On a recent night in Rio de Janeiro I went to the restaurant Carlota without a reservation. There were people milling around outside and when I asked the waitress if there was a table, she replied with a wait time that was well beyond my hunger limit. Carlota would have to wait. I wandered around the Leblon neighborhood looking for somewhere simple. The neon light Koni store appeared before me like a mirage in the desert.
Francis Ford Coppola, who is now a hotel owner in Buenos Aires (see Casa Escondido below shot Tetro, a mostly black and white film on the streets of La Boca, the gritty port district in Buenos Aires where tango was born. The colorful barrio is as much of a character as the actors themselves and showcases Coppola’s love for the Argentina as they move from the capital with a drive south to Patagonia, where a literary festival sets the scene for the closing credits.
A giant black door that must be at least 15 feet high separates the outside world from the wild jungle inside. This is D.O.M., Brazilian chef Alex Atala’s signature restaurant and is included on San Pellegrino’s list of the World’s Top 50 restaurants. Many would say it belongs in the top ten. Atala, a one time DJ, was trained in classical French cuisine, though he no longer serves foie gras and truffles on his menu. He serves strictly Brazilian food, the flavors of his youth, though he has reinvented them masterfully.
The Latino community in North Brooklyn – Greenpoint and Williamsburg – is mostly Puerto Rican, but in regards to restaurants the fare extends to all corners of Latin America.
Guavate, the name just sounds flavorful. From Ponce it’s a quick hop on the San Juan highway to the rural, hilly village beside the Carite Forest Reserve. Once you turn onto Route 184, Puerto Rico’s Pork Highway, you can smell the burning flesh. Large open-air restaurants each with an entire hog roasting in the front called lechoneras sit side by side for several miles. Most are open only on the weekends and by the afternoon turn into dance parties. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations was here, as was Andrew Zimmern and every other adventurous eating show. Tourists however, rarely make the trip.
While there is some debate over this, both in Buenos Aires and out, most critics point to two parillas, or steakhouses, for the best meat in the city. Cabaña Las Lilas in Puerto Madero is the flashier, more expensive, and harder to get into of the two restaurants, though I’m still going with La Cabrera, with two nearly side by side restaurants in Palermo Soho.
Sometimes what makes a meal is the reward after the effort it takes to get there. I didn’t take the long train ride but braved the slow moving traffic (on two consecutive days) to Far Rockaway Beach in car without A/C during 100 degree weather en route to Long Beach. I had heard about Rockaway Taco after reading numerous write ups in the New York Times, New York Magazine, TimeOut New York, Edible Queens, and every other regional magazine and have long wanted to go. To get to the summer only operation I have to cross Brooklyn from one end (my house in Greenpoint) to the other until I pop out near JFK airport. On arrival, after an hour of stoplights and slow moving traffic through not the prettiest part of town, I cross a causeway over a wide expanse of water. Life slows down. It’s like entering a tunnel into Oz.
Brasil a Gosto, on a quiet tree lined street in São Paulo’s Jardins neighborhood, is one of those restaurants that teaches you as much as it feeds you. The restaurant was in fact founded after the chef Ana Luiza Trajano searched 47 different Brazilian cities across the country to complete an inventory of regional ingredients and recipes and then wrote a book, the same name as the restaurant, about it. Trajano takes many of those recipes, many of them usually found in dirt rooms shacks and market stalls, and presents modern interpretations in a contemporary dining room with high quality ingredients.
Brazil’s traffic clogged city of 20 million is one of the best restaurant cities in Latin America and it also has one of the best public markets. The 135,000-square-foot Mercado Municipal Paulistano near estación São Bento, was built in the 1930’s and recently renovated, is my number one choice for a meal downtown.
Yucca sticks, Yucca fries, yuquitas, or whatever you want to call them, are a great bar snack and found often in Peru and throughout Latin America. It’s often an alternative to French fries.