Monday, May 2, 2011

RESTAURANT REVIEW - Alpendre (Fortaleza, Brazil)

Inside Alpendre
Yesterday, May 1, was the last day of an annual celebration of boteco culture in Fortaleza and a number of other Brazilian cities. Botecos are a Brazilian institution and well-loved by millions of gastronomic patriots. They are casual bars, often loud and raucous, that serve, in addition to beer and cocktails, a variety of comestibles - from snacks and nibblies to full meal portions. Flavors of Brazil has, in the past, covered boteco culture in a number of posts, including this one.

The annual celebration of the Brazilian boteco is simply and directly called Comida di Buteco (an alternatively-spelled way to say "Boteco Food." It began a few years back in the city of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, considered by many Brazilians to be boteco heaven, and under the sponsorship of a nationally-distributed cachaça distillery, Ypioca, has branched out to a number of other Brazilian cities. This is the first year that Fortaleza has been a part of the festival. For two weeks, from the middle of April to the first of May, participating botecos enter one item from their menu into a city-wide contest for the best boteco dish. Diners who order that particular dish are givien an evaluation form to fill out and deposit into a ballot box. Once the festival is over, evaluation numbers are calculated to determine which boteco (and which dish) is the highest rated in the city.

It its first year, Fortaleza had 17 botecos which stepped up to the plate and presented a dish to contest for the championship. On Friday night of last week, Flavors of Brazil visited a boteco called Alpendre to try their dish and to cast a yea or nay vote for its dish, oven-roasted pork tenderloin served with seasoned manioc farofa and mango chutney . We chose Alpendre (the name means shed or shack) because it had already been named the city's best boteco in the 2010 edition of Veja magazine's annual food and drink ranking Comer & Beber, and we'd been waiting for an excuse to try it out.

Outside Alpendre
Alpendre started out five years back as a small shop selling local and artisanal foods and drink. Local cheeses, conserves, hot-pepper sauces, soft drinks and cachaça - that sort of thing. And during the day, that's still what Alpendre is. However, in the evening, they put plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk and patio in front of their shop, fire up the kitchen and turn themselves into a boteco. They've done that so successfully that now they've even begun putting up tables and chairs on the sidewalk across the street and opened another "shack" for service on that side of the street. Alpendre has become a boteco with a street down the middle - you might even say "A street runs through it", if you wanted to describe the place literarily.

During our visit the place was packed (both sides of the street). We arrived about 9:30 pm, which was lucky as we soon learned that the kitchen closed at 10, even though drinks are still available later into the night. We ordered the pork tenderloin so that we could enter our votes into the contest along with a bottle of Devassa beer - just one of a very extensive list of beers. The dish cost R$18, about USD $12, and was large enough to satisfy two of us. It consisted of about half of an entire pork tenderloin, roasted under a layer of almost-melted onion rings, sweet, moist and tender, served with a lightly seasoned and non-greasy farofa. Farofa is toasted manioc flour which has its own particular love-it-or-hate-it texture, and Alpendre's version is one of the best we've had recently. Alongside was a dollop of locally- and artisanally-produced mango chutney (available for sale in the shop). Our evaluation sheets, needless to say, gave the dish very high notes.
Oven-roasted pork tenderloin

Although we only ate the one dish, a look at the menu gave us incentive to return to Alpendre in the future. The menu is heavy on local cuisine and local dishes, including those innard-based dishes which are so loved here in Fortaleza - dobradinha, panelada and buchada. One very helpful feature of the menu is that most dishes are available in three sizes - small or large portions, or on a per-kilo basis for take-out. There is a very interesting cheese list on the menu, and a huge number of small-distillery cachaças, both local and national.

It's easy to see why this place was chosen the best boteco in the city by Veja magazine. It will be interesting to see how it ranks in the Comida di Buteco festival rankings, and whether patrons themselves agree with the food professionals who vote in the Veja rankings. I have a feeling that Alpendre will do very well - not having tasted all 17 dishes in the contest it's impossible to say if Alpendre deserves first place - but Flavors of Brazil will be very surprised if they end up near the bottom of the rankings.

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