F Is for Fine Food in Fortaleza, Brazil

Chico do Caranguejo restaurant, in Ceará, Brazil Fresh seafood is the thing to have when visiting Fortaleza, the capital of the state of Ceará, in the Brazilian Northeast, due to the fact that the town is still home for scores of fishermen who go out to sea every morning.

They bring their catch to the sands of Mucuripe (hence the Fagner/Belchior composition made famous by the late Brazilian singer Elis Regina), which ends up in the local markets and of course in the kitchens of the many local restaurants.

Eating fish that has not been refrigerated for weeks is something that makes a huge difference to the palate. During a recent visit to Brazil, I ventured out to a supermarket close to my mother's apartment and bought ingredients to make a moqueca, a famous dish that originates from Bahia.

There, I purchased locally produced coconut milk and fresh shrimp, and the resulting dish had that flavor of the sea that you can only encounter in a place like that. A few days later in New York, I cooked the dish again – this time with fish caught in Vietnam and canned milk from Thailand. You can imagine the difference that made.

Seafood can be found virtually anywhere in Fortaleza. If you want a really organic experience, visit one of the many beachfront restaurants at Praia do Futuro and order stewed crab (caranguejo, 3 reais (US$ 1.8) a unit), which is cooked in cilantro and coconut milk.

During our visit there, we made two stops at Chico do Caranguejo (Av Zezé Diogo, 4930 – www.chicodocaranguejo.com.br), which began the tradition of serving crabs on Thursday evenings. Eating them is a messy affair, for you have to break the crustacean with your own hands, but in the end you will be completely satisfied. Do order a large quantity (we usually had three for each member of our party), for just one is definitely not enough.

Another recommended stop is the restaurant row at the Dragão do Mar Cultural Center (Rua Dragão do Mar, 81 http://www.dragaodomar.org.br ), where you will find a rich variety of foods, ranging from Italian, French to local traditional foods, which is where we headed to after a long walk around the city's downtown area. There we sampled Dragão do Mar Fish, which is a mildly spicy fish cooked in a rich tomato sauce and served with a side of white rice.

Peixada Cearense, a fish stew cooked with vegetables and served with pirão (sort of a gravy made with yucca flour) and the proverbial white rice, is arguably the best known of all traditional dishes from Fortaleza.

The place to go for this dish is Alfredo O Rei da Peixada (Av. Beira-Mar, 4616 http://www.restaurantealfredo.com.br), which opened in 1958 and is one of the few that we encountered that had an English translation to the menu. We were very impressed with the classy service and of course the taste of the food.

An area that is not very well known among tourists is Varjota, a neighborhood that is home to a large restaurant row. There we visited Assis o Rei da Picanha (Rua Ana Bilhar, 1356 – no website), which specializes in meats roasted Brazilian barbecue-style. We promptly ignored that fact, and ordered their yummy shrimp in catupiry cheese sauce, a favorite that I used to constantly order back in the days when I lived there.

Those craving other kinds of culinary experiences should head out to Pasto & Pizzas (various locations, http://www.pastoepizzas.com.br), a local franchise which innovated by creating rodí­zio of Italian foods – you pay one price and the waiters bring a variety of dishes to your table until you pretty much burst.

In addition to more traditional fare, they also have their own creations which include chocolate pizza, which didn't do to well with us but that is reportedly one of the favorites there. We recommend fasting all day before you venture out there.

Another surprising discovery is the Cachaçaria Ypióca (Av. Washington Soares, 85 – Loja 523, http://www.ypioca.com.br ) which is located inside a renovated area in the city's Iguatemi Shopping Center. During our visit there, we sampled a variety of premium cachaças and also had the opportunity to check out their many appetizers, which are all prepared with the local spirit.

Most restaurants in Fortaleza do not serve individual dishes – servings are usually for two or more people, so those used to the New York style of ordering for one will probably have a hard time agreeing on what to eat.

Beer is also served in a large bottle (in a cooler to keep the temperature low). At the locations we visited, we didn't find any English speakers, so some survival Portuguese is recommended for a more enjoyable experience.

This article appeared originally in The Brasilians.

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