We’ve long been tasca hounds, searching out the best that Lisbon has to offer. But in the last few years, a good number of our favorites have closed: the perfect storm of spiking rents, real estate interests, and aging owners and clients have stacked the odds against these small, cheap, familiar restaurants.
For a while, the stream of closures had us thinking that the Lisbon tasca scene might face complete extinction sooner than expected. But while doing research for a story on summer tascas – places with outside seating, grilled food or simple dishes similar to the ones you can eat by the beach – we found hope, in an unexpected way.
O Buraquinho was one of the tascas we had in mind – it had long been one of our favorite tascas in the Avenidas Novas area, and we always admired its terrace. The place was run by an elderly couple from Paredes de Coura, a village in the Minho region famous for its popular music festival. Senhor João was the host and Dona Luziane, his wife, the talented cook. The daily specials attracted regular customers, some of them for more than three decades. Arroz de gambas (shrimp rice) every Tuesday and filetes de peixe-galo com arroz de grelos (pan-fried John Dory with turnip green rice) on Thursdays. They also served very good meatballs: fluffy, tender and tasty. They never made them on the same day, though. Sometimes, we’d cross my fingers and call beforehand, only to sadly hear: “Nope, we don’t have them today, we had them yesterday.” But we also got lucky sometimes.
It had been around six months since our last visit when we went for lunch last week. At first glance it looked the same. But at second glance, something was off. The sign O Buraquinho had been replaced by a new one: Petisco Saloio. The small deck outside and its six tables was largely untouched, but we peeked inside and didn’t see João, his wife or their only long-time waitress (whose name, unfortunately, we can’t remember). In their places were a younger cook and two younger waiters. A closer look revealed other changes: new tables, new tablecloths, and wooden wine boxes decorating the counter. “We just opened three weeks ago,” the waiter told us.
We thought about leaving, as we didn’t want to ruin all the good memories we had of O Buraquinho. But first, we decided to read the menu: there were an assortment of petiscos (snacks) and a small list of daily dishes. That’s when hope began to grow – it was Tuesday and the daily special was the famous shrimp rice João and Luziane used to serve there every Tuesday. Coincidence? “No, we decided to keep some of the daily specials and the previous owners stayed here for a while, teaching us the recipes,” the same waiter said. That convinced us to grab a seat.
The shrimp rice came soon enough, in a generous portion, just like we remembered it. The rice was well cooked in a flavorful stock, packed with herbs and pepper and covered with enough shrimps to feed two hungry mouths. (Peeled shrimps, we must add, because that doesn’t always happen in Lisbon.) Hope grew a little bit more: they had not only kept the recipe, but also had mastered it. Any thoughts of summer tascas quickly dissipated, as our attention turned to a different question. Why did the new owners decide to continue serving traditional tasca dishes?
“We decided to keep some of the daily specials and the previous owners stayed here for a while, teaching us the recipes.”
We sat with the two young owners later that day, determined to find out more. Diogo Meneses and Carlos Pinheiro are, respectively, 25 and 24 years old. They met while working at Fortaleza do Guincho, a Michelin-starred restaurant (and hotel) near Cascais. After that, they worked together again at Il Mercato, the Italian restaurant of the luxurious Penha Longa Resort in Sintra. But they both wanted to open something smaller, simpler and Portuguese. “We wanted to honor our home food, our grandmothers’ food, that’s our influence, not what we have been cooking in the hotels,” Diogo told us.
They weren’t customers of O Buraquinho and only came to know about it because of an advertisement – the place was for sale. “The owners wanted to retire,” Carlos recalled. If they couldn’t sell the restaurant outright, João and Luziane told the young partners, they would be the first in line for a business transfer – something we call trespasse in Portuguese, when new restaurant owners rent a place from the proprietors and pay a fee for all the equipment. That’s precisely what happened.
“Before doing business we came here as customers and bonded with [João and Luziane],” Diogo said. The shrimp rice was one of the dishes they tasted. That’s when the idea of keeping some of the classic recipes on the menu popped into their heads. “We liked the food and if it’s good, why change it?” they said. That’s also how they were able to keep most of the old, faithful customers.
Luziane and João helped the young partners for a couple of weeks, teaching them the recipes and showing them the ropes of running a restaurant – it’s Diogo and Carlos first experience by themselves. So far so good. They are doing good business at lunchtime and dinner is picking up each week: they have only 30 seats but already had 15 reservations for dinner that Tuesday night. “A younger crowd,” they described.
Maybe there still is a future for tascas in Lisbon.
Editor’s note: This piece is part of our regular feature, Tasca Tables, which covers Lisbon’s tasca scene. Tiago Pais is the author of The 50 Best Tascas of Lisbon.