Located right at the heart of the trendy Leblon neighborhood, the restaurant is a labor of love from Californian expats Marcos and Kristen Peixoto, who were keen to match the high standards of their favorite Mexican restaurants back in their home city.
Working with renowned Portuguese-American chef Antelmo Faria and skilled mixologist Nora Furst, the couple created a menu that surpassed the Tex-Mex and tequila staples that have been the norm at Rio's few Mexican joints.
The trio of tacos at La Calaca is a highlight of the menu — Photo courtesy of La Calaca
The restaurant impresses even before you take your first bite; the funky decor, designed by architect José Marcelino and artist Luiz Martins, includes an attention-grabbing mural and colorful graffiti wall, as well as Mexican knick-knacks, such as skull candle holders and other borderline-kitsch details.
There's a large table for collective dining inside, but on a sunny day or balmy evening, try to grab one of the sidewalk tables. This way you can watch the well-groomed locals swan by as you enjoy your culinary adventure
The kitchen is now under the command of Brazilian chef Marco Antonio Aleixo, and the same care and attention to detail evident in the bar's design is applied to the presentation of his dishes, which are presented with great aplomb. The trio of tacos has emerged as a sure-fire winner on the restaurant's menu, with soft taco shells that can be filled according to taste: chicken, meat and crisp salads are options, alongside condiments such as chipotle sauce and a well-prepared guacamole.
Among other starters, the chicken with diabinho ("little devil") sauce is a picante treat, while the taco soup – a tangy tomato base with chicken and avocado, topped with crispy tacos – is another good option.
La Calaca's drinks menu is another compelling reason to visit — Photo courtesy of La Calaca
Among the mains are shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce and pork loin, but one of the nicest ways to dine here is to order up a few small plates to share between friends.
The drinks menu is another strong suit at La Calaca. Alongside some deliciously cooling frozen margaritas made with imported tequila, expect to find well-crafted martinis and some house exclusives, such as the manzanita, made with the tequila, apple and lemon and then sweetened with agave nectar.
Once again, great care is taken with the presentation, and the cocktails look (almost) too good to drink.
Prices at La Calaca are surprisingly fair, given the plum location in one of Rio's most fashionable neighborhoods. And with scores of lively bars nearby, this is an excellent place to begin a night out in Leblon.