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Welcome to Rio, the Beach Food Capital of the World

On the divine pleasures of dining at the ocean's edge

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The first time I visited Rio de Janeiro, I was sitting on Ipanema beach when a man jumped in front of my face, machete in hand, shouting "AAAAAAA!!!!" at the top of his lungs. Considering Rio's reputation for violent crime, I shot out of my chair, like a character in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Before I'd even landed, the man had taken his machete to a pineapple balanced atop his head, carving off the juiciest, most flavorful piece of the fruit I'd ever tasted, which he handed me, smiling, after completing his shout "...BACAXI!" (Abacaxi is Portuguese for "pineapple.")

Years later, when I moved to Rio, I'd head to that same stretch of Ipanema on Saturdays, searching for its crazed pineapple king. You could pinpoint his location by triangulating the sound of his battle cry, the terrified yelps of his victims, and the ensuing laughter.

I'd come to Rio at the end of 2004 after spending two years living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The two cities couldn't have been more different. Buenos Aires was a purely urban creature: an endlessly sprawling, largely featureless hunk of concrete, defined by its architecture, culture, and cosmopolitan pleasures. In Buenos Aires, you savored each meal as a long, seated adventure. I spent most of my free time in that city hanging around cafes, at day-long barbecues with friends, and in its charming — and increasingly ambitious — restaurants.

In Rio, I probably didn't set foot in a proper restaurant for a full month. Most of my meals were eaten standing: at the counters of juice bars, next to a street vendor, or on the sand of one of the city's endless beaches. The few chairs and tables I ate at were plastic, and covered in the logo of Brahma or Skol beer, which I drank from cans and bottles, wrapped in insulated coolers. There was no cutlery or linens. I ate with my hands, mostly while wearing a pair of Havaianas flip-flops, and a damp wet sunga, the slender swimsuit any self-respecting male Carioca (slang for a Rio native) wears under his surf shorts.

Rio’s best moments, and meals, are free from the confines of walls. Eating in Rio is simply a means of sustaining the glory of the outdoors.

Hemmed in by dramatically lush mountains on one side, and more than 50 miles of white sand beaches facing both the ocean and the Bay of Botafogo on the other, life in Rio (a place locals call Cidade Maravilhosa — "the Marvelous City") is wasted when it's spent anywhere but outside. Yes, there are offices, apartments, shopping malls, and fine air-conditioned restaurants, but compared to a place like Buenos Aires, or even the nearby landlocked capital São Paulo, Rio's best moments, and meals, are free from the confines of walls.

To sustain this, an entire ecosystem of beach and street eating has evolved in Rio, allowing Cariocas to stay perpetually under open skies. Most often, Cariocas don't even leave their beach chairs, participating instead in a reverse grazing, as scores of vendors walk by, singing out the food and drink they're hawking. "First you find your place on the sand, and then you find your vendor," explained my friend Bruno Firuza, a cook and book translator, settling under a beach umbrella in Leme, a quiet stretch of sand at the northern end of Copacabana beach a few years back. "On the beach, it's never a meal. It's all about snacking here. On the beach, I have a craving for 'beach food,' things I can't get anywhere else."

On cue, a vendor trundled by, calling out "Aloooo Matte! Aloooo Globo!," Rio's most popular beach drink. Matte Leão is a sweet and pleasantly nutty iced tea. Vendors carry two 10-liter metal tanks filled with the tea on one shoulder and limeade on the other, dispensing the drink into plastic cups with a flick of the wrist, customizing the flavor for each customer. Most Cariocas pair this with a bag of Biscoito Globo, puffy baked crackers made from manioc flour, boasting a sweet, starchy flavor and a shattering crackle that's half the attraction.

We spend the better part of a Saturday afternoon this way: Bruno flagged down vendors selling their snacks (rarely costing more than a buck or two) with a quick whistle and flick of the finger — roast cashews, homemade papaya and rice pudding ice pops, and delicate pastel fritters filled with shrimp paste and shredded crab — and then we'd wash it all down with cans of Skol beer until we dipped into the ocean to cool off and take a piss.

We talk about street food in North America as though a smattering of taco trucks and pop-ups equals some sort of societal transformation, but in Rio de Janeiro, this kind of opportunistic noshing defines the entire city's eating culture. Eating outside is the default option, and it was less about scheduled meals than meeting the whim of hunger wherever you happened to be. I once saw a pair of lifeguards enjoy a 6 a.m. breakfast of fried fish and cold beer at a beach kiosk in Barra de Tijuca, shortly before enduring what looked like a workout that would stop my heart. It was never about dining. Eating in Rio was simply a means of sustaining the glory of the outdoors.

