Phuoung-Cac Nguyen, 31-year-old journalist and author, shows us the small pleasures of Brazil’s biggest city-from fresh market eats to hidden museum bars.
Brief bio, occupation:
Journalist and author of Total São Paulo: A Guide to the Unexpected
How long you’ve lived in your city:
EAT & DRINK
Best deal restaurant
Maha Mantra, Rua Fradique Coutinho, 766.
Brazilians are crazy about buffets, some charging by the kilo, others all-you-can-eat. There are rodizios for sushi, pizza, churrasco (Brazilian BBQ), and pasta where waiters continuously fill your plate. Indian-inspired vegetarian place Maha Mantra will provide your fill of veggies. You will roll out of any of these places.
Best street food
Liberdade Weekend Fair, Liberdade Square.
Experience the open-air markets—from farmer’s to vintage—with friends and an appetite. Try the steaming-hot imagawayaki (dough filled with red bean paste) at Liberdade, São Paulo’s Little Tokyo, or the chihuahua-sized gyoza. There’s also the traditional Brazilian market snack, pastéis, fried dough filled with everything from basic cheese to fancy sun-dried tomato.
Pão, Rua Bela Cintra, 1618, Jardins.
Everything is delicious at Pão, the city’s first organic bakery. The place is tiny; you’ll probably end up standing among the three tables. The coffee is first-rate but I especially love their 70 percent cocoa cake. The owner is keen on you trying everything, so feel free to sample.
Bar do Museu, Avenida Ipiranga, 324, Bloco C, Centro.
My favorite bar in the world—completely decadent, comfortable, and cheap. It used to be connected with the Museu de Arte Moderna, and only its members — among them famous Brazilian artists — were allowed. Because the association was responsible for building the museum’s archive, the walls are covered in wonderful artwork. Only one waiter works there, and he’s always dressed in a suit. If you actually find the bar (it’s hidden in an office building), make sure you bring your ID and come before the doors close at 9pm. It will be worth it, especially when you’re sipping on a $2.50 caipirinha.
Best food find
Restaurante Makka, Rua Barão de Ladário, 934, Pari.
The best falafel sandwich around, located on a street with Arabic stores and people in keffiyehs and kufi hats. This place puts french fries in their wraps, which is probably not traditional but it’s darn tasty.
Favorite Brazilian snack
Pão de Queijo-Haddock Lobo, Rua Haddock Lobo, 1408, Jardins Paulista.
The first time I ate the Brazilian cheese bread/national pride called pão de queijo, I didn’t catch on; now I can’t live without it. This place makes a super-chewy version with cassava flour, and the best coxinhas (chicken croquettes) in São Paulo. People always leave this place smiling.
Livraria Cultura, Conjunto Nacional, Avenida Paulista, 2073, Jardins Paulista.
If this chain doesn’t have a book you’re seeking, no one else will. It has the largest selection of English books. The location in Jardins, the most fabulous, has an upper floor auditorium where they hold special events, and the art section is housed in a separate store in the same mall.
B. Luxo Vintage, Rua Augusta, 2633, No. 16, Jardins Paulista.
This shop is run by Paula Reboredo and Gil França, my favorite couple. Thrift store shopping in Brazil isn’t the same as in the States; here they’re hard to find and pretty unimpressive. Paula and Gil, renowned for their selection, find the best of the crop and sell it for affordable prices. Magazines frequently stock up here before photo shoots.
Favorite art space/gallery/museum:
Galeria Vermelho, Rua Minas Gerais, 350, Higienopolis.
Galeria Vermelho leads the pack of São Paulo’s contemporary art galleries. They represent the Danish collective Superflex. Their shows, and opening parties in their huge courtyard, never disappoint.
Favorite outdoor space:
The graffiti alleys in my neighborhood of Vila Madalena, the Beco do Batman and Beco do Aprendiz. The first is what one gallerist told me is the “graffiti hall of fame.” The who’s who of street art have their own wall and you need permission to paint there. The latter is longer in shape and often spookily empty.
Best touristy thing to do:
Mercado Municipal, Rua Cantereira, 306, Centro.
Sample exotic fruits at a fruit stand for 4-5 bucks: dragon fruit, tiny sweet grapes, and mango or passionfruit that tastes nothing like the dry duds we get in the U.S.
Best place to people watch:
Rua Augusta, stretching from the Consolação to the Jardins side.
Punks, transvestite prostitutes, designers, and club owners share the sidewalk. In the evenings the seedier Rua Augusta side gets packed with twentysomethings meeting up to drink at cheap botecos.
Only local does or knows about:
Praça Por do Sol, Vila Beatriz.
This small, hilly park features the best show in the city: the sunsets. Friends hang out and play music while the sun makes its descent.
The must-see thing in your city:
The center, where the city was born, is fascinating. In the little shopping malls you discover unexpected speciality shops for things like cuckoo clocks or pirate-themed figurines. Stop at one of the Arab places, like Raful’s (Rua Com. Abdo Schahin) for a small lunch of esfihas and pineapple juice with mint, refreshing yourself before merging back into pedestrian traffic.
Best events in each season?
São Paulo’s anniversary party with a monster-sized cake served at the Bolo de Bixiga event (Bixiga)
Virada Cultural, a 24-hour citywide party with free entrance to hundreds of shows from music to theater, art exhibits and more
São Vito Italian culture and food festival (Brás)
São Paulo Fashion Week
São Paulo Art Biennial
São Paulo International Architecture Biennial
Music festival season, with overseas pop/rock acts
How would you spend a day off in your city?
Breakfast at a padaria (bakery), followed by a swim at the local pool. I’d take in the diverse roster of art at the Pinacoteca do Estado museum (Praça da Luz, 2, Center). Afterwards, shopping for cheap clothes nearby in the Bom Retiro area. In the evening, pre-drinks with friends before hitting Milo Garage (Rua Minas Gerais, 203A, Higienopolis) to hear indie rock or hip-hop, depending on the night.