Not your average bar food

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BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — So what do you get when you hold a month-long bar food festival in a city where people’s primary form of entertainment is already bar-hopping? Extra tables jammed into crowded spaces, even more tables spilling off sidewalks onto the streets, tables everywhere, and still, everyone waiting for tables.

Here’s how Brazil’s big cities divided up the riches: Rio got the beaches, Sao Paulo got the culture, Brasilia got the government and Salvador got history and one heck of a Carnival. Belo Horizonte, the 2.5 million person capital of Minas Gerais, got bars. It lacks the tourist numbers of other cities, and there's a relaxed, informal feel. “You can get together with friends without having to get all dressed up,” said Ivana Magalhaes, a 45-year-old bar fan. “You can go in flip-flops and shorts.”

The visitors do come, however, for Comida di Buteco, the rustically misspelled name of the festival that translates simply as “Bar Food.”

The contest, which turns 10 this year, sends visitors and locals scurrying about to the 41 chosen bars, each one featuring a specially created appetizer that goes for under $10. But the crowds can get bad; getting in without a wait after 6 p.m. is often impossible. Magalhaes and eight or so work colleagues had to give up on two of the five bars they had targeted for a grand tour (with rented van and driver) that started at 11 a.m.

At festively painted Agosto Butiquim, they finally found a table — or more accurately, black plastic stools in a circle on the sparsely trafficked street outside — and ordered Agosto’s featured dish: lightly battered, piping hot eggplant; croquettes of cornmeal filled with taioba leaf; and cubes of marinated meat.

The festival, which ends with a 30,000-person, weekend-long party from May 22 to May 24, was created by Eduardo Maya, a gastronome, cooking teacher and food industry consultant. Maya saw an opportunity to celebrate bar culture but refine the traditional dishes served in Belo Horizonte’s bars. “Since bars, not beaches, are what we have, why not improve the food?” he said. “Once you put bar snacks under the magnifying glass, you saw that they were all the same.”

That is no longer true. Creativity now abounds, from trout with fried sweet potato at Bar do Careca to ribs with guava sauce at Bar do Doca — the successful recipes become fixtures on each bar’s menu. Each year, there is a required ingredient, usually a traditional element of Minas Gerais’ regional cuisine.This year dishes had to include a leafy vegetable, either kale, taioba or mustard greens.

The taioba leaf hidden inside the cornmeal balls at Agosto’s served as a partial justification for Deborah Souza, a nutritionist, to give her professional stamp of approval to Agosto’s deep-fried, red-meated entry. “It’s very balanced,” she said. “I recommend it. Not a whole order for yourself, but shared among friends.”

Winners are determined by both a popular vote process and a panel of judges who rate bars not just on food but also on hygiene, service and coldness of beer. The latter category perhaps explains why each bar also features works of art ... in the bathroom.

Comida di Buteco has helped transform the bar scene in Belo Horizonte. Geraldo Fonseca, a 32-year-old physician who was out at Agosto’s on Saturday as well, remembered that in the 1990s, his crowd avoided botecos and would instead haunt the same two or three nightclubs where all young people from wealthier families hung out. “Botecos were for old people and poor people,” he said.

They continue to be, of course, but are now also for young people and rich people. In another break from tradition, two-thirds of the half-million or so visitors during the festival are women. (Maya attributes this to a purposeful revolution in bathroom cleanliness since the contest began.)

The only casualty during the festival are the habitues who see their favorite bar invaded by strangers from across the city and country. “The regulars disappeared,” said Lucas Brandao Arouca, one of Agosto’s owners. “They said ‘See you in a month.’”

They’ll be back soon: the festival wraps up with a three-day party called “A Saidera,” or “The Nightcap,” that Maya said will attract 30,000 to 35,000 revelers. But the fun has spread to three other Brazilian cities that hold their own Comida di Buteco, including Goiania (starting July 31) and two hotspots not accustomed to taking their cues from a business city with no beaches: Rio de Janeiro (May 29) and Salvador (Sept. 11).

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