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Sep 18, 2012 10:05 AM

I think Gaiicia is an eating and drinking paradise, and Portugal is a lot of fun too

I've been spending the last few weeks having a very enjoyable time in Portugal and Galicia, both beautiful places with fascinating sights that seem shockingly cheap -- and the eating and drinking has been grand. The top 3 meals of our trip spanned the gamut from the Michelin-starred As Garzas in Galicia on the sea, the richly down-to-earth Historico in Guimaraes, Portugal, and the absurdly cheap and lovable Bom Jardim in the center of Lisbon, which dishes up mounds of delicious roast chicken and fries, with a good house wine.

Most delightful of all were the robust assortment of tapas and pintxos bars and the pulperias in the historic centers of Ourense, Lugo and Pontevedra. For sheer fun and tastiness, our tapas crawls surpassed the sit-down meals we had at full-blown old-fashioned seafood restaurants in A Coruna (Coral), Muros (Don Bodegon), Tiro do Cordel (Finisterre) and the parador in Pontevedra. That said, the full-blown restaurants each managed to deliver some marvelously fresh tastes, from baby scallops to local crab and no end of clams in a variety of ways. We were in bivalve bliss.

The only place this trip we found ourselves at perpetual risk of getting inferior food was Porto, where tourist traps abound. We tried to avoid them (although we did spring for a delicious melon cocktail at Cafe Majestic and some salads), but we missed what we had enjoyed in Lisbon -- a seeming abundance of simple, cheap eateries serving surprisingly good grilled octopus and grilled sardines or mackerel, and soups. In Lisbon, we so much liked our introduction to Mozambique flavors (Ibo), we went back twice (although Ibo is not cheap by Lisbon standards). In Porto, we finally retreated to an Italian restaurant with a very good wine list (La Ricotta) because we'd had one too many greasy plate of badly cooked sad-something that was overpriced.

We developed no craving for the ubiquitous pasteles da nata of Portugal, and every heladeria we encountered proudly claimed to be truly Italian. The surprise was so much bad coffee (As Garzas delivered the only good espress, and it was Lavazza) although we were able to buy good beans in an antique coffee vendor's shop somehow surviving on the Rue Garrett amid all the international designer label stores.

We read several recommendations to eat at the museum cafe in the modern art museums while visiting the neighboring Gulbenkian. We didn't like it. We ate lunch on the blissfully serene, mimosa-shaded patio at the York House when we visited the Museu Arte Antiga and the bacalhau à braz there was just delicious, and everything else was worth the uptick in price.

The covered market in Lisbon was closed while I was there, much to my disappointment. I stayed in the Chiado district and when I return to Lisbon, I will pick a different location, probably near the Praca das Flores or Rossio. Although I very much enjoyed being close to the Tagus, Chiado is just too much of a tourist quarter.

We crossed the Tagus river one day to eat, and had a nice time but weren't entirely persauded we'd recommend the jaunt to someone else. But our cocktails on the terrace of the Yeatman Hotel across the Douro from Porto were worth all the sweat it took to get there (there is a tram, we later discovered, that would have saved us the steep walk uphill).

We also went to Coimbra and at A Taberna. I especially enjoyed the special service of vegetables, and a very nice wine was recommended to us by the doting staff.

Hope this helps somebody else. The biggest lessons I am taking from my trip when it comes to gastronomy are the joys of the local wines, the pure fun of Spanish finger foods and tapas bars, and the pleasures of eating in Lisbon, in all price categories. And of course these are beautiful places, overflowing with historic and natural treasures. Amazing to me everybody crowds into other places that have less texture apart from a touristy texture and cost at least 3 times as much. (And did I mention how sunny it is there in September? Not a drop of rain has fallen on us for weeks.)

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  1. Nice and very informative retport, thank you!
    Surprised at your comment about coffee, as the strong Portuguese "bica" is what I miss most when I travel. Maybe it's an acquired taste.

    1 Reply
    1. re: monchique

      Could be, but I live in Italy, which isn't timid about strong brews (I don't drink cappucini). Or maybe I just went to the wrong places, or missed the right ones. Apart from Cafe Majestic, I didn't deliberately go to any coffee places, historic or otherwise. I just took coffee on the run or after a meal. I think of Portugal as the one time overlord of more than one great coffee-producing region, so I was expecting great stuff around every corner. But it eluded me. In Galicia too.

    2. One last thing I wanted to add about eating in Portugal that I loved:

      You almost never hear a radio or canned music in a restaurant.

      Sometimes people would be watching television, often with the sound off. But in general, it was striking how often you could sit down for a meal and not have to listen to the standard pop-music stream or anything at all. Not classical. Not jazz. Nothing. Silence. It made me want to live in Portugal.

