Thursday, December 13, 2012
By Mark C. Anderson
What with all the skin and soccer, beaches and Amazonia, rabid dancing and throbbing carnival, it’s understandable Brazil isn’t known for its food.
Similarly, Brazil isn’t known for its largest city, even though it’s the biggest in the whole hemisphere, or at least not nearly as much as it is for the white sands and Jesus-topped hills of rival Rio de Janeiro.
But as I learned over a turbo trip to the third most massive metropolis on the planet, both Brazilian food and São Paolo merit more attention than they’re getting.
If Cannery Row, as John Steinbeck famously wrote, is “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream," then São Paolo is a samba, a salt fish, a velocity of life, a drum, an energy, an adventure, an intuition.
Sampa, as the locals call it, is also other things. The helicopter capital of the world. Twenty-nine million people. “Just buildings and buildings and buildings,” as one Paulista said from a 46th-floor restaurant with a $30 cover—and the biggest urban population of Italians outside of Italy (same goes for Portuguese, Spaniards and Japanese, among others).
That cosmopolitan character gives it the best pizza on the continent and some inspired Iberico-ham and cured salmon tapas in a funky neighborhood called Augusta—but we were after most site-specific fare. From the airport we immediately adjourned to the Grand Central Station-sized city market, Mercado Municipal, to get gastro glimpses of Sampa’s signature eats. The must tries, natives said: bologna sandwiches and stinky salted fish. Really.
The pan de mortadel, while simple, is about as satisfying a gooey, cheesy, saucy sandwich as you’re gonna get. The bacalhau, a type of cod preserved in big ice-block-looking slabs of dried and insanely salted fish, arrives intense and funky. Our cab driver Caesar promptly compares its taste to a certain sexual organ.
We chase the meal with the hottest Brazilian pepper among the mounds of tropical fruit, a yellow assassin that brought on brow sweat from the start. When wheezes commenced and tears flowed, cute juice bar attendants in Santa hats cheered. It was a less spicy Brazilian eating endeavor, though, that had us reaching for the stop sign.
While we dutifully drank our quota of caipirinhas and met our match in Brazilian meats across Sampa’s 12,500 restaurants and 15,000 bars, our nuclear media team—including Seaside emcee-DJ Hanif Wondir and L.A. cameraman Dan Dronsfield—was there for music: specifically, to see Del the Funky Homosapien and big American DJs Rob Swift and Dan the Automator at the Festival Batuque 2012 and, more generally, to gauge the interplay of hip hop and Brazilian music.
We survive a smackhead’s theft attempt and a prostitute’s punch to our cab roof to interview Sampa legend DJ Nuts—after he turns out the underground club below with all-90s, all-American hip hop. We scratch beneath the surface at the edges of the urban sprawl to find beautifully muraled Casa de Hip Hop, where b-boy break dancing and tagging aren’t a diversion so much as an existence, identity and force of family for a broke community. Wondir beat boxes for a street flutist, freestyles with a pack of youngsters on the sidewalk at 2am and swigs cachaça with a kid who was dropping acid at a gas station (gas stations, miraculously, sell liquor and often double as hangouts). Dronsfield’s lens finds gold with strange mimes, lush cityscapes, reggae rockers at Festival Batuque and magnetized booties at Samba School.
The “school,” meanwhile, is one huge, rollicking warehouse of a place that looks like a prison from the outside. Inside, Carnaval-anticipating Paulistas march and dance in a huge circle around the football-field-sized cement space, the swirling heart of a this-makes-the-trip scene that was part spectator sport, part drum circle, part competition, part concert, part parade, part pandemonium and all Brazil.
Sometimes leaving your comfort zone is the only way to expand it. Or to to learn things you couldn’t realize you didn’t know—like what chicken hearts taste like.
As we mad-scrambled from ubiquitous sidewalk cafe to hip-hop shows to subways six stories beneath the surface, something had to keep us fueled.
Churascarrias are Brazil’s food fixture, meat-driven all-you-can-eat buffets where the lamb flanks, beef flanks and pork flanks come to you, on swords carried by overstaffed bow-tie-wearing meat waiters every two minutes.
After an earnest bartender stops by with a drink cart—and after a visit to the 80-foot buffet for bacalao au gratin, ricotta salad, pickled beets, fried plantains and Brazilian treats like the couscous-esque farofa (toasted flour, bacon, linguisa and eggs) and national dish feijoada (black bean and mixed meat stew)—the procession starts with a spin of our table’s stoplight wheel, from red to green.
