Monday, July 15, 2019

Eating BIG in Lisbon

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Exploring the City of Seven Hills aka Lisboa

One of the hottest travel destinations right now is Portugal. We almost went some five years ago on a trip to Spain but decided to stay in Spain for that one. Since then the tourism in Portugal has skyrocketed into one of Europe's hottest destinations. I guess those who've done Spain, Italy, and France are moving on to Portugal. You can count me among them. We spent eight days there this past May and like most everyone else who's traveled that way we fell in love with the former empire.

Sights from Lisbon (click pics to enhance)

These days Portugal is a pretty relaxed place. Even in the big city of Lisboa it wasn't ever that hectic. Though getting up and down and around was at times a pain in the ass. The city is built on a number of hills so you'll be going up and down often. If it's hot I wouldn't want to walk around too much. That said Ubers are surprisingly cheap. Though sometimes traffic is bad so your best bet in all of this is to stay somewhere where they have everything you need. We decided upon the Príncipe Real neighborhood which was semi centrally located to the point where nothing was all that far. Anything that was 20+ minutes away was quickly reached via uber. Príncipe Real is also one of Lisbon's trendiest 'hoods which means there's lots of little boutique hotels that aren't all up in the tourist strips.

Sights from Lisbon (click pics to enhance)

As far as pricing goes I thought Portugal to be one of Europe's best bargains. At least when compared to the other Big 3. The only thing that was high in price and similar to some of Europe's more expensive cities was hotel pricing. You can probably get cheaper on AirBNB but I've decided I don't love AIRBNB in Europe. They tend to get you the bare minimum as far as comfort. Everything else was extremely reasonably priced especially the wine. Food wise we ate some fantastic food that most of the time was less than $20/pp as far as the pricing goes. The Portuguese were known as some of the best sailors in the world and with that they are also great fisherman thus they have a wonderful seafood culture. But they also do chicken, pork, and even beef really well. Lisbon is a very international city. Aside from all the Portuguese some of which is regional they also have food from many of the countries they colonized. You'll see most of them when we get to the food. I didn't have a chance to do the illegal Chinese restaurants or any Nepalese but those too are also abundant.

Sights from Lisbon (click pics to enhance)

I cant go on any further without giving a major shout-out to those at Culinary Backstreets. If you haven't heard of them it's my favorite culinary travel website on the internet. They tell stories of the food and the people from cities they're dispatched in. Portugal and Lisbon in particular is one of the more posted about cities and they also do food tours. For anyone looking to get a real feel of Lisbon's culinary background in a short time you should consider signing up for one of their tours which they do in Porto too. Or if obsessed like me with finding spots they truly are one of the best resources for local food in the cities they cover. I've gotten great stuff in DF, Beijing, and Portugal. Istanbul is next!

Sights from Lisbon (click pics to enhance)

Even though 95% of my trips are based on food there's still that other 5% to cover. For those that like a more balanced vacation as far as activities and sightseeing you'll have plenty to do in Lisbon. Aside from just walking around from neighborhood to neighborhood and enjoying the beauty of Lisbon there's plenty of historic sights and scenic views to be taken in. Museums and of course markets too. The daytrip to the town of Sintra was pretty awesome. It's not far at all. We got up early and took a train to the scenic town. From there we got an uber to take us to the first of two castles we visited. Being able to beat the crowds waiting for the bus ride up allowed us to be some of the first people in so it wasn't all that busy yet, but as the day goes on they get very busy so your best bet is to be there before they open the gates for the day. We visited two stops. The first was Pena Palace. After that we went to Quinta Da Regalleira. Pena Palace was breathtaking for both it's views from up top and also the design and looks of the castle itself. The castle at Quinta Da Regalleira was more rustic but the grounds were amazing. It was a great place to explore and I thought it was the perfect 1-2 punch. If you're on instagram (or even if you're not) make sure to check my videos as there's much more. Other spots I'd rec are the Tile Museum, Belem Tower, São Jorge Castle, and just walking around the city.

