Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pop up dining in Rio?

Could it be true? Has its time come? Are gourmet food trucks and an underground restaurant scene soon to blossom in Rio? One can hope.

Thanks to the ever-sagacious Eat Rio blog and various Face Book groups for gringos in Rio and beyond I have stumbled upon two exciting eating out options off the beaten path. A candle burns in the dining desert for wanna-be foodies on a budget.

Restaurant dining in Rio and Niterói (and other places, I presume) can be both boring and expensive. Admittedly I am at a disadvantage having spent so many years in the San Francisco Bay Area food scene. Not much gets me excited in my current local reality, and way too much is priced out of my reality.

I do very much enjoy many of the star Brazilian dishes so popular here and in other regions of the country. When we go out to eat we seek out those places that do these dishes very well.

On the international cuisine front, however, choices are quite limited. Restaurants serving what they present to be Asian, Italian, or “Tex-Mex” fare have clearly tweaked the flavor profiles to match the local (mildly spicy, please) palate. Unfortunately for me – who loves a fiery Thai chili paste or an unforgiving slow burn from a roasted Mexican salsa – spicy international or fusion food is hard to come by.

And pizza. I know São Paulo has a famously delicious, stylish and scrumptious pizzeria scene, but this reality does not extend to Rio, much less Niterói (with few exceptions). The popular and ubiquitous all-you-can-eat pizza restaurants serve a kind of pizza that does not inspire me to go out for pizza much. Alas.

But there is hope on the scene.

Luis and Daniel, our hosts, with hard-working server Jennifer

We recently gathered a group of friends and went to a once-a-week-only pop-up restaurant serving authentic Mexican food: Fiesta Mexicana. Two young Mexican-American entrepreneurs recently relocated from California have struck a deal with a Youth Hostel in Rio’s Cantagalo community to use their rooftop seating area (with a tiny, tiny food prep space) to share their love of Mexican foods. They serve real, homemade, traditional, heart-warming Mexican food. Lucky us.

In addition to the world class view of the sea beyond Ipanema, the smell of carne asada tacos and fresh corn tortillas was completely hypnotic. We instantly forgave the somewhat cramped and disorganized goings on when it was made clear that our friends could try their first margarita over a shared plate of cheesy nachos. And the super spicy salsa verde – OMG – I had died and gone to Mexican heaven.

Most of our friends were tasting their first plates of authentic Mexican food. Beef and pork tacos were the dishes of the night. One of our host’s mother was in town and working up a serious sweat in the summer heat pumping out fresh corn tortillas. The smell of dinner to come was enough to get our eyes burning with the promise of roasted jalapeño peppers.

Just one night a week. You have to search this place out. You have to want it. The borrowed location is tucked in the hillside favela overlooking Ipanema. Getting from the public elevator at the General Osório Metro Station to your dining destination is no easy trick, winding your way through the labyrinth of narrow stairways that characterizes the community. But it is worth the effort.

We’re hoping their obvious deserved success and word of mouth driven growth in popularity will result in a move to more spacious digs and a few more evenings of dining service each week. Fingers crossed. But until then, we will definitely go back for more. Fiesta Mexicana is now our favorite (and only) pop-up restaurant.

Then there is the question of food trucks.

Food venders on the street, both casual and very casual, are ever-present practically everywhere in Brazil. Whether you are at the beach, outside a music venue, at the central square in a small village or just wandering a neighborhood after hours there are invariably folks frying up hamburgers, cooking a skewer of meat over a grill or heaping hot dogs with every imaginable diced up accompaniment.  But for the sake of this post I would suggest the term “food truck” is not the accurate descriptor for these vendors.

In my yearnings for food trucks I am imagining a growing scene of passionate cooks putting out creative, flavorful, quality foods at affordable prices. That reality, I’m afraid, has yet to hit the streets in my area, with one notable exception.

All ferro e farinha images taken from their FB page.

Ferro e Farinha (Iron and Flour) is a break-out pizza truck (pizza oven on a trailer, actually) putting out high end, real Italian pizzas – at affordable prices. I am inspired. To catch up with where they will be on any given night you have to communicate with them on Face Book. From what I can tell, if they will be parked at a public event they will post the location. If they plan a more clandestine pop-up evening of pizza you have to msg them for a location.

Full disclosure: I have yet to enjoy a pizza from Ferro e Farinha. But I am chomping at the bit to do so. The excitement surrounding this new street food option has risen to a full roar. I have had the pleasure of meeting Sei, the NYC Italian pizzeria trained head chef in charge at FeF, and have witnessed his passion for his craft. (Actually, quite by coincidence, I met Sei at Fiesta Mexicana. Small scene indeed.) Everything I have seen and heard about this custom-built pizza oven on wheels operation and the pies it puts out has me (as you can see) promoting their success.

Rio diners deserve quality food at affordable prices. The Rio arts and music scene is WAY TOO happening for there NOT to be a flourishing fleet of hip food trucks. Dining out should not remain a class privilege in Rio. It is time to democratize great food. (Can you see me thrusting my fist over my head?) You can follow an effort to legalize Food Trucks in Rio at the Face Book page Food Truck Rio.

The SP food truck folks behind the effort to legalize trucks in Rio.

If you have a bead on other great food options in Rio like these I have described, please let us know about them in the comments. I am on a mission to ferret out and support these efforts.


Tom Le Mesurier said...

Hi Jim - thanks for the shout :) I'm really pleased you guys made it to the Fiesta Mexicana (or simply 'Mexicans' as it has become known to me and my friends). Danny and Luis are great hosts aren't they? As for the food - drool!

It's not official yet, but there may be a new pop-up dining experience coming to Rio in the next few months. I'll be sure to send you an invite when we're ready to make an announcement! :)

Anonymous said...

There is also Indian done by Namaste... though I've never been and don't know who they are, but the events have been going on for months, and seem very popular!

Jim said...

Tom - PLEASE keep me in the loop!

Anon - I tried to locate your tip on FB but could not find them. Please, if others know how to connect, let us know. Thx.

Unknown said...

We realy had a great time there!

Unknown said...

Why my name didn't appear?
Should I just mark the option to show my e-mail, like I do now?