Here come swords loaded with chubby little pork sausages, rare filet mignon, lamb chops, duck breasts, top sirloin caps, crusted pork loins, chicken legs, bacon-wrapped tenderloins and several sorts of rump roasts, then dense, prune-looking chicken hearts which, it turns out, taste like hair. In a good way.
At that point we crawl across the table to wheel our meat sign to stop.
São Paolo has no such sign. It is constant movement, constant mixing of cultures and influences, constant spinning, constant music. As we interviewed artists, dancers and DJs, their complex and diverse answers around the themes of music became short and similar—when we asked them to imagine life without it they simply said, no.
There’s the constant layering of soot and grafitti, both ugly and exultant, too. You’d think the industrial film of gray and danger would veil the colorful boisterousness of the city. Instead the contrast sets it off that much more.
• In a perfect world, your from-scratch sauces take several hours, but the organic pasta only takes two minutes. Fortunately that world is that much more within reach thanks to Chef Michele Cremonese’s new endeavor, Bigoli Pasta (899-4422), which he launched after making Basil (626-8226). I found him at the Independent Marketplace not far from his new Sand City kitchen, and found his all-natural artichoke-fontina ravioli and classic artisan rigatoni simply spot on. More on the blog, www.mcweekly.com/edible.
• Next-to-Carbone’s El Zarape is suddenly done in New Monterey. Weak.
• Hard to find a local Pinot for less than $20, let alone a single vineyard Arroyo Seco juice with some verve. But Wente Vineyards (925-456-2405) has a 2009 Reliz Creek for $21.99 (available at the Arroyo tasting room, the website and local stores where Southern distributes) that enjoys nice fruit with easy tannins and a lightness of being that pairs beautifully with everything from, say, celebratory turkey to poached salmon. And Mercy (233-6756) has its own South County Pinot play right now: 20 percent off ($22) for the 2009 Arroyo Seco, which drew a 92 at the L.A. International Wine Competition. (For more local wine finds like this one, subscribe to the weekly foodie newsletter, direct to your in box on Wednesdays, at www.mcweekly.com/subscribe.)
• Restaurant power romance news of the month: Pacific’s Edge sommelier Matt Peterson and Nepenthe linchpin/firedancer Alicia Hahn are getting hitched. Expect nice wine at the wedding.
• Simple perfection, wood-fired the whole way with almost purely housemade inputs: The Village Combo ($9) at La Bicyclette (622-9899), with their own sourdough toast, avocado, tomatoe and two tremblembling poached eggs, with house bacon for $4.
• Split a bacon breakfast sandwich from Mal’s Market (394-1881) with my “foodeputy” Joel Ede yesterday ($8.50 for a very shareable monster) and he promptly called it the best he’s had in two years here. Ordering it with jalapeño spread is key.
• The come-down from the 1,200-foot heights of Garrapata’s loop—and the sights of seven different hawks surfing thermoclines—can be harsh. Which means thank Buddha for all-vegetarian Vietnamese Mon Chay in the Barnyard (622-7777), its white seaweed salad ($9.50), fried oyster mushrooms with crispy basil ($12.95) and eggplant curry clay pot ($10.95). (But take a Thai iced tea over the salted-plum lemonade.)
• The cake pops looked more like puppets—a reindeer with pretzel antlers, a snowman with red sugar ear muffs ($2 each)—which means the mini-cake revolution is going seasonal at Main Street Bakery (771-CAKE) in Salinas. And the coconut-shaving-dressed peanut butter pop I tried made a world where people make tiny desserts an obsession a little more sensical.
• Houston, we have beer tubes. No knock on bartenders—they’re popular. Hence 100-plus ounce table-top self-serve tap set ups ($25 for a Legend of Laguna IPA, Fort Ord Wheat or...) at Peter B’s (649-2699) are a good thing.
• More heady beer collaboration happening at Cannery Row Brewing Company (643-2722) as craft pioneers Anchor Steam Brewing anchor a four-course paired beer dinner ($48++) to celebrate ASB’s 2012 Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Ale 6pm Wednesday, Dec. 19.
• “Ireland, Italy and Brazil are the most musical places for me,” James Taylor once said. “Anything you pitch they basically catch.”