Visitors to Portugal certainly have the country’s “grand” restaurants to consider, in addition to excellent seafood and meat restaurants, as well as dozens of “hot” eateries with cuisines hailing from Hong Kong to Hamburg to Hoboken. But no visitor should pass up lunch or dinner at one of Portugal’s hundreds and thousands of small restaurants that serve some of the most delicious and comforting food on earth.
These small restaurants are called tascas or cafes. They’re invariably family-run, and even if not all the staff are family members, they behave like they are. The menu may not be written in English, but a simple traveler’s phrase book can be helpful…although it’s entirely not necessary. The kitchen is usually visible, and the service courtly and attentive. This is not fast food: at a tasca, diners linger over a dinner that can last hours. The joy of tasca-dining is that it enables visitors to participate in the authentic Portuguese lifestyle.
A tasca meal usually starts with appetizers of bread, butter and cheese, and perhaps olives, vegetable pate or presunto ham. Visitors should always order the house wine, invariably delicious and inexpensive and invariably from one of Portugal’s hundreds of excellent wineries. Soup follows the appetizers – and two excellent choices are caldo verde, Portugal’s eponymous cabbage and potato soup, or açorda á Alentejana – a unique soup made with bread, cilantro, garlic and poached eggs. Next come fish or meat or both…perhaps amêijoas (baby clams), stuffed squid (lulas recheadas) or leitão assado (roasted suckling pig). The meal ends with a sweet dessert, such as flan or Portugal’s omnipresent pastéis de nata, egg and vanilla flan, sprinkled with nutmeg and baked inside a pastry crust.
Throughout Portugal, the freshest seafood can be found at a wharf-side marisqueira (seafood house), and in Lisbon and in Porto, there is a sophisticated and world-class restaurant scene too. In 2005, Portugal expects to receive its first “star-rated” restaurant from Michelin. But Portuguese “cuisine” is more than “meals,” it’s a way of life. Throughout Portugal, cafés – from “grand” to sidewalk to cubby-hole – teem with life, especially in the late afternoon, when the Portuguese (and tourists too) stop for a bica (espresso) and to choose from an array of pastries of which pastel de nata is just one example. And no “foodie” visiting Lisbon should miss the giant, bustling and colorful “warehouse” food market open every morning opposite Cais do Sodré.
For two centuries, Portugal’s finest wines, Port and Madeira, have been the pride of elegant tables on six continents. But there’s more. The great wines of the Douro region, the “new” red wines from Alentejo, Minho’s vinho verde, not to mention Palmela’s magnificent dessert wine made from muscatel grapes. And not to be missed is a stop at Lisbon’s Port Wine Institute where visitors can sample more than 200 varieties of Port.