Almost every great city has signature dishes, be it clam chowder in Boston or deep-dish pizza in Chicago. Lisbon has those too – the custard tart, Pastel de Natas; bacalao or dried cod), and grilled sardines, to name a few. But there’s more – flavorful dishes influenced by various cultures who have lived here over the centuries, recipes using spices and produce brought back by explorers, and culinary favorites brought by strangers looking for a better life in the capital city.
While it’s easy to find Pastel de Natas, sardines and bacalao, it’s often not so easy to find those other dishes, especially when you don’t know they even exist. The best way to discover the depth of a local culinary scene is to have a friend in residence introduce you. Since that’s not usually an option, we turn to food tours to expand our culinary sophistication.
In the past, a couple of food tours hit only highlights, leaving us a little disappointed that we were tasting what we knew, and often had sampled many times already. It’s a real challenge to find hidden gems – places where locals go for traditional or fusion Portuguese fare.
A good tour also makes you aware of seasonality, what to order when and how to avoid bad choices on tourist-trap menus. Like the nasty frozen out-of-season sardines, we tried on our first trip to Lisbon. We left the place not only with an unpleasant taste in our mouths, but a false impression that all sardines were equally vile. We dared to try them again on this trip because we knew they were in season. This time, they were a delicious revelation.
We were impressed with Devour Tours in Spain, not only because of the knowledgeable tour guides, but also because of the range and quality of the eateries and dishes. Sure, we tried some familiar favorites, but we also discovered places we might never have entered to experience fabulous dishes we had never heard of. Devour Tours also is in Lisbon, so we booked an evening outing early in our stay so we could use what we learned during the rest of our visit. In the end, Devour’s slogan “Feed your Curiosity” was most apt.
We met our wonderful Devour guide, the warm and personable Rita Jardim, or Rita the Tour Guide, as she called herself. She was so much better than having a friend show you around. Rita knew the history, secrets and stories of the neighborhoods we walked.. And the owners and staff at the restaurants and shops we visited genuinely liked her and gave us the VIP treatment and we ate and drank from early evening until after dark.
We were familiar with the barrios near our apartment in Baixa, the tourist hub of the city, but were pleasantly surprised that the first stop on our tour was in Principe Real. It was an area we hadn’t visited, and one of Lisbon’s most spirited and trendy neighborhoods. Rita led us inside Faz Frio, an iconic Lisbon eatery, one of just nine over 100 years old.
We were greeted by its new owner, twenty-something Jorge Marques, had completely restored the aged interior an airy and comfortable dining spot with two private rooms. They escorted us to one of their traditionally called private rooms, where, for many decades, lovers and scoundrels conspired in secret.
They treated our small group to two delicious petiscos–Portuguese snacks or small plates. The first was peixinhos da horta or as we would say, tempura green beans. Ho hum, you might think. But this fried finger food was delicious and addicting. Nest up were Portuguese salt cod fritters or pastéis de bacalhau, fried balls of salt cod, potato, onion, and parsley. Finding great petiscos can be challenging, even though these little bar treats are commonplace. These a savory tidbits gave us a new appreciation of the ubiquitous salt cod.
Faz Fria was an ideal beginning, a perfect appetizer for the meal ahead. We wandered through Príncipe Real as Rita pointed out neighborhood gems and paused at one of Lisbon’s most impressive miradouros, or viewpoints. This one is a multi-leveled park with stunning views across the city to the river, all aglow as the sun dropped low in the sky.
Next stop; the vibrant 500-year-old neighborhood of Bairro Alto. We walked this warren of narrow streets and alleys lined with graffiti-splashed buildings a couple of times during the day and were not impressed. Most of the restaurants, bars, and nightclubs were closed.
Like Dracula, the barrio comes alive after sundown. It was just beginning to wake up as we entered Restaurante Dias no Bairro. The spacious dining room was already buzzing with happy, hungry, and thirsty customers. We felt immediately at ease and welcome, one of those rare places where you feel like a regular tho you’ve never set foot inside.
We crowded around a table where we were served sizzling hot, fire-roasted chouriço, or sliced pork sausage. We had tried it on another food tour, where they were overcooked and hard as rocks. Here they were smoky, tender, and juicy. Now we understood why it’s a Portuguese fave.
Surprisingly, a plate of charred, small green peppers appeared at the table. Surprising because they are is one of our favorite bar snacks in Spain. Here, these Pimientos de Padrón (Spanish-Style Blistered Padrón Peppers) were served with thick slabs of rustic bread and a perfectly curated selection of local cheeses. All the while, the staff and owner treated us like old friends, pouring generous glasses of wine. We were reluctant to leave, but our main course beckoned at our next barrio stop.
Rita deftly threaded our way through the growing Bairro Alto crowds as we made our way to the tour’s major attraction, a traditional Portuguese tasca or restaurant. Authentic tascas serve generous portions of home-cooked fare and down-to-earth prices. For a century Tasca do Manel has been serving the working-class Portuguese comfort food. We arrived at the tasca well before the traditional dinner hour, so we had the place and its owner to ourselves.
We started with Sopa de Tomate or Portuguese tomato soup, rich and soothing, and matched with Vino Verde, the country’s most prolific white wine. The pairing worked, as did the owner’s own homemade, robust red wine blend with the savory Arroz de Pato or duck rice. Created in Braga in northern Portugal, this satisfying dish became a national favorite, offered at restaurants throughout the country.
Before we left, our affable host literally pulled out the stops to serve shots of very clear, potent Portuguese aguardiente. Translated, aguardiente is “firewater,” and it more than lived up to its name.
Our last stop was the famous Manteigaria pastry shop in Chiado, one of our favorite Lisbon barrios. In Portugal, one famous dessert is always welcome before, during or after a meal, Pastel de Nata. Served here, the rich creamy custard tart was simply delicious, out of the oven warm, showered with cinnamon. They surprised us to see it paired with brimming glasses of Portuguese port. Perfect.
Cheers to Rita and the Devour clan for an incredible tour.