Forty years ago, José was the most popular boys’ name in Portugal. It had been the undisputed leader in that category for several decades. But trends change, and in 2017 José didn’t even crack the top 20.
So, it’s quite possible that the future will bring an influx of restaurants named after Santiago, the top choice for the last two years. But as we write this there are still a lot of Zé(s) – the shortened form of José – around town.
Zé da Mouraria is famous for its magnificent roasted codfish. Zé Varunca serves great food from Alentejo, the home region of this particular José. Zé Pinto is a classic choice for traditional recipes in Benfica. Zé do Prego, near Sintra, takes its second name after the typical Portuguese steak sandwich, prego. And the list goes on: Zé dos Frangos, Zé Carioca, Tasca do Zé and, of course, Zé dos Cornos.
Zé dos Cornos was named after not one but two Josés: the father and grandfather of João Ferreira, the current owner, who practically grew up in the restaurant. Like many tascas in Lisbon, it started out as a fuel shop – mostly coal, thus the name carvoaria, from carvão, the Portuguese word for coal – that also served a few snacks to its waiting customers. That’s why it used to be called Zé Carvoeiro (the coal man); in fact, the name is still engraved on the dessert display as a tribute.
João Ferreira took the reins in 2013 and made sure nothing changed at his family’s tasca.
When José Ferreira, João’s father, took over the business, someone offered him a pair of ox horns. He hung them on the wall and soon the place became known as Zé dos Cornos (Two-horned José). Mr. Ferreira used to heat up the workers’ packed lunches, serving them wine, cheese and small appetizers while they waited. Some days, they would eat whatever his wife was cooking: it could be cozido à portuguesa (a quintessentially Portuguese boiled dinner), feijoada (bean stew), cabidela (chicken blood rice) or grilled meat, particularly spare ribs, which are still famous nowadays. One thing was certain: no one left hungry.
After his father died in 2013, João Ferreira took the reins and made sure nothing changed at his family’s tasca. Mission accomplished. The undeniable proof? Many of the old customers still show up every day for a glass of wine and a slice of a special (so João says) cheese from Alpedrinha, a small town in the rural Castelo Branco district.
He serves most of the same dishes his mother cooked – she doesn’t cook anymore but the recipes are hers – even though tourists, who are now a significant part of his clientele, tend to prefer grilled fish. But he aims to please everyone, like his father, whose picture is now hanging below the horns, did. We imagine he would be very proud of his son.
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.”