The most famous fish monger in Lisbon

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Until the middle of the 20th century, street fish sellers called “varinas” were a common sight in Lisbon. They carried a basket of fresh fish on their heads and attracted customers with their catchy slogans and charismatic personalities.

Varinas are a relic of the past, but some of the best fish in Lisbon is still sold by a charismatic woman. Many restaurants in the capital city order their fish from Açucena Veloso.

Visiting Açucena at Mercado 31 de Janeiro is a fascinating experience. It was in a stall in this market that she started selling fish at nine years of age. Today, she owns 23 stalls.

The quality and variety of Açucena’s fish would astonish the patrons of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market.  But it is not easy to gather these marine treasures. Açucena wakes up every weekday at 2:00 am to make sure she buys the best fish the sea has to offer. Despite her long work hours, she’s always in a good mood. “Look at these ocean jewels” she says with pride pointing to fish that go by quaint names like rascasso, cantaril, and emperador.

When Albert Einstein visited Lisbon in 1925, he wrote in his diary about a fascinating varina with a proud, mischievous look. We think he would have loved meeting Açucena Veloso.

Açucena Veloso’s fish stalls are at Mercado 31 de Janeiro, Rua Engenheiro Vieira da Silva, 31, tel. 91 721 8169

 

A fish club

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Casa Janeiro is an unusual restaurant. Located in the small village of Brejos de Azeitão, 30 km south of Lisbon, it functions as a club for the appreciation of fine grilled fish. To be considered as a member, you need to be patient and love eating fish. Patience is a must because the restaurant does not take reservations and there’s always a long line

Most customers are regulars. Some are locals, others are hard-core fans that drive to Brejos de Azeitão just to eat at Casa Janeiro. Over the years, the customers get to know each other, so the restaurant feels like a club.

While we waited in line, a group of regulars came to chat with us, eager to talk about their favorite restaurant: “You’re going to love it!” “We no longer grill fish at home, this quality is impossible to replicate,” “No one grills fish like Mr. António.”  “And the prices, unbeatable!”

Ana Cristina overseas the dining room and her husband, António Janeiro is in charge of the colossal grill.  António was working as a car mechanic when he became fascinated by the art of grilling fish. He started hanging out with fishermen and cooks so he could learn their secrets. When his repair shop closed, he took the plunge and, together with his wife, opened Casa Janeiro.

His day starts with a trip to the fish market in the port of Setúbal. He comes back to the restaurant to make the “brasas,” the layers of red-hot charcoal that produce intense heat. He compresses these layers, reducing the airflow to make the charcoal last longer. Then, he covers the charcoal with ash to reduce the heat. “I stir the charcoal when I want more heat and apply more ash when I want less,” he explained to us.

We watched Janeiro prepare the fish with speed and precision and then pause for a brief moment, perhaps to give thanks for the bounty of the sea. Janeiro salted the fish and placed it on the grill. He didn’t take his eyes of the grill, constantly adjusting the coals to make sure the fish was perfectly cooked.

“Which fish do you recommend?”  we asked Ana Cristina. “Chicharro,” she answered without hesitation. We expressed surprise. After all, this is an unglamorous fish, the cheapest on the modestly priced menu. “But it is the best fish on the menu,” she insisted. “This month the chicharro is fat and delicious. If you don’t like it, you don’t need to pay.”  “Ok,” we said accepting the bargain.

As soon as we sat at the table, we regretted our decision—we saw amazing sea bass and grouper go by our table. But, when our chicharro arrived, succulent and delicious, we realized we had made the right choice. “What else should we try?” we asked Ana Cristina. She recommended the squid, which was the best we have ever had, tender and full of flavor.

When we returned the next day for more grilled chicharro and squid, Ana Cristina gave us a big smile. And that’s when we knew that we had been accepted as members of the club.

 

Casa Janeiro is located on Rua da Serração 57, Brejos de Azeitão, tel. 21 218 8124. If you don’t like to wait, you need to arrive at around 11:30 am for lunch and 6:30 pm for dinner. At lunch, the restaurant serves grilled fish. At dinner, it serves light seafood such as clams, crab and shrimp. 

 

The last harbor

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The existence of one of Lisbon’s best fish restaurants has been a closely guarded secret for more than half a century. Its name is “Último Porto” (the last harbor). Now that the secret is out, we might as well confess everything.

The restaurant is tucked away in the corner of one of Lisbon’s harbors (Rocha do Conde de Óbidos). It is not a glamorous place. But for fish lovers it is heaven.

There are tables inside and an esplanade surrounded by containers that is very pleasant when the weather is warm. It is easy to park and the walk to the restaurant is beautiful with the river in front of us and the city on our back.

“Último Porto” opens only for lunch and it is always full of locals. Grilled fish is the main event and the stars of the show are the “salmonetes” (mullets). Their skins are colored with yellow and orange hues, their flavors as bold as their colors. But, there are many other great choices, from sea bass to codfish.

