Café do Alto, come think of it, has belonged in Santa Teresa all along. While the original Alto Leblon location for this eatery serving delightful Northeastern Brazilian cuisine is still going strong and as whimsical and charming as ever, Café do Alto has blended into Santa Teresa's bohemian scene like a natural.
The tradition of serving bountiful breakfasts continues in the renovated vintage property at Largo dos Guimarães, the best-known square in Santa Teresa. So do lovely décor Brazilianisms such as ultra colorful Brazilian chita (cotton chintz) accents and folk art objects. But chef Mariana Villas-Bôas brings a personal twist to the Café do Alto favorites and Northeastern culinary as a whole, with a light reading of traditional staples allied to deep knowledge of essential ingredients such as queijo de coalho or bottled butter.
Maria Bonita, a signature dish named after the lover of Northeastern backlands bandit Lampião, is slightly different from the one served in Alto Leblon. In Santa, the tapioca is also filled with shredded sun-dried meat and a creamy cheese, but with puréed pumpkin instead of arracacha as in the fist café. Several other kinds of tapioca are served, both with salty and sweet fillings.
On the Café do Alto Facebook page, you can keep up with the latest on weekend and holiday specials. You might be in time for arroz de hauçá, a dish introduced in Bahia by slaves brought over from the African Sahel: a mound of rice in coconut milk, filled with shredded sun-dried meat and onions in dende oil.
Another recent special showing some of Brazil's rich heritage was risotto, made with red rice from Paraíba state, with shredded oxtail meat and arugula, plus tapioca ice cream in espresso and mel de engenho (pre-crystallization sugar or sugarcane syrup).
Breakfast, Northeastern style, is served as a buffet from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Though most hotels and hostels in Rio serve nice breakfasts, it's worth passing them up at least once for this plunge into regional foods.
Just like the Alto Leblon location, Café do Alto in Santa serves tapiocas, grilled coalho cheese, boiled plaintains, sweet potatoes and manioc, fresh seasonal fruit, cold cuts, cakes, yogurt, fresh-made juice, coffee and more for breakfast.
One of the attractions is bolo de macaxeira - manioc cake, including in its immaterial heritage Pernambuco version known as bolo Souza Leão. The café has done a good job of representing the many traditions of Pernambuco doçaria, or the art of making sweet foods, masterfully explored in sociologist Gilberto Freyre's classic Açúcar Sugar).
Kudos to Café do Alto in Santa for serving water in the pitcher, instead of selling it in plastic bottles and cups.
Address & Practical Info:
Largo do Guimarães 143
Rio de Janeiro - RJ
Hours: Wed-Thur noon to 8p.m., Fri noon to 10 p.m., Sat, Sun and holidays 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted.
Breakfast buffet price: R$40 per person (subject to change; check first)
How to Get There: While the Santa Teresa tram doesn't start running again, you can take buses - the 006 (Silvestre X Castelo) and 014 (Paula Matos X Castelo), to Largo do Guimarães from downtown Rio (Centro). See their routes.