It’s only natural that São Paulo, home to the largest Japanese community outside Japan, should be the birthplace of the sushimania that has gripped Brazil in the last decades. But those for whom sushi is synonymous with Japanese food are missing out on some of the city’s best restaurants – not least in Liberdade, where you could eat varied Japanese delights for days in places that don’t even have the words ‘sushi’ or ‘sashimi’ on their menus.
A perfect kick-off for a tour of what’s on offer would be Kintarô. At first it looks just like a small botequim, serving the same starters and snacks – coxinhas, esfihas and pastéis – as every other Brazilian bar. But alongside those household names, you’ll also find typical gems from an izakaya – the Japanese equivalent of a pub. Think aubergines with miso and spring onions spiked with ginger, marinated sardines, and miso pork chops. The bar’s customers are an eclectic group, from bikers and students to middle-aged nisei and sansei – the children and grandchildren of Japanese immigrants – who keep their sake and whisky bottles by the counter.
Part of the reason for Kintarô’s special feel-good factor are its owners, the brothers Vagner and Kato Higuchi – two sumo fighters who chat animatedly with customers, and are happy to explain the carefully crafted dishes made by their mother, Dona Líria, and to talk about sumo, naturally.
Daniel Ozana/Studio Oz
The Higuchi brothers are not the only sumo champions whose abilities go beyond forcing adversaries out of the ring. Fernando Kuroda is another prize-winning fighter behind another of Liberdade’s well-kept culinary secrets: Bueno. The restaurant, with no sign on the facade and with a black sliding door on the outside, which is always kept shut, could easily pass unnoticed. But inside, the place is packed out every night.
The restaurant’s trademark is also the favourite dish of sumo wrestlers: the chanko nabe, a meat-and-veg stew. We went for the pork version with miso, chard, onions, and shimeji and shiitake mushrooms – a hearty potful for those with a good appetite. If you find the chanko too rich, stick to the generous starters, such as the picanha with wasabi or the ox tongue, both grilled, or vegetarian options like asparagus or peppered chard.
Another of the restaurant’s highlights is its slightly sweet flavoured pork belly, which simply melts in your mouth. When asked what its recipe is, Fernando is candid – ‘You’re asking a lot of questions!’ – but in spite of his faux snarl, Bueno’s owner enjoys having a drink with his customers when the kitchen shuts down for the night.
If Bueno is all about making friends, its neighbour, Aska, puts business first – and makes that option clear on the first page of its menu, which reads, ‘please vacate the premises as soon as possible’. But it’s well worth putting up with the no-nonsense attitude of the waiters and the long queues to sit either at the counter or at one of the six tables and try its variety of affordable and very filling lamens.
Claiming to already have more customers then they can handle, one of Aska’s employees even asked us to not to mention the restaurant. So when you go there to enjoy a few guiozas – savoury filled pastries – as starters and lamen noodles cooked in a succulent chicken or pork broth with meat, spring onions, shimeji and shiitake, just remember: you didn’t hear it from us.
But surrounded by an ocean of raw fish, most of Liberdade’s non-sushi restauranteurs are born diplomats. That’s the case of Sukiyaki House’s Rogerio Ueda. Throughout its 21 years, his restaurant has rubbed shoulders with countless sushi-serving neighbours, but has never served the dish. ‘It’s an old agreement,’ says Ueda. ‘Each of us has a speciality. If a customer comes in asking for sashimi or sushi, I recommend therestaurants next door.’
At Ueda’s place, the eponymous sukiyaki hotpots can be prepared at the table using the stove that each has. You pick and mix the ingredients, such as chard, spring onions, moyashi (sprouts) and ultrathin meat slices, in a boiling broth, then dip it all into sauces made of shoyu soy, or sake with sugar.
Relations between the restaurants are excellent, says Ueda. ‘We all get along well. Sometimes we eat there, and they eat over here. I can’t complain, because when it comes to Japanese food, I like it all.'
Aska is at Rua Galvão Bueno 466, Liberdade (3277 9682). Metrô 1, Liberdade.
Bueno is at Rua Galvão Bueno 458, Liberdade (3203 2215).
Bar Kintarô is at Rua Tomás Gonzaga 57, Liberdade (3277 9124).
Sukiyaki House is at Rua da Glória 111, Liberdade (3106 4067). Metrô 1, Liberdade.