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São Paulo's Best Restaurants

Regional cachaças at Mocotó, in the Vila Medeiros district.

Photo: David Nicolas

“A new pride in Brazilian flavors!” exclaims my friend Luiz Camargo, a local food-magazine editor, over lunch the next day in the chichi Jardins district (here, São Paulo resembles Beverly Hills). “It’s huge news in this globalized city of immigrants, which used to import foreign chefs and treat them like idols and role models.”

Veneration of haute imported chefs notwithstanding, immigrant cultures are what made São Paulo such an exciting food city from the get-go, even before the current explosion of interest in locavore flavors turned it into the world’s newest culinary mecca. Founded in 1554 by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Sampa (as the locals call it) received a vast influx of immigrants throughout the 19th century—but particularly after the abolition of slavery in 1888, when foreign labor was needed to work the coffee plantations surrounding the city. Italians brought pizzas, Germans brewed their beer, the Japanese transformed farming.

“So we mix pasta, sushi, feijoada, and Portuguese salt-cod fritters,” Camargo explains. “It’s always been perfectly natural here.”

Of course there was Brazilian cuisine, too—itself a hybrid of Portuguese, West African, and indigenous influences. But as Camargo is telling us, until recently, “eating Brazilian” was something relegated to home or to cheap rice-and-beans lunch joints. Barry and I take this all in while still daydreaming about our ur-mid-morning snack: a puffy pão de queijo (a round cheese-and-manioc-starch bread) accompanied by a bracing cafezinho at Pão de Queijo Haddock Lobo, a tiny takeout counter just down the street.

For a tutorial in contemporary flavors, Camargo has brought us to Dalva e Dito, Atala’s new casual restaurant. In contrast to D.O.M.’s flashy experimentation, the adobe-hued Dalva is all about sharp updating of grandmotherly regional dishes. Moqueca, a seafood stew from the Afro-Brazilian state of Bahia, normally heavy with its thick film of dende (palm oil), tastes clean, vibrant, and coconutty here. To follow: pirarucu, a white-fleshed Amazonian fish that can reach 450 pounds. Atala uses the loin of a smaller, more delicate specimen, saucing it with a Brazil-nut vinaigrette. “A typical caipira [country folk] meal,” Camargo pronounces as the main course arrives. It’s porco na lata, pork cooked in a tin can into a tender confit. For dessert: silky pastel-hued sorbets in tropical flavors such as caju (cashew fruit), guava, and graviola (soursop). “Brazil is vast,” Camargo says. “Until now, such flavors were as exotic to us Paulistas as they are to you!” He adds slyly: “Alex showed young local chefs that you can be cool and Brazilian.“

That afternoon we squeeze into the fun house–style museum opening for local heroes Osgemeos, internationally toasted twin-brother graffitists. A band plays a raucous northeastern forró beat among the twins’ spray-painted fantasies. More forró music awaits at lunch at Mocotó the next day. Restaurants don’t get any cooler—or more Brazilian—than this current cult spot owned by 30-year-old Rodrigo Oliveira, Atala’s favorite young chef and disciple. A few years ago Oliveira took over the humble three-decade-old place from his father—in secret, while Dad was away—tweaking the details but preserving the populist espírito and the vernacular flavors of Pernambuco, the northeastern state his family’s from. Getting here is an adventure: You ride in a cab for an hour, leaving the city’s high-rises and their helipads behind, finally emerging in the ramshackle working-class district of Vila Medeiros. You squeeze onto a bench under the shingled awning outside. Then you wait—and wait—for a table, savoring the block-party vibe with a glass of cachaça. Scouring Brazil’s alambiques (distilleries) for hyper-artisanal stuff, Oliveira has assembled a list of nearly 350 bottles. Brave them straight or in a rainbow of exotic fruit caipirinhas: milky graviola, violet jaboticaba that tastes a bit like tropical blueberry.

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