Many restaurants showcase their fish in a refrigerated display. Others bring a fish platter to the table so that customers can choose what they want. At Último Porto, the fish is treated like a work of art—shielded from light and protected from the elements. It only leaves the refrigerator to go to the grill where it is cooked to perfection. It is this care that makes the last harbor our first choice for grilled fish in Lisbon.

Último Porto is located in the Estação Marítima Da Rocha Conde d’Óbidos, tel. 21 397 9498. It only serves lunch and reservations are a must. 

 

 

 

The tavern of the tides

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Portimão, a city in the Algarve, is famous for the quality of its sardines. Our favorite place to enjoy the silver of the sea is Taberna da Maré (tavern of the tides), which opened in 1946. The current owner, Zeca Pinhota, restored the restaurant with great sensitivity and care, using the original floor mosaic, vintage furniture, and photos by Julio Bernardo, a photographer born a century ago in nearby Ferragudo.

The food is wonderful. When they are in season, between June and September, the sardines are the main event. But there are many other delicacies. We had a feast composed of razor-clam rice, fried fish with “açorda,” clams Bulhão Pato, and grilled fish eggs.

We told Zeca that his clams are amazing. “That’s because they come from the sea to the restaurant. They do not spend time in tanks, shedding weight and flavor.” Zeca explained. “I call the local fisherman first thing in the morning to ask about the catch of the day. I want to cook the best of what the tide brings.” And that is indeed what you get at the tavern of the tides.

Taberna da Maré is located at Travessa da Barca 9, Portimão, tel. 282 414 614.

Eating by the sea in Azores

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Beira Mar, a family-owned restaurant in the Azores island of Terceira, has been a favorite dinning destination for four decades. It is always busy so, if you don’t have a reservation, you’ll probably have to wait for a table.

The service is orchestrated by a small troupe of waiters who move with elegance and speak with eloquence about fish and seafood. We could not tell whether they had trained as ballet dancers or as marine biologists.

Our meal started with “cracas,” a local type of seafood that has a delicate crab-like meat and a wonderful salty juice. We then sampled some orange delicacies called “lapas” that were briny and full of flavor.

Next, we had some amazing boca negra (black mouth), a fish that in continental Portugal we call cantaril. We also tried some wonderful species that were new to us: cântaro, bicudas, and lírio. They were all incredibly fresh and arrived at the table grilled to perfection. Terras de Lava, a white wine from the nearby Pico island, was the perfect complement to all this bounty from the sea.

Beira Mar is a simple place; no money was wasted on decoration or fancy silverware. And yet, the restaurant feels luxurious because we can enjoy the sunset over the harbor while feasting on the precious flavors of the sea. It is the kind of luxury we love.

Beira Mar’s address is Canada do Porto, number 46, São Mateus, Terceira, Azores, tel.  295 642 392. Reservations are highly recommended.

The best grilled sardines in Lisbon

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The best place to eat grilled sardines in Lisbon is Casa do Peixe, a modest restaurant on the second floor of the Saldanha food market. This eatery dates back to the first part of the 20th century, when a cook from Galicia came to Lisbon and set up a few tables in the market to serve poached fish. The restaurant quickly became a destination for food lovers.

The current owner, Aníbal Sousa, bought the restaurant 30 years ago. When the Saldanha market moved from its graceful old building to its current unremarkable location, he added a charcoal grill and started to grill sardines and other fish.

The restaurant is noisy and there is no ambience. But it is always full of locals who love to eat fresh fish, everyone from clerks and shopkeepers to government officials and business executives.

Three cooks work nonstop to produce a constant flow of perfectly cooked treasures from the sea. All the fish is great but the sardines are extraordinary; moist and flavorful, grilled to perfection. We asked Aníbal Sousa what makes his sardines so exceptional. He smiled and said: we have been grilling them for many years and we only serve sardines when they are at the peak of their quality.

If you’re a foodie in search of the perfect grilled sardine, Casa do Peixe is the place for you.

Casa do Peixe is located on Mercado 31 de Janeiro, Rua Engenheiro Vieira da Silva, 135, Saldanha, Lisboa, tel. 213544233.

Perfection in Matosinhos

DCIM103GOPROWhen Oporto residents want to eat fresh fish, they drive to the nearby Matosinhos beach. The town’s main street (Rua Herois de França) and its side alleys are lined up with restaurants.

We usually go to S. Valentim and order rodovalho (turbot). We avoid appetizers so that, when the perfectly-grilled fish arrives at the table, we can give it our undivided apetite.

Each restaurant has a large charcoal grill outside maned by a master griller. This is a person with unbreakable concentration who doesn’t take the eyes off the grill until the fish is perfectly cooked.

Grilling fish is easy, unless you want to do it perfectly, in which case it takes years of experience. It is this perfection that keeps fish lovers coming back to Matosinhos.

S. Valentim is located on Rua Herois de França, 335, Matosinhos, tel. 229379204.