This Spring I was fortunate enough to have a week in Portugal with my mom for a “girl’s trip”. With its location almost exactly in the middle between the USA and Istanbul, it was the perfect meeting point.
What a special, memorable week it was. I had been to Lisbon for a short trip years prior, but this time with mom was truly an experience. We split our time between Lisbon, Sintra, and Porto. However, our hearts belonged to Lisbon after just a few days in the vibrant, colorful city. We fell in love with the streets dotted with yellow cable cars, the mosaic sidewalks, the friendly smiles of everyone we met, but above all, THE FOOD!
We feasted on giant tiger prawns drenched in salted butter, perfectly grilled octopus, shots of sour cherry liqueur, vinho verde from the Douro Valley, and the famed custard tarts. Portugal is a food heaven, added with the charming backdrop of the pulsing city, Lisbon is paradise itself. Here are the highlights. These are the food places in Lisbon that mom and I adored, our favorites and “must do’s” for anyone planning a future trip. Each place is connected to our hearts forever because, as we know here at Aftertaste, food connects us to memories and ultimately our soul.
Best pasteis de nata: Manteigaria
Ah the Pastel de Nata… or ‘Pasteis’ if you eat two or more. I think Mom and I averaged around 5 per day. We tried many places and took our taste test very seriously; however, we each decided that the best was at Manteigaria.
Central Lisbon has two locations, both exactly the same in terms of quality and deliciousness. We also stopped in at Manteigaria while in Porto and again it did not disappoint. If you can only eat one thing the whole time you are in Portugal, it should be these magical custard tarts. They are the single best dessert item I think I’ve ever eaten. If you are lucky to get some right out of the oven when they are still gooey inside, even better!
According to legend these tarts were invented by the monks of the Jeronimos Monastery of Belem in the 13th century. Mom and I did go to Belem and we tried to taste those tarts to make the final comparison, but alas the line was a 2 hour wait. So in the end we didn’t eat those historic ones, but really out of the 6 other places we tried around Lisbon, Manteigaria was always the winner.
We think maybe there was a hint of lemon zest in the recipe for Manteigaria’s tarts. There was something secret in their recipe that lifted up the heaviness of the cream. The shell was also so crispy, thin and ‘shattery’, crunching in your mouth and never soggy.
Best seafood place in Lisbon: Ramiro
I have to thank the beloved late Anthony Bourdain for the knowledge of Cervejaria Ramiro. Many years ago, Bourdain ate here and featured it in one of his shows. Shortly after, my friend and I took our own trip and immediately trekked to “The place Tony ate at”. We ate there for almost every meal of that trip. Therefore, back this time with Mom, for the sake of memory and nostalgia, it had to be Ramiro.
Mom and I ate here our first and last nights in Lisbon, marking both the beginning and end of a beautiful week with a special meal. Ramiro is an old school ‘cervejaria’, meaning it really only sells fresh shellfish. The crustaceans are plucked from the ocean, boiled, and drizzled in salted garlic butter. The end. Perfection. Each time we ordered giant tiger prawns and on our second visit we also had the langoustines. Everything tastes fresh, straight from the ocean, salty, sweet, buttery, and delicious. You can call ahead for reservations or just expect to wait in line by getting a number from the ticket machine. The place is ALWAYS busy, always bustling with families, always has crowds waiting outside… and it’s always good!
Just please, don’t be like the poor tourists next to us who tried to eat their pile of crustaceans in a dignified way using a knife and fork. Push the cutlery to the side, roll up your sleeves, use your hands and dig in! Get messy! The memory of my mother and I devouring a giant plate of tiger prawns, butter dripping everywhere, with the waiters smiling at us in approval, will bring joy to my soul for the rest of my life.
Best “modern” experience: A Cevicheria
When I was researching restaurants in Lisbon, A Cevicheria kept coming up again and again. It’s Peruvian food with a “Portuguese flair”, the baby of Portuguese Chef Kiko Martins and a bit more upscale in terms of prices and atmosphere. However, when I think back to our trip, this may have been the top highlight for me. We ate amazing food and had delicious traditional food. They don’t take reservations so go early and just be prepared to wait in line. It is itself also a fun experience as there’s a side window to the bar selling their signature pisco sour cocktails for you to drink on the street while you wait! Watching the bartender make our pisco sours was like watching Da Vinci create a masterpiece. Everything was done with care and intention. At one point something was even dropped from a tiny medicine stopper onto the top of the cocktail, perfuming it with a bitter orange aroma. They went down quite easily, maybe a little too easy as we sat down tipsy to the table!
The ambiance inside is show stopping. It’s quite a small place but hanging over everything, filling nearly all the ceiling space, is a giant octopus sculpture. The octopus is suspended above the bar with all its tentacles reaching out to greet the guests as they then dig in to fresh tangy seafood dishes. Our meal was also presented like an opera. Even though we didn’t order the tasting menu, somehow everything fit together musically, and our dessert echoed the flavors of our aperitif cocktails in a way that made us feel like the whole meal had been a kind of symphony with everything relating to each other in a circular and cyclical motion. We ordered the “Ceviche Carabinero” and the “Quinoto Nero” and finished with the “Suspiro Limeno” for dessert.
The ceviche carabinero was a shrimp ceviche and it was acidic, fresh, sour, and smooth. The quinoto nero was my mom’s favorite. It was a quinoa risotto made with squid ink (thus the ‘nero’) and topped with the most delicately poached filet of sole. It was simple, elegant, and beautifully flavored. The kind of dish you expect to have won awards (and maybe it has). Then to finish, the suspiro limeno dessert was something INCREDIBLE. It was a flan over top of a sharp lemon granita, covered in a crispy meringue, with some cilantro sprinkled on top. The creaminess of the flan, the brightness of the lemon, the aromatics from the cilantro…my mother and I were just in awe.
Best overall food place in Lisbon: The Time Out Market
When we weren’t organizing and booking tables at restaurants, we were spending our days wandering all over the city, averaging about 6-7 miles per day on foot. The one place that our feet always lead us back to again and again was the Time Out Market.
I would say it’s really more of an upscale food court, a place where you can find and eat EVERYTHING! There’s a wine bar, a port tasting area, small restaurant stalls from some of Lisbon’s most famous chain restaurants as well as affordable “street food style” stalls from some of Lisbon’s high-end chefs. This is a place to go and eat well and lots, and is also a great option if you’re interested in checking out some of Lisbon’s “chef” scene within a more reasonable price range. It’s also a place where you can eat all your favorites in one setting. There’s a charcuterie and butcher stall, there’s the place famous for cod fritters, the place doing a twist on hamburgers and pizza, and there’s even a small branch of Manteigaria’s pasteis de nata tarts inside. This was usually our lunch spot and a great place to sit and have some afternoon Vinho Verde.
For all the food and all the drinks, and to all the beautiful memories that I’ll cherish, forever SAUDE Lisboa!