In the 1980s and 1990s Bairro Alto was the epicenter of Lisbon nightlife: Bars here had the best DJs, and interesting restaurants were opening more often in this neighborhood than in any other in town.
Although Bairro Alto lost some of its more compelling spots over the years, it’s still a party district and on a recent upswing, with promising new restaurants cropping up.
Among these is Zé Varunca, a notable ambassador for the food of Alentejo, one of Portugal’s best regional cuisines.
Having limited resources, Alentejo cooks learned how to go far with a little, deliciously using, for example, stale bread as a staple ingredient along with chouriço or other sausages, pork fat and sometimes a bit of meat. Other important ingredients include red pepper paste, garlic, the excellent local olive oil and cilantro or other herbs, such as the native poejo (penny royal). There are ensopados with lamb (stew with bread and broth), açordas (a soft bread mash) and migas (a harder texture than açorda usually served with pork and sausages) great comfort food.
The origin of these dishes in Alentejo seems to go back to Roman times and were later reinforced during the Moorish period. In Zé Varunca the migas are delicious – not too fatty, with just the right texture and seasoning. They might be served with bacalhau (salt cod) or, more impressively, with pork ribs and presented in a hollowed-out loaf of bread – one of the house specialties.
The restaurant began originally in Estremoz, a lovely town in the heart of Alentejo, near Évora. Josefina de Sousa, the mother of Zé Varunca de Sousa, had a legion of loyal clients when she cooked in the restaurant Águias d’Ouro, in Estremoz, once a temple of great regional food. Her son opened his own place in 1981, using just his name. In the decades since, the restaurant closed and reopened in various locations as it moved towards Lisbon. There’s a branch in Oeiras, the western part of the Lisbon Metropolitan Area. And finally, in May 2016, Zé Varunca opened in Bairro Alto, where it is winning the hearts (and stomachs) of lisboetas with its deliciously authentic cooking.
The room is decorated in the Alentejo tradition, with colorful furniture and hand-painted ceramics from São Pedro do Corval, near Reguengos. Everything that comes out of the kitchen comes from Alentejo: meat, sausages, cheese, olives, olive oil and the crispy bread that is warmed in a traditional cloth bread bag and served with sheep’s milk cheese and sausage pâté.
“We go back home once a week to get all the produce and ingredients,” says João de Sousa, the 33-year-old son of Zé Varunca. He runs the Bairro Alto restaurant with his mother. Maria Teresa de Sousa cooks with passion in the kitchen, while João welcomes and serves guests. The other son, Ruben, takes care of the restaurant in Oeiras, and the father “takes care of everything.”
On our visit, we also enjoyed the perfectly grilled loin of porco preto (acorn-fed pig), served with homemade french fries and esparregado (spinach puree). If you want to start with some of the petiscos (small dishes), like casadinhos (deep-fried potato and cured pork loin) or papa ratos (literally “mouse eater,” a fresh sausage made of pork and flour that is fried) or torresmos (pork crackling), be sure to split a main dish, as portions are generous. Desserts are based on traditional egg yolk-based “convent” sweets (so named because they were first created by nuns), including the rich and creamy encharcada with plums or the almond and pumpkin pão de rala.
The finale is a most interesting coffee – presented on a wooden tray made by Zé Varunca himself. “My dad still has a small woodshop,” João explained, “and he had the idea of making these trays with the traditional flowers in bright colors.” On the tray the coffee is surrounded by little jars of brown sugar, white sugar, honey and a hollow sugar cane with a cinnamon stick and candy. It’s a delightful way to end a satisfying meal.
This article was originally published on April 10, 2017.