Like many other cities in Europe, Lisbon’s burger trend has been growing strong, with gourmet versions and strange national adaptations overtaking the capital. But the bifana, Portugal’s quintessential hot sandwich, will always trump any trend for locals who want quick nourishment. Composed of a thin pork filet cooked in a sauce made from white wine, garlic, bay leaves, lemon and lard, the bifana is an irreplaceable cultural habit. Its iconic status is so embedded in the culinary psyche that gourmet franchising and international chains spreading their tentacles throughout the capital are even adopting it in their menus – say hello to the McBifana.
In a typical tasca, pork is generally cooked in a large aluminium pan, often visible from the store’s window to entice passersby from the street. The sauce, which keeps the meat tender and juicy, is replaced throughout the day without ever taking the pan off the flame. Bifana is usually consumed at the counter with mustard and accompanied by an imperial (a small beer on tap). This popular snack is part of the national trilogy of sandwiches, which also includes prego, a similar concept but with veal, and leitão, made from suckling pig often roasted in wood ovens and seasoned with garlic, bay leaves and pepper.
The bifana is a simple sandwich, and CB reckons its best iteration can be found at Bar Covense – perhaps one of the smallest snack bars in Lisbon. Located on the edge of the central district of Baixa, this tiny tasca has kept intact its decoration since the 1970s, when Mr. Afonso and Ms. Conceição moved here as a young couple from the small northern town of Cova. At that time, Lisbon was a very different place, undergoing the Carnation revolution, the massive return of Portuguese people after decolonization, and experiencing the initial sparks of post-dictatorship freedoms and a lively nightlife. But in terms of recipes, nothing has changed in Bar Covense; Afonso and Conceição are still preparing the bifana in the same way, as well as other nibbles from time gone by that never go out of fashion for Lisboetas, such as pataniscas, fritters made using leftover salt cod fried in a light chickpea flour batter, fried whiting fillets, boiled eggs and soup.
“What is different from the past is the flow of customers now because of the tourism boom,” says Mr. Afonso. Bar Covense used to be more out of the way before the recently inaugurated Elevador do Castelo. The combined system of public elevators, placed in two old buildings that overcome the considerable difference in height between Baixa – the Pombaline further downtown – and Lisbon’s highest hill, atop which the 14th-century São Jorge castle sits, has cemented an easy trajectory for tourists, where many overpriced, under-par restaurants have found a place. A bifana at Bar Covense in the middle of this route, then, is a minimalist pearl, not only due to the come-back-for-more taste – confirmed by the queue at lunchtime – but also for its price: one sandwich is €2.
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