      1. Thanks for your reports on the north of Portugal and Galicia. The only part I don't understand is your disappointment with the coffee. Outside of Italy, I'd say Portugal has the best regular espresso (bica) in Europe; the widely available Delta is pretty decent and some of the local roasters even better.
        You might find this interesting:

        1 Reply
        1. re: jmoryl

          I guess the key words are "outside of Italy". I live in Italy. I'm actually pretty fussy in Italy as well. For me, if you want great coffee in Italy, you go to Napoli and Trieste, and selected spots in Torino and Venice.

          My expectations were pretty high in Portugal, not only because of its history but because of its reputation. But whether I was in bars or restaurants, none of the coffee really pleased me. Like I said, I bought coffee beans because I was staying in an apartment, and they were very good.

          This does give me an opportunity to add that what was outstanding in Portugal was bread and olive oil. More often than not, the bread that arrived on tables in restaurants -- even formica-topped cheap ones -- was really tasty. And while I was less taken with most of the olives I was served, I found most of the olive oil I tasted was full of flavor (with variety too).

          Bread was also outstanding in Galicia (where olives were a bit better, but olive oil less so). Last spring, I toured parts in Puglia in Italy, which is often considered the premiere bread baker and olive oil producer in Italy. It's true that Pugliese bread is better than most other Italian bread loaves, but it is to me inferior to what I had as a general rule in Portugal and Galicia. I also preferred Portuguese olive oil to Pugliese olive oil. In fact, I'm surprised people stampede to Puglia instead of Portugual and Galicia (especially) as destinations for a beautiful coast and food, and culture and charm.

          I just wanted to let you know I'm not merely Italy-centric. As usual with travel, it's hard to know what you can legitimately conclude from several dozen meals and as many shots of coffee, mostly subordinated to sightseeing. It's possible that had I asked around, I could have been steered to some great "bica." You have to ask around where I live. There are more places serving disappointing coffee than good coffee. Only a few locales in Italy reverse that.

        2. ps jmoryl,

          I did find reading that link interesting. Generally, I don't put sugar in my espresso unless, after the first sip, I don't like the way it goes down. Time and again in Portugal I found myself dumping in at least a half-packet of sugar after the first sip. It improved it, but since I don't really like sugar in my espresso, it was kind of a lost cause.

          The author of that links notes how often Portuguese add sugar to their espresso. Maybe it's commonly made with the expectation sugar will be added. I also found it interesting the author thought coffee improved the further north one got. I was happier with the coffee I got in a cafe (Cruz) in Braga, and at Historico in Guimaraes. I also agree A Brasileira in Braga has it all over the original in Lisbon (where there is now a very intrusive Starbucks logo smack in the window of the historic Estacao do Rossio, while you still won't see a Starbucks anywhere in Italy).

          I'm glad he included a picture of that startlingly beautiful MacDonald's in Porto. Maybe I made a mistake avoiding Nicola's once I caught on it was a chain.

          But here's a question: Where do tomatoes in Portugal and Galicia come from? The climate, especially in Portugal, would seem to favor lovely tomatoes. But I so often got hard, thick-skinned and half green ones, despite the lingering hot summer weather. (Onions were good.)

          2 Replies
          1. re: barberinibee

            Just a note about tomatoes: It also surprised me when I came to live here 30 years ago that we could not find "normal" tomatoes. But the locals love their half green tomatoes; actually they are quite good the way they serve them just thickly sliced with onion and oregano, no sauce as you make your own with the olive oil and vinegar supplied on the table.
            Nowadays, at the end of the Summer, suddenly there are red tomatoes everywhere (we get given bucketfuls that we dry, make sauce with, etc. until they pour out of our ears). Must be a different quality. But the climate is Atlantic, not Mediterranean, so not as good for tomatoes as one thinks...

            1. re: monchique

              I more liked the raw onions that imparted so much flavor to the olive oil and ultimately the tomatoes than I enjoyed the tomatoes themselves. You can get a variety of good tomatoes along the East Coast of the Atlantic -- not everywhere, and not that it makes much difference anyway. It is plainly a different Atlantic climate. In the humid American south, they also love green tomatoes.

              I must have been too early for those red tomatoes that are now pouring out your ears.

          2. I also want to add to this post (and then I am going back to work!) the names of a few places in Ourense and Lugo we particularly enjoyed for tapas and raciones:

            Acio in Ourense
            Verruga in Lugo

            As for Pontevedra, my recommendation is to take several tours around the small town before decided where you find it most congenial and what looks good before you take your first bites. There is incredible variety to not only the eats, but the feel of different quarters. This old Chowhound thread might guide some people (I wasn't aware of it when I went, so some of these bars may have changed hands:


            In A Coruna, there is a lively tapas scene, but we opted for a sit down dinner. This is a stupid article, but it does identify the most promising areas for tapas in the town