I woke up in the backseat of our 3rd rental car this week to my adopted Colombian family yelling about parking and hearing the word “bacalao” several times. I fell asleep in the middle of a sadly true political story on This American Life, and my neck hurt from the position I had left it in for the last hour leaning against the the side of headrest. I don’t usually nap because I wake up in funk, but I turn into a baby in a car and drift so easily asleep. I was hazy eyed, bloated, and sick of sitting in the car after 4 hours knowing we had another 3 to go. I wasn’t hungry, and definitely just wanted to make it to our final destination of Porto, but that wasn’t completely up to me traveling with 3 others. They were hungry and in need of a break. I slowly got my shoes on and made my way out of the car to a town of one main street, and a sky filled with smoke. It was cold, and my eyes weren’t fully open yet.
“Where are we?” I asked rubbing my eyes again yawning for what seemed like the 5th time in a minute.
“O Bacalhau!” Papito Joe responded, his mustache fully covering his upper lip as he smiled. He had been researching where to eat along the way since before I nodded off, looking at reviews and carefully zooming in on the map to see which of our highway routes connected. It came down to this place, and one more about a half a block up. We checked both, the other being a tiny cafe, and after turning the corner passing what appeared to be a semi lost senile old man who stared at us with a fiery confusion unsure of who we were or what we were doing in his unburdened by tourists town, we settled on O Bacalhau.
The chalkboard menu outside was a mix of writing that hadn’t been changed in the last 10 years, and layer upon layer of poorly erased chalk, making the “Prato do dia” and what type of meat they had, mostly illegible. It was 1pm and this being the main restaurant of the town, it was packed. After a lot of googling about the area, I found what led me to believe that Tremês as it was called, has between what Portuguese wikipedia says is a population of 1981 inhabitants, and French Wikipedia says is 2146. My mediocre reading of Portuguese suggests that it is a town of ceramics, and as far as I could see, the main clientel and passerbys were single old men, construction workers, olive oil factory workers, and elderly couples. We were the youngest, and by far the most unfamiliar faces that had walked in that day, if not ever. It was a scene out of a movie where the bustling restaurant filled with people merrily eating, chugging down carafes of wine, and chatting, suddenly stopped, looked up, and stared at us. Antonio the owner, whose name was written on our paper place mats, gestured at a table for 4, and I sat back to back with a construction worker dressed in his bright yellow uniform, on his lunch break eating a pound of steak, and drinking a liter of wine to himself.
This place was old, and classic. It was cold. The tables were all black rectangular, and one step above cheap plastic, reminiscent of a once a week church dinner. The bathroom didn’t have a lock, or a toilet seat, but somehow remained clean with the line of old ladies waiting their turn to pee. There was a glass case next to the kitchen with pieces of fruit you could order for dessert like slices of melon and pineapple, or a whole apple or banana. Fruit sat directly next to slices of cake dry looking cake.
Couples finished up their meals, put their coats on, and went to sit at the bar to chat and have their after lunch espressos. Huge cazuelas of potato stew, metal platters of meat with unsalted crispy yet soggy fries, lightly dressed salad with large rings of raw onion, and grilled fish with boiled potatoes flew by our faces, as either of the two front of house workers rushed across the restaurant to bring and clear dishes from the 50 plus people currently occupying the space. In the kitchen was one older woman, wearing a uniform of all white with baby blue trim ruffles on the sleeves, a bonnet, and a pair of heavy paned glasses attached to her neck with a metal chain. They must have constantly been fogging up from the amount of steam and smoke back there. She was holding down the entire kitchen alone, grilling bife to a perfect bloody rare, charring fish with the most pristine of grill marks, and scooping up what I later found to be my favorite bite of Portugal, their Prato do dia; Calderiada de Chocos.
Our table got set one person at a time as Antonio hopped around the restaurant collecting single place settings from empty tables any time his hands were free.
“Were we supposed to grab our own?” Dani asked chuckling. When he finally got a minute to hold his head above water, he came over to our table and used his limited patience to try to figure out what the hell we wanted with our broken Portoñol. We got a carafe of vhino verde, a bowl of bread and olive oil, salt brined olives, Calderiada de chocos, salmon, and when Joe asked between the ribs and the beef, Antonio grunted “Bife, bife” and walked in a sluggish hurry back to the kitchen. The front door to the restaurant opened, and in came the old man from the street, still looking confused, but relieved to be inside of somewhere familiar. He sat at the bar with the rest of the regulars, only after making direct eye contact with our table.
