Just a short stay 36-hour stay here unfortunately, which hardly did the place justice. Sao Paolo is a huge mega polis, the main business hub for the entire continent. Even flying over the city seems to take ages, so you can imagine what the traffic is like. Unlike Buenos Aires or Rio, there doesn’t seem to be much of a grid system and it’s basically a huge maze of traffic-packed streets.
I stayed at the cheap and cheerful but fairly central EZ Aclimacao Hotel at 668 Av. Armando Ferrentini, near Avenida Paulista. I didn’t have enough time to research a good place to eat so I went for the nearest one to the hotel that was listed in Frommer’s top ten restaurants. Ideally I would have liked to get in at Jun Sakamoto’s famous Sushi restaurant but he only has 8 tables and likes to hand pick his customers. So instead I plumped for…
This place specialises in Portuguese cuisine (lots of codfish) and I would have preferred somewhere with more local food but I went as it was relatively near the hotel. It still took me nearly an hour though due to the Saturday evening traffic! It was a bit of a mistake to come here really as it’s very formal and they charge a small fortune for food which would be a fraction the price in Portugal. Still, the food is very good.
The service is pretty OTT and I had to deal with separate waiters for my aperitif (a very stiff Caiparinha (A)) food, wine, water and bread but eventually it settled down to just one guy. He was a Portuguese chap who spoke good English and who I presumed had escaped the economic woes at home to come and work in the former colony. The irony is very poignant. Surely no two countries have ever reversed roles so completely.
Several small plates of starters arrived first, which I presumed were only charged if you ate them. I scoffed the lot! They included pate, soft cheese (these first two being replenished if you finished them), garlic bread, three kinds of fritters (salt cod, fish and cheese), something non-descript I couldn’t discern. I doused the fritters in ladles of small hot peppers in olive oil from the small pot on the table.
I quite liked the soundtrack too, a breathy female vocal singing such classics as ‘I’ve got you under my skin’, ‘Tea for Two’ and ‘Come Fly With Me’. It got me humming anyway.
For my main I went for the steak with French fries and white rice. This involved a very tender and bloody slab of beef (A+) with a brown gravy-like sauce (which the waiter could only tell me included herbs) and lattice chips (B). I had to remind them about the plain rice (B) I was craving, and which was the only reason I’d ordered the dish in the first place. I despair of my contradictory habits sometimes. I have a huge desire to go out and eat but often only want the simplest fare when I get there.
I still had half an imported bottle of average Vale de Mina red (B) so I asked for a little cheese to go with it. I got two large ice cream scoops of powerful ewe’s cheese which I could only manage a few small slithers of because the taste was so pungent(C+). I would love to be able to eat this stuff but I really don’t think it agrees with me. I nearly had a whitey once eating something similar in Paris whilst sipping strong wine and sitting in the sun. I’m sure the cheese was the prime culprit.
The restaurant was heaving now so I vacated the table and went over the street to the Cuban cigar bar for a bit of secondary smoke and a couple more Caipirinihas.
The next morning I met my old friend Elcio and his lovely wife Mae, who took me out for the day. I had a great experience of SP thanks to them.
We went for a walk around the ‘old’ downtown financial district of Sao Paolo which was pretty much deserted on a Sunday (though the streets were still heaving with traffic). It’s a bizarre mix of architecture with Gothic churches neighbouring art deco apartment blocks.
Some of the oldest buildings in the city are here but few of them have made it to a hundred years yet.
There are still a few nice ones though, like the Teatro Municpal, which is modeled on the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. You can apparently get guided tours of the building but you have to book ahead so we missed out unfortunately.
The original financial district has been relocated now and the streets are heavily populated by large numbers of homeless people and ‘Oxi‘ addicts, either passed out on the pavement or walking around like zombies. It’s definitely not a place to come at night but we didn’t have any problems in the daylight.
We also took in the museum in the square of Pateo do Collegio, which is considered to be the original spot the city was founded on in 1554. The small museum has some interesting displays showing the growth of the city, and a collection of church artefacts. You have to pay in but it’s not much.
We also stopped in at the cathedral, a neo-Gothic pile of stone much like any other. The only item on display in the very plain interior was a glass case inexplicably containing a flagrum whip! In front of the church is the Praca de Se with a statue of Padre Jose de Anchieta, a Jesuit missionary who was one of the founders of both Sao Paolo and Rio. This area is as historical as it gets in SP.
The highlight for me however was the Mercado Municipal, an old European style market in the heart of the downtown.
The ground level of the huge central hall is a mix of greengrocer’s stalls stacked with huge piles of exotic fruit, Italian delis with hanging displays of sausages and cheeses, and a multitude of butchers and fishmongers who are gathered together in various corners.
One dried cod stall had the biggest fillets of bacalhau , I’d ever seen, about a metre long. It was labelled Gadus Morhau aka Atlantic cod, and so must have been imported from Norway.
