Keeping the Tasca Spirit Alive in Lisbon - Culinary Backstreets | Culinary Backstreets
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José Saudade e Silva always knew, deep down, that he wasn’t cut out for tedious office life. So one day in 2014, after studying marketing and working a 9-to-5 job in that same field, he bought a one-way ticket to Oslo, where he had some friends.

He didn’t exactly know how he would make a living there, but one of those friends quickly got him a job working in the kitchen of a new fine-dining restaurant, even though José didn’t have any sort of professional cooking background. His only experience in the kitchen was being around his father, an excellent cook. “My father instilled in me a love for food from a young age. He does a great bacalhau à Brás [salt cod with potatoes and eggs], among other dishes,” says the 27-year-old.

José spent a lot of time in that kitchen, working almost nonstop: 14 hours a day, 6 days a week. Ten months later, feeling the urge to rest, he came back to Portugal and spent some of that hard-earned money traveling and eating. When he felt it was time to get back to work, marketing wasn’t an option anymore – his time in the kitchen only hardened his belief that he wasn’t cut out for office life.

So he decided to make a career out of cooking, working in three different restaurants in Lisbon, all of them well-regarded in their own genres: Sea Me (fish), Pap’Açorda (traditional recipes) and Bota Sal (seafood). The latter ended up being his last stop before opening his own restaurant, Cacué. “When I was at Bota Sal I knew that one day I would have my own place. I just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly,” he tells us.

He was a frequent client of a small tasca called O Tomás, located right below his apartment in the Picoas neighborhood, and became good friends with the owners, Zé and Fernando, who had been running the place for almost 30 years. “Many times I would stay with them after lunch, drinking bagaço [cheap Portuguese brandy] and listening to their stories,” he recalls. The place was vibrant: everyday at noon there would be a queue of local workers waiting for a table.

But the owners were old, tired and longing to hand over their business to someone else. It was a coveted spot, which allowed the duo to be picky – they didn’t want to pass it along to just anyone. “‘You should be the one, José,’ they said one afternoon. Back then, they didn’t even know I was a cook,” he says.

“I wanted to honor what they had here.”

It was the push José needed to start his own business. Like some other young owners we’ve covered recently, including Carlos and Diogo at Petisco Saloio and Jorge at Faz Frio, he didn’t break with tradition. “I wanted to honor what they had here,” José explains, confirming a curious and fortunate trend that is gaining momentum in Lisbon: after years of watching tascas being replaced by generic, soulless restaurants, now it seems like a growing group of owners would rather keep that old spirit alive. Amidst a boom of new businesses in Lisbon, these restaurateurs are cognizant of the value in preserving something – in this case, the tasca – that’s unique to the city; perhaps more shrewdly, they’ve realized that it will also help them stand out in a crowded field.

José, however, did more than keep the spirit alive – he also kept two of the special daily dishes, feijoada (bean and meat stew) on Wednesdays and pernil de porco (roasted pork shank) on Fridays, and Dona Rosa, one of the cooks who had been working at O Tomás since the beginning. “It has been such a pleasant surprise – I learn with her every day,” José says smiling.

The shy Dona Rosa smiles as well when we ask her about the experience of working with a younger generation. She nods and says, “I like it a lot,” while her hands swiftly peel garlic, the way only very experienced cooks – or grandmothers – do. Thanks in part to this continuity, many of the old customers have returned regularly since the restaurant reopened under new ownership last August.

But not everything stayed as it was. The restaurant is now called Cacué, a made-up word that José’s father used to call men on bicycles when José was a child – it’s an obvious tribute to the man who still inspires this young chef in the kitchen. Perhaps less obvious but no less meaningful is the recipe for bacalhau à bras, which is his father’s.

There are other Portuguese classics on the fixed menu, such as açorda de gambas (shrimp bread porridge), bacalhau à Minhota (fried codfish with potatoes, made just as it was during the O Tomás days), arroz de lingueirão (razor clam rice) and a very good cabidela de frango (chicken blood rice).

Desserts are above average as well, especially the chocolate mousse, which is very thick and intense, and the sweet pudim Abade de Priscos, an egg pudding whose recipe includes Port wine and lard.

The décor is also different now, with lighter-colored wooden accents, brighter lights, several paintings and a portrait of Chibanga, a famous bullfighter from the 60s, hanging on the wall. “I’m not really into bullfights, I just love the portrait,” José admits. It makes sense: it’s an old sight at a new place.

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