Sights from Lisbon (click pics to enhance)
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Ze da Mouraria

I wanted something super Portuguese for our first meal in Portugal. With it being a Friday it made sense to head to Ze da Mouraria. This little tasca is down a less traveled Lisboa road though plenty of locals have walked it on the way here for lunch. Friday is Bacalhau day at this super popular lunchtime only spot in one of Lisbon’s oldest 'hoods. Salt cod is grilled over live fire and paired with chickpeas, potatoes, garlic, onion, and olive oil. There wasn't a table in this tasca without it.

Friday Bacalhau Special at Ze da Mouraria
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Cantinho Lusitano

The next stop up was the winner of closest restaurant on my google maps guide to our hotel. Thus I emailed them for dinner reservations on the day of our arrival. I was glad I did as it's a small space and I watched as a few groups of people were denied a spot as they were full for the night. Cantinho Lusitano specializes in tapas sized dishes of Portuguese classics. We tried a quartet of dishes including scrambled eggs with local sausage, wine braised octopus, pork cheek stew, and garlic shrimps. All of which were delicious. That garlic shrimp was some of the best cooked shrimp I can remember. Service was extra friendly and I left with the possibility of returning for more but never did.

Petiscos at Cantinho Lustiano
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 Time Out Market - Lisboa

The Time Out Market brand is coming to the United States and Chicago is getting one of the firsts. The very first one to open is in Lisbon. It's a popular stop for tourists looking to eat and drink. It's location down by the water means it's in a very touristy part of town. So they claim they curate their list of stalls here to where not just anyone can rent them out. You have to be asked to join and they extend invitations to some of the city's most well respected chefs and restaurants. It's very well done.

Pastéis de Nata (custard tarts) at Manteigaria

You'll be able to find the popular Manteigaria stall very quickly. Apparently this is a born-again butter factory. It's the second location of one of Lisbon's best egg custard bakers. These are the premier food of the city. One that has spawned popular in other parts of the globe such as Macau and Hong Kong where the Portuguese brought with them their love for these delicious snacks. That said I only tried them from one spot as I'm not the biggest sweets guy with the exception being at night. These are more of an early morning / daytime snack. When dotted with both sugar and cinnamon they were about as good as a custard baked anything that I've had. I preferred these to a popular spot in Hong Kong. Manteigaria doesn't have a secret recipe or anything. They just use the best of the best when it comes to their ingredients. The all natural butter being a major player in the addictive flavors.

Octopus Rice at Monte Mar

There's some beautiful beach towns all along the coasts of Portugal. One of them is a popular spot called Guincho Beach. On the road to said beach you pass a bunch of famous seafood restaurants and one of them is called Monte Mar. The Time-Out Market people convinced them to open a scaled down spot in the market. It's one of a few seafood spots in the market. Prices as you can imagine are slightly higher here than elsewhere. The Portuguese have a love for rice that's petty much unmatched in Europe. They will put just about anything in it and serve it with a tomato based broth of the same meat and such. Octopus rice is a popular version of this dish. We liked the bowl served at Monte Mar but I didnt feel like it was anything special as far as this dish goes. There's better elsewhere. All in all there's good stuff to be had at TO but it's also new and touristy thus not as rustic as other spots.

Cod a la Bras at Henrique Sa Pessoa
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 Espaço Açores

I fell into an internet well about the Azores islands one time and have been fascinated with them since then. I searched around for Azores restaurants in Lisbon and came across this spot which is one of the only in town. It's located up a hill so it's pretty off the beaten path but not far from the Belem Tower if you're out that way. But you may want to take an uber up. Food in the Azores features lots of fish cooked in peasant style dishes. Espaço Açores was located right next to a local fish market so it wasn't a surprise to see their menu was mostly fish. For starters an order of Lapas grilled with garlic and butter was what I was there for. Kind of like a mix between mussels and scallops. These are prepared all over the islands. Then a plate of fried chicharros and figs the former of which is kind of like smelts. With the Azores being a four hour flight from Boston I need to make that happen soon.

