Brazil Foodies Go Off Beaten Path in Rio’s Slums
Adriana Peixoto would fit right in at the trendiest Rio de Janeiro bar with her hipster glasses and the big black tattoos on her calves.
But for a weekend gossip session over beers and seafood paella, the 35-year-old audiovisual producer and her friends settled on a venue that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: a bar in a "favela," one of the hillside slums that were long ruled by ruthless and heavily armed drug gangs and off-limits to outsiders.
The vast majority of Rio’s murders still occur in the favelas, some of which are plagued by sporadic shootouts. But under a five-year-old "pacification" program aimed at making Rio safer ahead of next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, police once kept out now have bases in nearly three dozen of the 1,071 slums dotting the city.
The pacified favelas are the newest hotspots for both locals and foreign visitors, who are spending more time at the former no-go zones than traditional tourist magnets like the Christ the Redeemer statue. Now, there’s another reason to visit: the growing buzz about the best food and drink the pacified favelas have to offer.
A new Portuguese-language guidebook called "The Gastronomical Guide to the Favelas of Rio" refutes the idea that slum food consists solely of deep-fried snacks by showcasing the people and places behind the shantytowns’ tastiest tapioca omelets, greatest grilled chicken, and most scrumptious seafood stews and sushi.
"Food is an excellent tool for breaking down prejudice," said the guide’s editor, Sergio Bloch. "For people with lingering worries about danger or prejudice against these places that were impossible to visit for so long, food is a wonderful reason to actually visit a favela."
Bloch and his three researchers visited some 97 establishments in 11 favelas. Like reviewers from the Zagat or hallowed Michelin restaurant guides, venues were judged on food, decor, service and cost.
But Bloch’s team often ran into situations no Zagat or Michelin reviewer has likely had to grapple with.
"We went to places where the food was great, but where the smell from a nearby Dumpster made it untenable," said Bloch over rice and beans at Restaurante 48 in the Tabajaras slum, tucked into Rio’s Copacabana neighborhood. "Or sometimes we had problems with the smell coming from the gutters, which in some favelas are often open-air sewers."
While many favelas lack in basic sanitation, they often make up for with breathtaking views of the ocean and exclusive neighborhoods below the steep rocky outcroppings.
Twenty-two establishments covering the gamut of food and drink options in Rio’s slums made it into the guidebook. They include sit-down restaurants serving Brazilian favorites such as prime cuts of steak and feijoada bean-and-meat stews, as well as foreign specialties-turned-local-staples like pizza and sushi. The guide also showcases hole-in-the-wall juice bars, a hot dog stand and an ambulatory singing and dancing empanada vendor named Adriana. In lieu of an address, her entry reads "circulating throughout the community," and provides her cell phone number.
With its view of the Atlantic’s azure waters and its low prices, the Bar Lacubaco in the Vidigal slum could give many conventional Rio restaurants a run for their money. In the land of the $35 martini, where a dinner for two routinely adds up to more than $200, Lacubaco’s main courses are just $5-$7 apiece.
Owner Fabio Freire said Vidigal’s off-the-grid status helps him keep costs down in what has become Rio’s hippest favela, thanks to a prime oceanside location between two of the city’s highest-rent neighborhoods.
"I buy my meat from the same suppliers at restaurants down there on the ’asphalt,’" said 38-year-old Freire, using slang for non-slum neighborhoods. "But I don’t pay for electricity, I don’t pay for gas and I don’t pay property taxes, so all that slashes my overhead and I can pass the savings on to my customers." People in the slums typically illegally tap into the electrical grid to obtain power.
Lacubaco is located on the main street that slaloms up to the top of Vidigal, but some of eateries listed in the new guide are harder to reach via narrow, zig-zagging, traffic-clogged streets. Whole sections of some favelas are accessible only via steep staircases, and restaurant owners in the slums say the tricky logistics of keeping ingredients in stock is among their biggest challenges. To get to D&C Lanches in the Complexo do Alemao shantytown, you have to take a commuter train to a French-made ski lift that glides over a sea of concrete block houses and has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Rio’s O Globo newspaper recently reported that the Alemao lift now has more weekend users than the lift that whisks tourists up Sugarloaf Mountain or the little train to Christ the Redeemer.
D&C Lanches is a modest juice stand where the seating is two plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk. Dimas de Lemos and his wife, their three children and assorted nephews and cousins serve acai, the Amazon berry slush that’s a vitamin- and calorie-packed breakfast staple in Brazil.
Since soldiers surged through Complexo do Alemao’s narrow alleyways in 2010, pushing out the drug gangs, de Lemos’ clientele has changed dramatically.
"It used to be we’d only get people from the community here," the 37-year-old said. "Now I’d guess it’s about 60 percent locals and 40 percent people from outside, including lots of foreigners."
Americans, Germans, Japanese and Britons are among the tourists who have arrived at D&C in their quest to see a favela like the ones featured in the hit 2002 movie, "City of God." De Lemos’ most important foreign visitor so far has been Britain’s Prince Harry, who toured the favela during his South American trip last year.
"Foreigners tend to be more open, more curious and harbor fewer prejudices about favelas than Cariocas from the asphalt," said editor Bloch, using the Portuguese term for a Rio resident. "Maybe it’s because foreigners weren’t exposed to the decades-worth of frightening news about violence in the favelas, they go there with a more open heart."
He said he sometimes hears from Cariocas who are eager to try the traditional shrimp stew known as vatapa at the Barraca das Baianas stand in the Rocinha favela, but "want me to guarantee that nothing will happen to them there.
"Of course I don’t think it will, but who can make that sort of guarantee anywhere in the world?" asked Bloch.
Security remains an issue in some pacified slums. Several public schools in Complexo do Alemao were closed in recent days under pressure from a gang upset over the killing of one of their members.
But security seemed to be the last thing on Adriana Peixoto’s mind as she and four friends soaked up the beer and sun at a bar in the Chapeu Mangueira favela, near the tony beachfront Leme neighborhood. Motorbikes loaded with teenagers whizzed by, and stray dogs sniffed for crumbs as the group whiled away their Sunday at the Bar do David.
"This is my first time here, and it’s great," Peixoto gushed from behind her thick, plastic-framed glasses. "It’s as if the favelas, which were always a different world despite being so close to the rest of the city geographically, are finally a part of Rio."