Bolinhos de bacalhau are a traditional favorite in Rio. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Rio de Janeiro is a city with a pulse. It’s constantly in motion, moving to a beat that combines crashing waves, the screeching of dense traffic and a chorus of 100 different languages. The cariocas, or Rio locals, don’t just walk to their destination, they gyrate and groove toward it. Much like the people themselves, the food of Rio de Janeiro promises to excite, tempt and intrigue you.
Like so many of the world’s greatest cuisines, when you bring together influences from around the globe, good food emerges. Heavily influenced by African, Caribbean and Portuguese culinary history, Rio’s must-eat foods do more than just entice you —they practically insist you enjoy more.
While açai, an Amazonian super-berry that tastes like blackberry with a hint of cocoa, has become ubiquitous across the United States, it hails from Brazil and appears just about everywhere you look in Rio. Most cariocas eat light breakfasts to save room for lunch, which has helped local chain Polis Sucos become so popular. Every morning this corner juice bar’s Ipanema location overflows with locals and travelers alike, looking to give their mornings a boost via a bowl of açai mixed with fruit and granola. With that first bite of chilled, lush açai, you can almost feel the waves beckon from the nearby beach.
You can smell pastéis frying almost anytime you pass any restaurant in Rio, and the aroma alone is enough to stop you in your tracks. Similar to empanadas, pastéis are small pastries deep fried until lightly crisp and filled with everything from ground beef with egg and olive to Nutella with apricots and walnuts. Although pasteis are available throughout Rio, the quality and variety at Bar do Adão are unrivaled. The chain has locations across Rio, including in Lapa, Copacabana, Tijuca and Leblon, meaning that you’re almost always within walking distance of a delicious pasteis —and an accompanying beer or two.
If there’s one thing Brazil is renowned for among foodies, it’s a love of all things meat. Churrascarias, the all-you-can-eat protein palaces found throughout Brazil, are carnivores’ temples of worship for all things grilled. Many steakhouses across Rio claim to be the best, but in terms of an unforgettable experience, Marius Degustare is truly unique in its off-center approach to the standard churrascaria. Combining traditional Brazilian and Mediterranean culinary influences with a vibrant interior that mixes antique farming and seafaring artifacts, you’ll recount your experience at this Rio staple for months after you’ve returned home.
Like most Rio churrascarias, you’ll receive a two-sided token, one side green (yes) and one side red (no), to let the servers know when you’ve had your fill of all the meaty goodness. Turn your token to green, sit back and enjoy as the staff brings endless cutting boards heaped with freshly grilled beef directly to your seat. Finished? Flip it to red.
The origin of feijoada, a signature black bean stew cooked with various inexpensive cuts of meat, dates back to some of Brazil’s less prosperous times. Yet like many dishes born out of hardship, feijoada has become a favorite among all Brazilians, regardless of class or income. It’s the country’s national dish, and there are endless restaurants where you can order it in Rio. However, for the absolute best, you must climb the Escadaria Selarón staircase into the Santa Teresa district. There you’ll find Café do Alto. It’s a small neighborhood joint that serves up feijoada by the cauldron, accompanied by rice, couve à mineira (Brazilian-style collard greens), orange slices and farofa, a toasted grain.
A visit to Rio is best savored while sipping a caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail. A simple mix of sugar, lime and cachaça, Brazil’s potent answer to rum, the caipirinha helps bring Rio’s pace down to a more manageable and leisurely speed. The absolute best way to enjoy the drink is while relaxing on Rio’s beaches. Regardless of which beach you visit, there will always be a mobile bartender roaming the sand and plying the masses with drinks. In addition, most of Rio’s beaches are split into sections, each with its own bar and designated servers ready to bring you a fresh cocktail. Be warned: Once you sip that first caipirinha on Copacabana Beach at sunset, you might never leave.