1. DON’T…eat the bologna sandwich at Mercadão.
It’s easy to understand why people enjoy it so much: It’s cheap and big enough to share. But it’s also difficult to bite into, and to get one you have to wait in an enormous line at the popular Mercado da Cantareira, the central market that paulistanos call Mercadão.
DO…eat oysters instead.
In São Paulo, as in most cities, a visit to the central market is mandatory. Try Mercadão on a weekday and look for fresh oysters at Casa das Ostras in the seafood area (closed on weekends). They’re super fresh and you can buy them for R$3,50 each, or a dozen for R$20. Eat while enjoying a cold beer and taking a break from the lunchtime heat.
2. DON’T…fall for the espresso trend.
Brazilian coffee is good, sometimes even great. Still, most restaurants narrow your choices, offering only boring items from the Nespresso family that taste the same everywhere. Just like McD. Shameful.
DO…drink a coado.
There are a whole lot of cafes in São Paulo, from the usual Starbucks to good local chains like Suplicy and Santo Grão. Go into one of these and ask for a coado, a paper-filtered coffee that’s usually soft and very aromatic. If you’re around Vila Madalena, spend an afternoon at the Coffee Lab. A bit hyped, true, but it’s a lesson on good Brazilian coffee. And yes, they serve espresso.
3. DON’T…eat dishes just because they’re “Brazilian.”
The place for moqueca is Bahia, so don’t get it here. In São Paulo, go for the prato feito instead. Known as “PF,” it’s rice, beans, salad, and beef (or egg or chicken). During lunch hour, if in doubt, just observe. When it comes to popular local spots, the longest line usually indicates the right choice.
DO…go South American.
Brazil has a “distant brother” type of relationship with the rest of the continent, but that hasn’t stopped São Paulo from experiencing something of a South American culinary boom. It started with a ceviche (raw fish and spices, popular in Chile and Peru) frenzy, then developed into restaurants for all budgets. Delicious patacones (deep-fried banana pancakes) and sanguiches (Peruvian sandwiches) can be found at the Feirinha Gastronômica in the Pinheiros neighborhood.
4. DON’T…eat barbecue at a restaurant.
If not accompanied by a local, chances are you’ll end up at a tourist trap. Believe me: The generous offer of red meat known as churrasco is best enjoyed on a sunny day at a friend’s house. Another Brazilian (and visitor) favorite, the mighty feijoada is best served at cheap, popular spots.
DO…eat a pastel de feira.
Pastel is deep-fried crispy dough filled with meat, cheese, or hearts of palm. Combined with the ultra-sweet garapa (sugarcane juice, delicious with lemon and ice), it’s a paulistano classic that you’ll find in every neighborhood market fair (known as feira). Flavor choices depend on the creativity of the pastel stand owner, but the pizza kind (with cheese, tomatoes, and oregano) is omnipresent.
Feiras happen weekly on predetermined streets, starting very early in the morning and closing around 2pm. They’re the right place to buy groceries, spices, fresh fish, and meat, or to walk around observing people on the go. There’s an annual contest for São Paulo’s best pastel, and the current winner is Pastel da Maria. Find them on Tuesdays and Thursdays in front of the Pacaembu Stadium.