Seafood at Espaço Açores
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Cervejaria Ramiro

There is perhaps no other restaurant in Lisbon as popular as this place. Pretty much everyone who had anything to say on where to eat in Lisbon makes mention of Cervejaria Ramiro. It's a classic Portuguese seafood restaurant. This means fresh seafood prepared minimally as far as other ingredients used. For instance the clams in butter and garlic are as good as that dish can get. These were exceptionally sweet and extra tender. Same can be said for the gambas (shrimp). Perhaps the most popular dish here (along with the crab) is an order (or four) of the split prawns. You'll notice that which you see below is on most tables in the restaurant. They have massive lobsters alive in the tank as well as crabs and other delicious creatures of the sea. As everyone says this is one of the best seafood restaurants in the world. So you can expect a wait but if you go between 3p and 6p as I was told it wont be long. It wasn't. We waited about 10 min for some of the best priced seafood in Europe.

Seafood at Cervejaria Ramiro
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The Mercado Oriental

Pictured below is a Red Market Fish Curry featuring the flavors of Portugal and Macau. Together these two cuisines make up for the worlds first fusion food - Macanese. Macau is just one of the many spots on the globe where the Portuguese left their mark. My plan was to try food from all of them while in Lisbon. You’d think there would be more Macanese restaurants in Portugal’s biggest city but this little food stall in a mall is pretty much the only one. Leaving Lisbon with as many Macanese restaurants as my hometown Chicago (S/O Fat Rice). This means it’s one of the worlds rarer cuisines. The curry comes from a food stall called Taberna Macau in the Mercado Oriental. Other stalls in the market offer up hand pulled Lamian noodles, Pho, Bibimbop, Ramen, and more.

Red Market Fish Curry at Taberna Macau
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A Taberna do Mar

I wasn't all that interested in the new Eater Hot Spot type stops. There's so many amazing traditional places in Portugal worth going to. The truth of the matter is those old time spots are more likely to have it together than the newly opened ones. Anyways I still did a little reading into what the best new spots in Lisbon were. Many were very trendy / chef forward / tasting menu type spots. A Taberna Do Mar was one of them but they didn't seem as trendy as the rest. Nonetheless I had to email to make a reservation and they only had early times available so make sure you reserve a spot. It's popular for a reason. It's really good. It's a Portuguese seafood inspired spot with quite a few of the dishes on offer having some sort of Japanese influence. The dishes are smaller similar to Petiscos.

Dinner (1/2) at Taberna Do Mar

We ended up trying about 3/4 of the menu items. We probably should've got the tasting menu but were happy doing it ala carte as we ended up ordering more of our favorite bites. The only item that was kind of meh was a mint based paste sitting on a pita. I wasn't a big fan of it but after that it was off to the races. An order of smoked tomato and raw tuna with bread (all of which is baked in-house) was packed with flavor. They used some pickled squash to wrap a scarlet prawn and that too was fantastic. Shame on us it took until our 9th or so meal to try some sardines. But they were well worth the wait. Just a fresh sardine with olive oil and a sliver of garlic on some of that fantastic house made bread was about as good as it gets. They feature a sashimi of smoked fish that varies by day. The star of the show is the grilled sardine nigiri. Need I say more? It was def one of the trips best bites.

