First off, I’d like to start by saying these choices are not happy accidents. I do copious research before embarking on a trip. Why? One of great joys of travel is the opportunity to experience the food of another culture and no matter where you are in the world finding the best a country has to offer culinarily takes a little leg work. The internet is now a plethora of information and, while I take every opinion with a grain of salt, there are many websites that make finding the best meal options relatively easy. I also don’t want to sweat figuring out my dinners every night on the fly when I arrive in a city. This doesn’t work anyway as it is almost always the case that booking in advance is required at all the great spots. One note, we ate at two fine dining establishments while in Portugal: Leopold in Lisbon and Hemingway in Cascais. Both were excellent. However, neither made our list of our best food experiences. It goes to show that there is no need to spend a lot of money to experience the best food a country has to offer. Here is our list of the best of the best:
1. Fish and Seafood Curry at Tapabento (Porto): This is one of the best meals I have ever had. I would literally travel to Porto again just for the experience of having this meal in this restaurant. It’s chalked full of an unimaginable variety of goodies like monkfish, squid, mussels, cockels, shrimp, razor clams and who knows what else. The restaurant is homey, bustling and friendly. Simply splendid.
2. Squid Ink Risotto and Pica Pau at Dux Taberna Urbana (Coimbra): There are few things I love more than squid ink. I could eat it on my breakfast cereal. The perfect preparation of any squid ink pasta results in a think, inky al dente bowl of goodness that is slightly salty and smells of the sea. This dish was spot on. Pica Pau literally translates to woodpecker in Portuguese and is made with beef chunks immersed in a beer gravy bath. It is spicy and tangy and yummy. The restaurant itself is located off the main tourist track but is no secret to the locals. It has a “ladies who lunch” vibe that made the people watching very enjoyable.
3. Wild Boar at Puro4050 (Porto): We’d never experienced wild boar before and didn’t know what to expect. It’s lean with a consistency not unlike its piggy brethren and very flavorful. These animals live on a diet of acorns, roots, seeds and fruits and can grow to 150 plus pounds. It is not uncommon to find them on the menu in Portugal. We loved the simple yet special preparation. This restaurant is quite sleek without being flashy. It maintains a cozy vibe that makes you want to sip port and munch down every last bite of the olive oil cake.
4. Cod Fritters at Peter Café Sport (Porto): Pete’s is a bar and the cod fritters are bar food, hot and fried crisp with just the right amount of salt and seasonings. The bar occupies a prime location right on the river with a beautiful view of the Dom Luís I Bridge. It’s a perfect spot to sip a crisp vinho verde, munch on some delectable fritters and watch the world go by.
5. O’Commercial (Porto). This was a fancier dinner and our fanciest in Porto. The restaurant is located in the stock exchange building and there was a wedding down the hall the night we were there. It was relatively quiet, perhaps because it was a Saturday and the stock exchange was closed. The overall experience was great.
6. Octopus Rice at Alfama Cellar (Lisbon): This was our very first stop straight off the plane and this sweet little restaurant in the heart of Alfama definitely got us off to the right start. Octopus is very mild in flavor and can be very tough. It needs just the right hand to bring out its tenderness and subtle sweetness. Paired with a very inexpensive but fantastic wine of their choosing this lovely dish will not soon be forgotten. It is cooked and served in a tandoori pot and comes to the table bubbling in a very light tomato broth. All the flavors blend perfectly, the wine, the broth the octopus and the delicate spices. Wonderful.
7. Beef and Cuttlefish Sliders at Oficio (Lisbon): We walked by this restaurant while sightseeing on a hot day in Chiado and I remembered hearing good things about it so we decided to give it a try. The atmosphere is a little industrial in the best possible way. Everything is smart looking and clean. We shared several small plates, all of them good, but the star of the show was the beef and cuttlefish sliders. We had no idea what to expect. Would they mix those two ingredients together? The answer was no. Out came the smallest, juiciest one bite wonders I have ever seen. Half were beef and half were cuttlefish. Delightful.
8. Blood Sausage at Nova Wine Bar (Lisbon): A tiny wine bar in central Lisbon with a small but divine menu. The standouts to us were the blood sausage and the owner who was masterful at ensuring everyone was having fun and enjoying great food and wine.
9. Pastesis Da Nata at the Pastelaria Santo (Lisbon): This sweet treat is simply a must when visiting Lisbon. Sweet, buttery, soft and crunchy, small but big enough. One bite and it was one of my favorite desserts. Perfect.
10. Canned Bacalhau at Conserveira de Lisboa (Lisbon): Canned fish is a big thing in Portugal. When researching in advance of the trip I came across this little fact and found it intriguing, especially when I learned they have whole stores that sell only that. This beautiful store, built in the 1930s, has any imaginable variety of sea creature from mackerel to tuna to mussels to octopus. We opted for cod, mackeral and octopus and spent several happy hours joyously topping crackers with this olive oily, succulent goodness.
11. Paella (they called it Seafood Risotto) from 5 Sentidos Casa do Largo (Cascais): We found that when dining in Portugal the prices are very reasonable and the seafood is plentiful and fresh. There is no better example of this than 5 Sentidos where the size of the seafood risotto was literally absurd for two people. Larger doesn’t mean better but this fresh from the ocean a block from its doors creation is splendid, full of beautiful seafood and flavorful risotto with just the right bite. We had to roll ourselves out of the place.
12. Roasted Pork Sandwich from Cafeteria Pateo de Sao Miguel (Evora): This lovely little gem of a café is a result of my research. I found a travel blogger from the UK that now lives in Portugal (Judydawnfox.com) who mentioned this out of the way café when writing of her culinary experiences in Evora. We sought it out and found a simple place with a basic menu that served the best roasted pork sandwich I can remember eating. Eating it in the courtyard we had almost to ourselves with a view of the entire valley elevated the experience.
13. Lamb Chops and Grilled Octopus at Degust’AR Restaurant in the M’AR De AR Aqueduro Hotel (Evora): This was a “we’ve been driving all day, let’s just eat at the hotel” type of decision that rarely pays off. The hotel itself is absolutely wonderful and the cozy and classy dining room its perfect match. This is ranch and wine country and the lamb was special. However, so too was the octopus, the perfect match of charred bits and tender flesh.
14. Gelato on the boardwalk (Cascais): I’m not going to claim this was the best gelato we’ve ever tasted, it was the experience of walking along the boardwalk staring at the sea and the festive beach scene while enjoying a tasty treat that brought this snack to the hits list. I have to say, it was really good too.
15. Moroccan meatballs at KECH (Cascais): KECH was a lucky lunch find in the gorgeous historic city of Cascais. It serves Moroccan tapas which intrigued us, especially given our proximity to North Africa. Unlike many of the beautifully simple dishes we tasted all over the country, these were very complex flavors, full of texture and spice. The meatballs were the highlight but we also devoured chicken schwarma and vegetable cous cous. Great to sit outdoors on a nice day (of which there are many in Cascais) and snack and sip.