So Lisbon stole my heart, pretty much right off the bat. From the moment I realized I could figure out the metro system without incident at midnight (thanks for the delayed flight, as always, Vueling). Walking through the Baixa district at night on the way to check in at my AirBnB, meeting my hilarious and sweet AirBnB hostess, Catarina. I was feeling good about Lisbon. And then the inevitable happened…
I realized I was STARVING. What’s new?
Catarina knew exactly where to direct me. Toward my first dose of good food since I set foot in Portugal at Time Out Market. It wouldn’t be the only dose and it wouldn’t be what I expected. Portugal is so much more than just sardines, salt cod and piri piri.
I loved Lisbon so much because it deeply reminded me of the city I call home – Richmond, Virginia. An edgy city laced with street art, friendly people, affordable living, alternative things to suit most interests and most importantly (to me), a wildly innovative food culture.
While tradition has a stronghold throughout the restaurant life and food markets, a diverse range of cuisines and concepts were also evident. Having spent just a few days in Lisbon, I only got a taste of that. Traditional and non traditional, pretty much everything I tried rocked my culinary world and made my mental notepad overflow with cooking ideas.
Here are my essential food experiences in Lisbon.
1. Time Out Market
Time Out Market was a really cool representation of Lisbon’s restaurant scene, all under one roof. Small restaurants, concepts and pop ups occupied around 40 stalls in the market, ranging from low to high range pricing. From Thai food and tapas to traditional Portuguese and fine seafood. There was something for every appetite, especially bottles of wine in abundance. Cafeteria-style seating gave the market a communal feeling.
One of the coolest aspects about this place – and how I wound up there at midnight: Time Out is open until 2 am most nights. It’s even a great place just to drink.
I tried the jerk chicken at Chicken All Around and was happy. Chef Miguel Laffan is responsible for this awesome little corner of Time Out and I would have returned every day to try the other menu items if I could.
Probably the most unique dish I tried in Portugal. I haven’t had anything like this before. It may as well be named ‘cardiac arrest on a plate’ or in equivalence ‘heaven on a plate’ – at least for total carnivores. Basically, this is a sandwich that stacks ham, Linguiça (smoke cured pork sausage), fresh sausage and steak (AND sometimes, mortadella). It’s then smothered in melted cheese, a tomato and beer sauce, then finally topped with a fried egg. This dish originates from Porto, but I found it at Dote Cervejaria Moderna in Lisbon. I think this is the only plate of food ever put in front of me that I couldn’t finish. Word to the wise: Don’t order it with beer and leave the french fries alone. Eating one of these was like climbing Mount Everest.
3. Pastel de Nata
Pastel de Nata is basically the signature dessert of Portugal. If you’re like me, and your favorite desserts are custard-based, then Lisbon is the city for you. They’re found everywhere. Any pastry shop worth their salt has a sparkly tray of perfectly round, brulee’d pasteis in their window.
The most reputable are found in Belem at Pasteis de Belem. I will say, these were my favorites. Their pasteis were, in fact, vastly different from any others I tried (and yes, I tried a lot). Even the Portuguese Starbucks are packing pasteis.
4. Mexican & Peruvian food at El Clandestino
I went here my last night in Lisbon and LOVED it. While it might sound silly to shoot for Mexican food on one’s European travels, mind you I actually live in Spain, where Mexican food (and good Mexican food at that) is not even remotely common.
You can’t debate that good food is good food, regardless of what it is or where you are.
El Clandestino didn’t shoot for the home cooked authenticity, rather a refined and imaginative menu which lived up to its slightly higher than average pricing. The menu, mainly composed of tacos and ceviche was fused with Peruvian influence. I tried pork tacos with purple onion and orange chutney along with three salsas. One verde guacamole salsa, a classic fresh pico-style and a thick blackbean and bacon. Every single item was fantastic.
5. Traditional chorizo, jamone and sheep’s cheese
This is a tricky one for me because in Spain, I’ve been convinced that we have the best of the best when it comes to chorizo, jamone and sheeps cheeses. I didn’t realize how popular these items would be in Portugal as well. And they did not disappoint. I sampled all three from Mercado da Baixa.
6. Roasted pork sandwiches from HM Caneira Negrais
So my thing every time I take a trip winds up being pork sandwiches. I can’t get enough and I swear, no matter where I go or for how long I’m somewhere, I find the dankest pork sandwiches. Actually, I’m pretty sure they find their way to me. These reminded me quite a bit of the porchetta sandwiches one finds in Italy. I found them in a stall (which I’m pretty sure was calling my name) at Mercado da Baixa. They serve it on a slightly toasted bun with a light pepper sauce.
Here we go – another pork sandwich! This dish is particularly famous across the country and had quite a few variations.. I tried this at a small bar/cafe in Barrio Alto. These were super tasty pork cutlets, marinated in a garlic sauce, topped with grilled onions and a spicy tomato and pepper-type sauce sandwiched between a fluffy bun. Another nap-inducing delight that I could only justify after a long day of trekking up Lisbon’s hills.
Ginja is a sour cherry liqueur made in Portugal. There are booths on the popular plazas and miradouros that sell shots of it, and sometimes mixing into sangria. I wasn’t the biggest fan, but I knew my friends back home would love it, so I had to buy a few bottles for gifts.
9. Vinho Verde
Yet another essential when visiting Portugal, vinho verde is quite literally green wine. I was told by a Lisbon-native that the grapes are picked prematurely and turned into wine, explaining the bright green color. I was skeptical but it was insanely good. A bit on the tart side, I would absolutely recommend it to winos. I would also advise that you try getting a bottle from the snack vendor at the Miradouro Santa Catarina, where you can drink freely outside while watching the sun set over Lisbon’s rooftops.
10. Port wine
If you’re in Portugal and you love dessert wine – or if you’re even a bit curious to try it for the first time, you’ve come to right place. Port wine is traditionally made in Porto, in the north of Portugal. Even on the opposite end of the country, it was in abundance at restaurants, available in great variety and at reasonable prices. Personally, however…
How do I put this gently? I was not a fan of port wine. I actually tried it for the first time at a cafe in Sintra. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to be a fan, being that I’m on the hates-sweet-alcohol team. This is why I asked for the good stuff, so I would at least be giving it a fair shot. Trying to give an honest, yet unoffensive answer when I was asked about it, I explained “I found it interesting that the wine is so bold and complex in flavor” which I genuinely meant! That flavor just happened to make my tongue recoil like a .357 magnum. No hate! This one is just not for me!
What are your thoughts on port, vinho verde, ginja and traditional Portuguese dishes? What am I totally wrong about here or what have I left off of this list? I want to know what your thoughts are so I can tackle every inch of uncovered territory upon returning to this awesome city.