Somewhere north of the center of São Paulo, where the endless sea of skyscrapers fades into two story buildings and the population becomes decidedly less flashy, is a 30-year old restaurant called Mocotó. It’s in the middle of nowhere, sort of close (a 10 minute cab ride) to the Tucuvuri Metro station. So far that a cab ride from the center will set you back $50.
It’s long bar opens onto the street and then curves around in a U shape before hugging a wall to the back of the restaurant. On its shelves are bottles of Cachaça. Hundreds of them. Three hundred and twenty varieties to be exact. Mocotó opened in 1973, from a man from Pernambuco. He started off with a small bar and store serving mostly traditional cooking of foods from the north like sun dried meat and a mocotó, cow’s foot soup, that grew a following. The current chef, Rodrigo Oliveira, the original owner José Oliveira de Almeida’s son,incorporates modern techniques and presentations into the otherwise simple food after he went on to culinary school and then explored the country for original Brazilian ingredients. D.O.M. chef Alex Atala calls him genius and Michelin star chefs from Europe and around the world are continually popping in, including El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià in 2008.
The menu is considerable. Oliveira works with artisanal producers as much as he can and sells jars of fruits, sauces, cashews, and chiles right from the bar. The resulting flavors are brilliant. Traditional dishes come in mini, personal, medium, and large – though even the mini is plenty big. They encourage mixing. My Mini Caldo do Mocoto – this recipe dates back 30 years – was brought out even before the waitress was done taking my order (little hand held computers send the order into the kitchen). Then there was the Favada, a hearty mix of beans, tongue, bacon, and carne seca. The Escondidinho de Carne-Seca looked like a soufflé with a puff pastry like dish filled with gooey rich cheese and carne seca. There was just no room for his famous Tapioca.
Cachaça is the first thing you see in the restaurant and they have their own menu for the spirit which blows the one at the more famous Academia de Cachaça in Rio out of the water. Most of the Cachaça comes from Minas Gerais, though a handful of other regions make an appearance like Rio, São Paulo, Salinas, and others. Some are aged in balsam and juticaba wood and take on new flavors. You can order them straight, in their signature cocktails like cachagengibre (a caipirinha with ginger) which any mixologist would approve, in macerations with Brazilian fruits, or even snow cones flavored with açaí, umbu, cupuaçu, graviola, or cajá.
It took me a long metro ride, a few wrong turns, and finally a cab ride to find Mocotó, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. Though Oliviera is being written up in Food & Wine and every Latin American Gastronomy magazine, he has kept the restaurant in the working class neighborhood far form the center and has maintained neighborhood prices. My meal, far better than the excellent one I had at Dalva e Dito earlier in the day for $40 without a drink, was less than half that price.
Mocotó Restaurant & Cachaçaria
Avenida Ns. Senhora do Loreto 1100
Vila Medeiros, São Paulo
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.