On the first floor is the restaurant area with two blocks of cafes and snack bars and seating for probably about a thousand people. Elcio told me there were two classic Sao Paulo snacks I should try in order to become an honorary Paulista (someone from the state of SP, which includes Paulistanos, people from SP city itself). I couldn’t choose between them so the solution was to have both!
First off was the scrumptious Pasteis de Bacalhau, a deep-fried pasty stuffed with salt cod, sliced olives and parsley, something I’d had in Rio but is particularly well known here (A). Italian Brazilians say that the flat, envelope-like pasteis or pastel and the more bulbous fogazza were both derived from Italian calzone. Others say that it was the Issei (Japanese immigrants) who adapted Chinese wontons for sale on the street. Still others say that they are derived from Indian samosas. Anyway wherever it’s from, everyone eats it because it’s delicious.
To follow the legendary Mortadella Sanduiche, a hot baguette containing about twenty wafer thin slices of Mortadella (lard laced sausage, originally from Bologna), and provolone cheese, tomate caqui (‘persimmon’ tomato which we just call a salad tomato), oregano, lettuce and rocket. With a cold beer to go with it, this was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had (A+).
I didn’t know at the time but my food hero Anthony Bourdain filmed this fabulous sandwich for one of his No Reservations programmes (the sandwich is about four minutes in).
After these starters we walked a short distance to Liberdade, aka Japan town. Sao Paulo has the biggest expat Japanese community in the world and in this neighbourhood there are several streets of Japanese shops and restaurants.
I first came to Liberdade late at night in 2006 when Elcio took me for sushi in the early hours of the morning. The place he took me to is seared on my brain forever. As soon as you come in the entrance, you are immediately on the dance floor which, on the night I went, had several multi-racial couples (many mismatched in terms of height) close dancing feverishly to what Elcio described as Brazilian country and western music. Over to one side was the bar where a midget sushi chef was standing on a box and jigging around to the music while simultaneously moulding rice balls and raw fish. The back half of the room was a pool hall with an array of other unusual characters knocking balls around on the baize. All in all, one of the most bizarre restaurant atmospheres I’ve ever been in.
We sat down and I was introduced to the Mamasan who took our order (in Japanese); a large wooden model boat crammed with the finest raw fish I’d had since I lived in Japan. That experience totally won me over to Brazil. Why live in conservative Japan when you could experience their fantastic food culture in much more relaxed social surroundings? Brazil has it all!
I was hoping we could go back there this time but there were so many other, equally enjoyable, things on offer that we didn’t have time.
On this muggy Sunday afternoon, we started off at the open food air market in Liberdade where there were many more multicultural examples of Brazilian food fusion. One stall was selling fogazza (deep-fried dough balls with fillings such as palm heart or ‘Calabrese’, a spicy sausage with origins in southern Italy) alongside Swiss crepes and ice cream tempura!
A lot of it looked pretty ropey to be honest so I saved my appetite for a proper restaurant, which prompted a debate about whether to eat Chinese, Japanese or Korean food, all of which was available in top quality. The choice was left to me in the end, and there could only be one…
Ramen (also spelt Lamen) is one the food I miss most from the time I lived in Japan and I jumped at the opportunity to have it again as I’ve have never found a satisfactory place in the UK. This place is the real deal and has a great reputation, so there a small crowd waiting with us on the pavement for the shutter to come up at 6pm. On other days apparently there can be long lines along the street.
Mae told me that the old guy who ran it had gone to Japan to study how to make Lamen after he had retired from working all his life in a big company. He obviously does it for love as his prices are amazingly low when he could charge a lot more. You’d think he’d be taking it easy now but he’s there every day, working away in the kitchen with his chefs.
I had the Miso Tonkatsu Ramen (bean paste and roast pork) with a portion of Kimchi (fermented Korean chilli cabbage) The noodles were thinner than I’m used to, like vermicelli, and you had to eat them extra fast before they get too soggy. Japanese people slurp their soup noodles loudly, which makes them taste better due to the intake of oxygen, as well as cooling them down. The stock is the key to a good ramen (many of the best places in Japan have secret recipes) and this pork-based broth totally hit the spot for me (A).
We also shared two great portions of Gyoza (steam fried dumplings), one pork filled (A+), the other veg (B+). Both had a delicate skin which had to be treated very gently to maintain their structural integrity when dunked in the dipping bowl of soya sauce and chilli oil. An ice cold bottle of Brahma completed one of my favourite meal combinations of all time. Pure heaven.
Sadly this was the end of our little tour as we all had to make our various ways home. Every time I’ve been to SP I’ve eaten fantastically well, which might justify Paulistano claims to have the best food and restaurants in the country. Mae and Elcio did their best to prove this theory correct. Thanks guys, it was great!