Zé Paulo Rocha was born in September, 22 years ago. By December of that year, he was already sleeping on top of a chest freezer in his parents’ tasca, right behind Rossio, one of Lisbon’s main squares. Like so many tasca owners in the Portuguese capital, they had come to Lisbon from northern Portugal’s Minho region years before.
As a young teenager, Zé Paulo used to help with the service while his mother cooked and his father ran the business behind the counter, the traditional family tasca format. His professional fate was sealed from the beginning.
Naturally, he went to culinary school. But he didn’t want to replace his mother in the kitchen. “Actually, my first intention was to become a pastry chef,” he says. But after a year spent working at Taberna Sal Grosso, probably the main impetus for the current tasca revival movement in Lisbon, he felt inspired to join their ranks. “I learned a lot working there,” he recalls. That inspiration is obvious from the moment one steps foot in O Velho Eurico. But we’ll get there in a minute.
O Eurico was a tasca familiar to many lisboetas. It had been a staple in the Mouraria neighborhood for several decades with senhor Eurico – hence the name – and his wife Carolina at the helm. They also had a grocery shop next door: When the restaurant was too crowded they put extra tables in the shop’s corridor, and clients would dine between rice packets and cleaning products. Like Zé Paulo’s family, Eurico and Carolina were also originally from Minho – that’s why the bacalhau à Minhota, Minho-style fried cod with onions, was one of the house specialties.
“It is a tribute to Mr. Eurico, because I see something of my father in him.”
Business had been going well but in the last few years, Eurico had some health issues and Carolina couldn’t do it all – take care of the restaurant and her husband – despite her apparent boundless energy. So, they decided to close up shop in January and look for new tenants (they own the building and live upstairs).
Zé Paulo’s uncle learned about the opportunity and convinced his nephew to check it out. The young gun liked what he saw and decided to go for it. He partnered with Fábio Algarvio, another cook with whom he had worked before, and got the place up and running with the help of his father, who restored every chair in the restaurant by hand, among other works.
O Eurico became O Velho (“The Old”) Eurico. Why that name? Zé Paulo explains: “It is a tribute to Mr. Eurico, because I see something of my father in him. Also, it’s a matter of respect: They had the restaurant for more than 40 years.”
The similarities with the aforementioned Taberna Sal Grosso are evident, starting with the main blackboard menu on the wall where clients can see all of that day’s dishes. “We thought about the menu in the three months it took us to renovate this place,” Zé Paulo says.
Bestsellers include a very good bacalhau à Brás, but also Iscas de Cebolada (pork livers) and a recipe that he took from his mother, Rancho à Minhota, a regional stew made with different meats, pasta and chickpeas. It’s not the only one that she shared with her son. “My mother was here for three days making Leite Creme [crème brûlée] because we had to register on the technical file the recipe she does instinctively.” That pretty much sums up this new era of tascas: giving old recipes new life. What’s not to like about that?