Photo: lazyllama / Shutterstock

Photo: lazyllama/Shutterstock

Whether I'd just emerged from surfing at the far-flung point break at Praiñha, or retreated to Copacabana after enduring the sweaty depths of a carnival parade, there always seemed to be a steady stream of vendors there to feed me: enterprising kids from the favelas hawking towering spires of cotton candy, potato chips, or tuna sandwiches; elderly black women from Bahia, elegantly wrapped in white and blue fabric, selling acarajé bean cakes stuffed with shrimp stew; or savory Arab pastries (beef-filled kibe and lemony spinach esfiha), sold by the descendants of Lebanese immigrants.

There are roasted cashews, almonds, and peanuts, frozen fruit smoothies, fresh juices, fresh fruit, savory shrimp tarts, questionable shrimp on a stick (marinating, without refrigeration, in the hot sun), and kebabs of a squeaky goat/cow cheese, grilled over charcoal on handheld stoves, then rolled in dried oregano. Beachside kiosks appear at regularly spaced intervals, like life buoys filled with ice-cold beers (Brazilians accept nothing less), heartburn-inducing caipirinhas, and young coconuts hacked open with a machete.

In the streets just beyond the crash of the ocean, you'll find wheeled grill carts featuring hot dogs slowly stewing in a mix of soft onions, peas, and carrots; others are stacked with heavily spiced skewers, including little rows of chewy chicken hearts, charred until they popped. Suco juice bars, usually standing-room-only, regularly space the landscape, and the constant whirrrrr of blenders is the soundtrack to pulverizing fresh papaya, mango, and a whole kaleidoscope of untranslatable Amazonian produce with names like cupuacu, caju, and the beloved purple acai berry into the world's most refreshing smoothies.

"On the beach, it’s never a meal. It’s all about snacking. On the beach, I have a craving for ‘beach food,’ things I can’t get anywhere else."

Near the beach, Rio's restaurant scene seems to conform to this informal ideal. At Braseiro Grill, a snaking metal counter in Copacabana that serves grilled galetos (young chickens) along with farofa (manioc flour) and eggs, the restaurant will happily offer a loaner T-shirt to beach-bound customers, so, as manager Elizabete Alves put it, "the person next to them doesn't have to eat beside a naked beer gut." And at Cervantes, a half-century old restaurant nearby where the waiters wear tuxedo jackets, it's not uncommon to find a couple standing wet and sandy in their swimsuits well past midnight, knocking back a draft beer and signature grilled filet, pineapple, mozzarella, and paté sandwich, after a late night swim.

"The Carioca lives the good life: the beach, cold beer, good fun, good food," exclaimed Marcio Roberto V. Alves, a bakery owner from the city, who had gathered with friends along the seawall in Urca after work one Friday. Within minutes of arriving he'd ditched his shirt, and now sat by the peninsula that defines the Bay of Botafogo, Rio's harbor, with more than a hundred others. With a creamy, flaky heart of palm empada pastry in one hand, and a small glass cold beer in the other, he explained the ultimate, equalizing appeal of Rio's al fresco dining culture, in a city where the inequality between the haves and have nots is inescapably stark.

"The Carioca, he doesn't want luxury. He might have money, or he might not, but he doesn't like to sit in fancy restaurants," he continued, pointing across the street to the second story dining room of Bar Urca, one of the most revered botecos (traditional bars) in the city, renown for its seafood soup, codfish balls, and platters of garlic shrimp eaten whole... head and all. "Why, when we could dine comfortably inside, do we take our food and eat it on a stone wall? Because the Carioca worships summer," he said, now popping a shrimp into his mouth and looking out at the harbor's water fading to violet, while spontaneous applause broke out to mark the sunset. "And nothing beats this."

Read More: Rio 2016: Eater's Guide to Eating and Drinking at the Olympics [E]

David Sax is a journalist and writer based in Toronto, Canada. He’s a regular contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek and the New Yorker online, and has written three books, including The Revenge of Analog, which comes out this fall.,
Illustrator Lovatto grew up in Santo André, Brazil, and is the kind of person who will never turn down a burger and who dreams of having an English bulldog. He lives in London.

Editor: Erin DeJesus