filled with shredded chicken and cheese. You'll find them on seemingly any street corner, but not like they make them here. At Veloso, you’ll experience coxinhas in their finest form: fried to order, oozing with cheese and worth every calorie.
The barman, known as Souza, mixes up caipirinhas made with unlikely combinations like starfruit and basil. And when ordering a caipirinha at Veloso, you choose both the fruit and the type of cachaca — the sugar cane liquor that gives the cocktail its potent kick. If that seems too daunting, the staff is happy to help with recommendations.
Metro: From the Ana Rosa stop, head south a few blocks on Rua Vergueiro and take a left.