When you’re on holiday, especially when you don’t speak the language, it can be difficult to know where to go to find places that locals go to eat that serve up authentic food. So when Sean, the owner of the Pousada L’Estrela D’Mar in Salavdor (click here for my post on the best place to stay in Salvador) told us that he reckoned Salvador’s best Brazilian restaurant was a place called Tia Maria I had to try and track it down.
It turns out that this little canteen-style cafe is in the lower part of Salvador, in the seaside suburb of Pedra Furada, which isn’t too far from one of Salvador’s main tourist attractions the church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. Tucked away down the windy side streets near the Sagrada Familia Hospital we initially thought we might have taken a wrong turn until we saw the glint of the sea at the bottom of the road.
Tia Maria doesn’t have anything to do with liquer. The name of the restaurant actually means Auntie Mary, owned funnily enough, by a lovely, smiley lady called Maria. You can’t help but feel at home from the moment you walk inside. It’s not grand, there are plastic tables and chairs, but for me this just adds to its charm. And if you’re after an authentic taste of Bahia’s cuisine then you’ve come to the right place.
After much amusement due to our lack of Portuguese and Maria not speaking English (there was much picture drawing by Sharps who successfully managed to convey I can’t eat anything with shrimp in it) we were able to order. Seafood makes up most of the menu, hardly surprising as the restaurant is in a seaside town and located on the seafront (there are lovely views overlooking the fishing boats which supply Tia Maria and across the bay from the front) so if you’re not a fan of fish you may come unstuck.
As my choices were a bit limited I decided to just have a starter of cod fritters while Sharps went for a main of crab moqueca (R35 but it was meant for two people), a spicy seafood stew made with coconut milk and dendê (palm oil) that’s a traditional dish from Bahia. We ordered a beer while we waited. Then we ordered another beer while we waited some more, as it did take quite a while for aunty Maria to prepare the food.
It’s not the sort of place to come and eat if you’re in a hurry – you need to be prepared to stick around for a while. It almost felt as if I’d gone round to my gran’s house as Maria casually began to work her magic on her kitchen hobs, switching on the TV to watch one of her programmes while she cooked.
When it finally arrived Sharps’ said his moqueca, served with rice and dried Parmesan, was fresh and tomatoey and had generous flakes of crab in it, as well as onion and spinach. My cod fritters were served with a side of tomatoes and onions in some kind of spicy sauce. Maria gestured to me that it was hot but I thought she was exaggerating, thinking as tourists we wouldn’t be able to handle the heat, until I started not to be able to feel my lips! So it just goes to show that at this hidden gem auntie does know best after all.