On a steep, narrow curve that winds up from Santa Apolonia station, a growing group of people waits. Whatever the weather, a small crowd will always be there, ready for the low doors to open at 8 p.m. Taberna Sal Grosso, which seats around 25 people, has been holding its own, quietly, for five years. Now, a seat at this small spot is one of the most coveted in town.
Sal Grosso’s modern takes on classic dishes are fun and inexpensive, particularly if you are not on a Portuguese salary. This tightly packed cubby was located in the right spot when the turistificação of the historic center hit and the intense surge in foodie footfall took over neighborhoods like Alfama.
The restaurant’s rising rankings on TripAdvisor and the increasing number of passers-by through this previously lifeless corner mean that almost everyone who eats here is an in-the-know visitor, arriving via the new cruise terminal, wandering up from the station or by Uber. People without reservations try to get in all night, with no luck – most customers book two or three days in advance at least.
The welcome you receive at Sal Grosso is friendly and energetic; you are carefully explained the concept of the place, the sharing plates and how each is cooked, as well as recommended combinations.
A seat at this small spot is one of the most coveted in town.
Headwaiter Pedro tells us that the restaurant is a part of the movimento taberneiro, the city’s modern tavern revival, and starts going through the blackboard menu on the wall. “Our concept is about sharing,” he says, “and we treat the food well.” Sal Grosso (“coarse salt”) revives and upgrades an old Lisbon habit that originated in very different times: drinking beer and eating petiscos in a carvoeria (coal shop-turned-boozer/snack bar).
It’s difficult to decide on what to eat. Pickled rabbit in escabeche, iscas á Portuguesa (liver steaks), cod cakes, cod confit, cod tongue salad, lamb stew, oxtail, monkfish doused in butter and bay leaf, bochechas de porco (stewed pork cheek) with apple and celery purée, and a lot more depending on the season. The Azorean tuna is cooked as it should be (braised then very lightly charred) and the stingray is surprisingly rich.
The waitstaff usually recommend five dishes between three people, but it rarely works out that way; FOMO kicks in and you end up wanting to try at least 10. By the time dinner is finally over, a range of liquors (chile, coriander, brandy, bagaço) ends up on your table – and guests can serve themselves at will.
Pedro and co-owner Joaquim, both Brazilians, met in Lisbon and become instant gastronomic buddies. They are also both long-time fans of the food writer Maria de Lourdes Modesto, “Portugal’s Julia Child,” as The New York Times referred to her in 1987. The boisterous and rustic nature of Sal Grosso, with no real barrier between kitchen and dining space, as well as the lashings of butter in many of their sauces, feel like an homage to her; Modesto was the national pioneer of improvised or “live cooking” on Portuguese TV, and a lover of French techniques as well as rural Portuguese food traditions.
Pedro and Joaquim have also started up their own brewery, experimenting in pilsner and stout in their warehouse in Setubal, a port town some 45 minutes south of Lisbon. Their beer is only distributed here and Sal Grosso’s sister restaurant, Salmoura, located up the road on Rua dos Remedios – the spinoff is also good, but as the guys themselves admit, nothing beats the original.