Dinner (2/2) at Taberna Do Mar
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Frangasqueira Nacional

One of Lisbon's most popular and both quick and cheap ways to eat is Piri Piri chicken. It's a staple of anywhere there's a Portuguese community. It's very popular in previous S'C'&C dining destinations such as Cape Town and Montreal. But from what I could tell Lisbon is where it's at as far as the competition goes. You know what they say about it in that it breeds the best. Frangasqueira Nacional was a short walk from our hotel. We came here for lunch after a trip to Sintra. We were lucky to miss the crowd as this popular Piri Piri chicken spot is a small mostly carry out operation. There's two tables and we were lucky to get to eat at one of them. Piri Piri is native to Mozambique which is one of many former Portuguese colonies. It's a spicy red pepper that makes for a great basting sauce for chicken and other meats such as ribs and shrimps. We got a combo platter of chicken, ribs, and sausage and it made for a great although un-photogenic lunch. One of my regrets is not getting to try more spots where they were featuring Piri Piri chicken in some sort of way. Oh well maybe next time.

Piri Piri Platter at Frangasqueira Nacional
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Pascoalini Gelato

Also in Principle Real is this very good gelato spot. I'm all about the fruit flavors when it comes to gelato and will most always get the pear if it's an option as is the case here. Loved it but there might not be anything more memorable in my food travels than the pear gelato at a random lowkey spot in Florence. But when the sun is shining bright like it was in Lisbon any well made pear gelato will do.

Pear Gelato at Pascoalini Gelato
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Acarajé da Carol

There’s no denying Portugal’s influence in Brazil. Not exactly a feel good story as they colonized the South American nation and built much of it on the backs of slaves from West Africa. Those slaves helped form much of Brazil’s culture as far as food and music. Much of which is found is Lisbon. I’d never heard of an Acarajé until I found this specialty spot browsing Brazilian food in Lisbon. Now I can’t wait to have another. This regional treat from the Brazil state of Bahia is kind of like a bao in it’s appearance. Black-eyed peas, seasoned with ground dried shrimp and onions, are shaped into fritters and deep fried in palm oil, it’s then split open and filled with various fillings, such as shrimp, smashed beans, tomatoes, and onion. The little side of hot sauce that comes with it takes it way up as far as flavor. One day I’m going to eat a few of these on a Brazilian beach and it’s going to be very sweet.

Acarajé at Acarajé da Carol
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The Little Wine Bar

This one we found just from roaming around. I only made one reservation pre-trip as most of the spots like this are where you want to be eating/drinking. We did get lucky though as we took two seats at the bar and then watched the owner/bartender/server turn people away telling them they were booked for the night. So your best bet is getting reservations for at least a few dinners even if you don't do so until you arrive. Just get them a day or two ahead in case there's somewhere you really want to go. We were here for the wine which was wonderful. It always is in Europe but you cant beat the pricing in Portugal. We also had some sweet shrimps in some sort of wine based sauce as well as a few bites of flaming chorizo sausage offered up by the friendly lady from Finland sitting at the bar with us.

Prawns in Wine Sauce at That Little Wine Bar
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Gambrinus

I had this old school spot on my radar as I'd heard they made a great Prego Sandwich. More on that in a minute. It's location on a super touristy road paired with it's pristine fresh seafood means it's not on any lists for the best bargain meals in Lisboa. That said you can eat well here for a very fair price. Let me show you how. First off the house toasted rye bread is bomb and it's only one euro an order. For an extra euro you can get it topped with fresh sliced jamon. It's a perfectly acceptable snack should you just want something to drink away from the hustlers on the strip. But you want more.

Jamon on Toasted Rye at Gambrinus

I’ve been on the prowl for a kick ass Prego sandwich like that seen below since I went Honeymooning in Cape Town circa 2016. This is the simplest of sandwiches which means every ingredient better be good or else the sandwich will not be. I'd heard from a few that Gambrinus makes a really good one and they really do. Super tender locally raised veal (it’s usually steak) on a house baked Portuguese roll with a nice spread of house tartar and a dab of Piri Piri is what you're here for. At just $8.95 it's a steal. When done proper, as is the case here, you won’t find a better representation of a steak sandwich. The funny thing about these is they're typically eaten for dessert at big time seafood spots like this. Gambrinus is touristy due to it's location but they've been at it since 1936 for a reason.

