São Luís  is a seafood lover’s paradise. Both the ocean and the region’s many rivers yield abundant fish, oysters, crab, and jumbo-sized shrimp. Maranhão ’s most characteristic specialty is arroz-de-cuxá. This rice-based dish is made with the mildly pungent leaves of a local plant called vinagreira, to which dried shrimp, toasted sesame, and manioc flour are added.
Also try the torta de camarão, a type of frittata stuffed with dry or fresh shrimp, a recipe that was originally invented by slaves. Maranhão’s proximity to the Amazon  explains the presence of a couple of the most ambrosial fruits you’ll ever taste: cupuaçu (whose popularity has spread throughout Brazil) and the much rarer bacuri. Savor them as thick juices or for dessert as mousse-like cremes.
Instead of Coca Cola or Guaraná, Maranhenses swear by Jesus. The name of this bright pink soft drink has no connection to the son of God. Instead, it pays homage to local pharmacist Jesus Norberto Gomes, who invented it back in 1920. Jesus’ ingredients include cinnamon, cloves, and the jolting presence of guaraná. In markets and bars, you’ll also see plenty of bottles of a distilled substance that ranges in color from pale lilac to ultraviolet. Known as tiquira, this popular Maranhense version of cachaça is made from fermented manioc and it packs quite a wallop.
With its tables spread out across a patio overlooking the Baía de São Marcos, Base de Lenoca (Av. Dom Pedro II, Centro, tel. 98/3231-0599, 11 a.m.–midnight daily, R$15–25) offers a picturesque setting where you can savor delicious Maranhense fare. Specialties include caldeirada maranhense, a stew of jumbo shrimp swimming in coconut milk, and casquinhas de carangueijo, in which crab meat sautéed with garlic, tomato, and lime juice is served in its shell.
Located on the second floor of a colonial building, the lavish spreads at the Restaurante SENAC (Rua de Nazaré 242, Centro, tel. 98/3222-6377, noon–3 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8 p.m.–midnight Fri., R$15–25) are prepared and ceremoniously served by local students of the SENAC restaurant school. The lunch buffets change daily. The best is the Maranhense banquet, which allows you to sample regional cooking until you’re ready to burst.
Housed in a colonial palacete, Antigamente (Rua da Estrela 220, Praia Grande, tel. 98/3232-3964, 10 a.m.–3 a.m. Mon.–Sat., R$15–30) has a varied menu of adequate fare ranging from meat and fish to pasta dishes. Although usually loaded with tourists, its sidewalk tables in the heart of the colonial center are a terrific spot to while away a few hours in the company of beer and the famous caldeirada de frutos de mar, a hearty seafood gumbo with cilantro and lime. At night, live music is often performed.
The classiest joint in Praia Grande is O Armazém da Estrela (Rua da Estrela 401, tel. 98/3254-1274, Praia Grande, 11 a.m.–midnight Mon.–Sat., R$28–38), whose sophisticated upstairs dining room seduces local socialites with its tiled floors and exposed stone walls along with its refined menu featuring dishes such as beef medallion cooked in red wine and snapper fillets bathed in cajá sauce.
For a swanky meal along the beach, head to Porto Maracangalha (Av. Litorânea 2, Quadro 9, Calhau, www.portomaracangalha.com.br , 11:30 a.m.–midnight daily, R$25–35), a charming eatery whose walls are decorated with colorful works by local artists including the restaurant’s chef, Melquíades Dantas. Dantas is the inventor of an addictive geleia de pimenta (pepper jelly) that accompanies the beef pastéis, which is a great starter. Entrées feature seafood dishes such as anchovy fillets topped with shrimp with arroz-de-cuxá and a celebrated caldeirada maranhense. The breezy veranda overlooking the beach is a wonderful place to sample the extensive menu of cocktails and cachaças.