Our food came surprisingly quickly for how busy it was and how long it even took to get the table set up. We had enough food to feed a family of 6, and I’m glad my hunger came back when it did. I didn’t want the meat as good as it looked, or the salmon, as surprisingly medium rare I hadn’t expected it to come. I didn’t care about the fries, or the boiled potatoes. I was after the stew. Potatoes cooked in the rich tomato based soup, thickened the broth and broke apart with a stab of the fork. Huge thick pieces of cuttlefish lay atop them, and chunks of tomatoes, onions, and peppers were strewn throughout it all. I scooped a decent amount onto my plate, and soaked up some sauce with a piece of bread. It was salty, acidic, rich, hearty from the warmth and the potatoes, light from the seafood. The cuttlefish cut with ease, and I had never had one so tender and enveloped in flavor. Sure it could have been hotter. But I was so surprised at how insanely flavorful something so simple could be that for maybe the first time in my life, I didn’t even care that I didn’t burn my tongue.
I was so happy! Surrounded by happy families, by this particular family, and to top it all off, a slightly tipsy Dani’s mother gave me a hug and told me how happy she was that I was part of their lives, that I was the best thing to happen to their daughter, and that she was so glad I was there. I began crying in the middle of the busy restaurant, tears of relief and joy, so filled with love after a tough year of loss. Dani and her father looked up from their intense discussion about what to order for dessert to see me tearing up.
“What did you do to my friend mom!” Dani jokingly yelled.
Dani and Papito Joe attempted to order dessert from what they had seen on the chalk board outside upon entering.
“Un budin, y un mousse de chocolate” Joe said to Antonio. Antonio looked at him with a blank expression, scrunched his nose, and gestured with his hand as he sternly told us “No, no no!” Joe asked what he recommended, and Antonio pulled him up, smiling for the first time with us, led him to the glass case in the back, and pointed at something.
“What did you get?!” I asked excitedly.
“I don’t know?” Joe shrugged. “He said this was the best, so we shall see.”
I watched as Antonio opened what looked like the container for a store-bought cake and scooped a slice of something onto a plate. A tartshell filled with almond paste and topped with almonds appeared, and Lyzeth cut it into pieces for everyone to try. I drank my coffee down quickly, and looked around at a now empty restaurant minus the 3 men sitting at the bar with their flat caps and their shots. The chef came out to relight the wood burning chimney to heat the restaurant, and helped clear plates from abandoned tables before sitting down to lunch for herself and the other 2.
“Oh! So expensive!” Joe said to us. “A whole 8 euro a person!” He laughed. We got up, thanked them, and they smiled before taking a bite of their food. “Obrigada! Obrigada!” We got back in the car, and set the GPS for the rest of our trip to Porto. My heart and my stomach were full.
In the week I’ve been in Portugal I’ve found a few things that I entirely love about their eating culture. Service is painstakingly slow and lacks patience to start off. You can sit for a half hour without even an acknowledgment that you’re there, and when they come, you had better be ready. They’ll scoff, and try for a maximum of about 30 seconds to answer any questions, or explain any confusion, but the effort is minimal. Sometimes the food is quick, but when they’re busy, you wait. But I like that. It means that you have to make an effort to talk to those around you, your loved ones sitting with you at the table. To connect, instead of sit on your phone rushing to get through your meal to get back to your busy life. Wine and bread are important. They come, and the bread absorbs the alcohol as you chug it down, impatiently beginning to get hangry as you’ve waited for ages for just your order alone to be taken. By this point, you’re drunk and everything is just dandy. You’re talking nonsense, and giggling, and ordering another liter of wine for 3 Euro, and then the food arrives, and portions are a plenty! A plate for one can easily be shared amongst 3, but that doesn’t stop the Portuguese from inhaling it all themselves. And there’s a theme in their dishes, and it involves potatoes! Every plate had a form of potato, from the stew, to the fries, to the boiled. Their braised dishes start with onion, peppers, garlic, and tomato, and then what ever meat, bean or starch gets added to that. And their salads are dressed simply with vinegar, Portuguese olive oil, and salt. Nothing is complicated, or overbearing, or intense. It’s simple, and rugged, and heavy, and perfect in all of its imperfections. I think I like it here.