Prego Sandwich at Gambrinus
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Tambarina

One morning I decided to walk over to this popular spot and have breakfast of the Cape Verde variety. The African island nation is well represented in Portugal as it was once a Portuguese colony and it’s citizens during that time have direct access to Portugal citizenship. Cachupa is said to be the National Dish so it would be my first introduction into the cuisine. Hominy is mixed with a variety of meats and veggies and cooked down into a stew. Recipes differ from island to island. This was Cachupa Refogada meaning fried Cachupa which is a common way to use up leftovers. There’s shredded pork and onions mixed with the rehydrated corn as well as chunks of fried chouriço on top. It’s all fried in a pan and typically served with fried eggs for breakfast. Comfort food for sure.

Cachupa Refogada at Tambarina
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Tasca Ze Dos Cornos

This is exactly the type of spot you want to dine in at least once a day in Portugal. I found Ze Dos Cornos on Eater's list of Lisbon's 38 Essential Restaurants. The picture of the charcoal grilled ribs caught my eye. The menu at this locals type spot is ever changing based on the days. That said the ribs are popular enough to where they're always on the menu. It's just what's served on the side of them that switches up. I guess Wednesday is the day to go if you can as they serve the ribs with a big plate of slow cooked beans which the Portuguese are very good at. Either way the ribs which are grilled over direct heat are fantastic no matter what they're served with including the fries. The spuds in Portugal were pretty great actually. Seating is tight here so if you go during lunch rush you'll most likely be squeezed into a communal table. But at something like $10 those ribs are wonderful. They had good smoke from direct grilling over live fire and a nice chew since they weren't baked or boiled

Ribs at Ze Dos Cornos (check @chibbqking on instagram for video of the grillman in action)
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As Bifanas Do Afonso

One of the most popular sandwiches around Portugal is the Bifana. It's essentially pork in a Portuguese roll but how that pork is seasoned and prepared and even cooked varies from region to region. In Lisbon there's a handful of spots said to make the city's best bifana sandwich. One of them is As Bifanas Do Afonso. The little SRO store is popular with tourists and locals who take them to go. You can enjoy them right there in the square if you're willing to get a drink from the bar that runs it. Anthony Bourdain waxed poetic about these which in Lisbon are made from thicker sliced pork cooked in a seasoned hot liquid. In Lisbon seasonings are pretty tame in terms of spice. Stuff like garlic, onions, and wine is easily detected in this delectable sandwich that will only set you back a couple bucks. The bun plays a big part too. The Portuguese make some fantastic rolls. That said the Bifana sandwiches I had in Porto were much better than those I had in Lisbon. So do stay tuned.

Bifana Sandwich at As Bifanas Do Afonso
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Cacué

Over at Culinary Backstreets there's a few reviews from a guy named Tiago Pais. He's an expert in Lisbon's Tasca scene and has written a book about the city's best tascas and their history as well as what to get. Reading about this new school tasca where they’re honoring the old school tradition had me intrigued. They’ve been open less than a year but it really did feel like they’ve been around forever. The menu is equal parts meat and seafood but I can get all the meats back home. So we focused in on some of the offerings from the sea. An amuse bouche of Hake gut salad with garlic butter, olives was extra refreshing. An order of baby squid with smashed potatoes was perfect. The super tender scarlet shrimp was sweeter than anything you’ll find in the States save for maybe South Carolina. That said at $20+ Euro pricetag for the single shrimp (split in half for each of us) is not cheap.

Diner (1/2) at Cacué

Razor Clam Rice was rocking with plenty of garlic and wine. A plate of chocolate mousse was super strong but evened out wonderfully with a little Portuguese brandy poured on top. Delicious food with super friendly service. What more could you ask for? If you’re headed to Lisbon anytime soon I would rec Cacué for one of your nice meals. It's not cheap but it's still reasonable all things considered.

