Before I left on a two week adventure to South America, I asked a few friends for recommendations on what and where to eat in Brazil. I’d heard of course of feijoada, the national bean and pork dish, and was looking forward to lush tropical fruits (acai smoothies here I come!). Two girlfriends, separately, recommended I go to Tiradentes for a food extravaganza; so to Tiradentes I went.
A 6 hour bus ride from Rio is not a long ride for a complete change of scenery. Rio is a pulsing city, vibrating with energy. I samba’d in Lapa (a neighborhood of Rio that’s very similar to what I imagine night life in New Orleans is like) and sipped caipirinha’s in Rio’s packed nightclub, Rio Scenarium. I baked and bronzed under the sun’s generous heat on Ipanema’s white sands, and not so surreptitiously eyed the bodacious Brazilian bodies that catwalked up and down the beaches (side note, Brazilians are very fun to look at!).
Tiradentes is on the opposite spectrum in terms of pace and feel. The acoustic guitar is to Tiradentes as the electric guitar (with amp) is to Rio.
Our bus pulled in to a quaint town with cobbled streets and white buildings with bright blue shutters. Horses and carriages pull local and foreign tourists around the city, showing off the picturesque town. Yellow churches and colonial architecture would be the perfect backdrop for a Hollywood film. Cue the accordions!
Our first night we strolled around the city, lazily, and casually poked our noses into anything that had a whiff of interest. I knew within the first hour that I could love this little town when we stumbled into a store that sold only 2 food products: jars upon jars of chilies, and jars upon jars of dulce de leche. Yes, I think I like the Brazilians more than I could have imagined, for they too value some of my greatest loves in life.
The sun went down and the street lamps turned up. We headed away from the center of town and wound up in a restaurant that served regional food. Our waiter seemed very entertained at having two American women trying to interpret the menu. I tried to ask him in Spanish what his favorite dish on the menu was and he answered with a very Laurel and Hardy maneuver. He pointed at an entree, stuck his thumb in his mouth, puffed his cheeks, and popped his thumb out, making a comical noise, and then proceeded to give us a huge grin and a thumbs up. What a sell! We ordered the dish.
The dish turned out to be fried rice, sauteed kale, pork cutlet and bananas. When it arrived at the table I was a bit let down by the simplicity of the dish. Brazil had led me to believe that everything was sexy and exotic, but this plate of rice wasn’t registering. I dipped my spoon in to the rice (rice…blah), and tipped it into my mouth. Mmmm! The rice was laced with pork fat, ribbons of creamy egg, hearty beans, and then a bit of chili rounded out the richness. The kale was sauteed so there was still bite to the healthy greens, and the sweet banana pulled everything together. The seemingly simple dish pulled a Steve Buscemi on me. The package may not be the most appetizing, but there was a whole lot of talent packed into that saucy dish.
The next day I stopped to pet a dog in the center of town and it turns out the owner spoke perfect English. We got to talking and I mentioned that I was in Tiradentes to eat. She was thoroughly pleased that I had come to the town seeking delicious tidbits and proudly directed me to a popular restaurant a few kilometers out of town. The restaurant is only open for lunch, and it was already mid-afternoon, so we hopped in a cab and bumped down a dirt road to the restaurant.
We walked into Tempero da Angela, a wall-less restaurant with an open kitchen. This open kitchen, however, is very different than a New York open kitchen. This kitchen has open-fire, with wood-burning stoves topped with large iron pots of food simmering away. And in this kitchen, you serve yourself! The restaurant is run by women who bustle around stirring the pots, adding wood to the fire and running to the garden to pick more kale as needed. The food was all perfectly seasoned (something that rarely happens in most restaurants) and expertly cooked. I loaded my plate with bright colors, focusing on the fresh okra, sweet carrots and yellow potatoes. The Green Giant would have a ball if he could get his hands on these sweet little veggies!
Tiradentes was definitely worth traveling for. Our final lunch was at Dona Xepa, a restaurant respected for their food, but mainly known for their extensive Cachaça menu. We feasted on stewed okra, creamy polenta and the best caipirinhas we had in Brasil. It was the perfect way to end the marathon dining experience we had while in this sleepy miner’s town. With full tummy and smiles (most likely induced in part by the Cachaça), we boarded the bus, ready for the ride back to Rio.