Dinner (2/2) at Cacué
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Tentações de Goa

On our final day in Portugal I crossed off some spots. This place off the beaten path features the flavors of Goa. The Western India state stretches along the Arabian Sea which is how the Portuguese arrived via sailboats way back when. It’s history as a Portuguese colony is evident in both it's land and it’s food. An order of ‘Bojés com Chutney’ is a popular Indo-Portuguese snack. Fritters are made up of lentil flour, onion, cumin, saffron, among other things. These were accompanied by a fantastic green chutney sauce. Then it was onto an order of Pork Vindaloo. Despite what you might’ve heard vindaloo wasn’t always a spicy English style curry. “The word vindaloo is a garbled pronunciation of the popular Portuguese dish carne de vinha d'alhos (meat marinated in wine-vinegar and garlic), which made its way to India in the 15th century along with Portuguese explorers.” This version reminded me of a popular Portuguese dish in South Africa called Trinchado. The spicing in this vinegar curry wasn’t blow your gasket out bad but it was probably the spiciest thing I ate all week so definitely a nice change of pace on that front. You could tell by the clientele this is a popular spot for older locals in the know. Though you can reserve a space on google so don’t be afraid to go. It’s in a hotspot as far as good local food goes. So you may want to consider a 1-2 punch like I did with the next stop up.

Goan Food at Tentações de Goa
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Cantinho do Aziz

It's time for some Mozambican! Coconut Crab Curry to be exact! The East African country’s cuisine is well represented in Lisbon just like it is in Cape Town where I fell in love with the flavors. With its colonial Portuguese background Portuguese is the official language of Mozambique. It’s cuisine is some of the most underrated in the world. It’s here where the Piri Piri pepper is native and thus no one cooks Piri Piri anything as good as those from Mozambique. But there’s more. I tried this magnificent order of coconut crab curry which can actually be traced back to Goa and its Indo-Portuguese influences. Made with real coconut milk and of course Piri Piri peppers this was everything I hoped it would be when I first found out about from the folks at Saveur. I wish I had more time to explore the Mozambican restaurants around town but I’m as likely as ever to take a trip there.

Coconut Crab Curry at Cantinho do Aziz
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Carvoaria Jacto

I very much wanted to make sure I ate some Espetada while in Portugal. It took me until the very last night to get some standing skewered meats but it was worth waiting for. We went to a well known spot called Carvoaria Jacto. It's been around since 1953 but has most definitely undergone some change. It feels more like a swanky hotel restaurant than it does a 65+ year old steak house. They don't take reservations on wkds but get there early and you'll be in and out. Aside from the fact they specialize in meats grilled over live fire they also feature a special type of veal local to Portugal. The beef of the Mirandesa region is highly coveted due to it's taste. There's some great steak spots in Portugal and this certainly felt like one of them. My Mirandesa veal skewer with sausage was exactly what I wanted then and there. The meat was pretty rare but I didn't care as it was really delicious. She had the pork medallions wrapped in bacon and they too were pretty damn great. The only other things we got were white rice and black beans on the side and it was perfect as is. Recommended.

Espetada at Carvoaria Jacto
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St. Anthony Festival Activities

Just as I thought the trip was over we went back to our hotel. With an extra early flight the next morning we didn't have much planned for later in the night. But steps outside of our hotel was this little festival going on in the park. Not only was there loud music we could hear from the room but also a handful of food and drink vendors who's food we could smell. It was the start of a month long celebration celebrating both the beloved patron St. Anthony and also the beloved fish the sardine. All month long you'll find parties in parks and along the streets where people are grilling sausage and sardines. They're celebrating the start of summer. Not only did I get a six pack of fantastic grilled sardines I also had a bomb bifana sandwich. This one was made from thinly sliced pork cut directly from a whole pig cooked rotisserie style over coals. The slices would go into a red gravy that was both fragrant and flavorful. I loved sitting here with a beer and taking it all in. See ya next time.

Bifana Sandwich at the Park
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Note: To find the locations of all the spots featured in this post, as well as places I didn't make it to, please click HERE for my google maps guide to Lisbon. 

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