The clock strikes 11:55 a.m., and the tables at Adega Solar Minhoto are already filling up with hungry customers. Many are regulars who come daily – they know that this traditional restaurant in the Alvalade neighborhood doesn’t accept bookings and is packed by midday, requiring a bit of a sprint if you don’t want to wait in line.
Most workers in Lisbon take their midday meal after 1 p.m., so this is certainly an early lunch. But Adega Solar Minhoto’s fresh and delicious traditional fare, generous portions, friendly service and great value are worth rearranging your schedule for.
Adega Solar Minhoto was already an established neighborhood tasca when Joaquim Sá and his friend and business partner Reinaldo Pinto bought it 20 years ago. Before launching out on their own, the duo had worked together for 10 years at Tico Tico, a popular cervejaria, a place where people like to indulge in seafood and beer, but also steaks and in this case regional northern cuisine, on the same street.
They kept the name as well as the traditional style of cooking, albeit with a few updates and improvements to the menu. And for 19 years, they left the interiors untouched. It was only last year that they gave the space a makeover, updating the décor so that it looks more like a restaurant than a tasca: The many TV sets are still there but there are fewer stainless steel counters and cabinets and more wooden panels and bricks as well as comfortable chairs, large windows and walls free of football club banners. More importantly, the dining room was expanded and a larger terrace (covered in winter) was added, allowing even more people to find a seat and enjoy this northern Portugal outpost in Lisbon.
In the kitchen, senhora Idalina Sá, Joaquim’s wife, has ruled for 16 years now, with two assistants. The prato do dia, or daily specials, come to the table very quickly, sometimes when you’re still savoring the beef croquette or the cod or octopus fritter that come as part of the cover – we also found ourselves devouring the sheep’s cheese from Alentejo and dipping into the bread basket, which rounded out these irresistible appetizers.
Like the former owners, Joaquim and Reinaldo are also from Minho region (the towns of Paredes de Coura and Ponte de Lima, respectively) in northern Portugal, close to the border with the Spanish region of Galicia, which is one of the reasons why they kept the original name (coincidentally there’s a restaurant with a similar name – Solar Minhoto – in Lisbon’s Penha de França neighborhood, which can be confusing). In fact, some of the best tascas in Lisbon, from Imperial de Campo de Ourique to Popular do Capelo, were opened by immigrants from the Minho region.
“We have regular customers that have known us for a long time, some live here or work in Alvalade but some come from far away to eat with us.”
Joaquim tells us that before they took over the restaurant, it was already a well-established business, having made the people of Alvalade happy for at least 30 years. Tucked away in a hidden corner, right next to the firehouse, its out-of-the-way location doesn’t deter their clientele. “We have regular customers that have known us for a long time, some live here or work in Alvalade but some come from far away to eat with us,” he says.
There are different daily specials, like bacalhau com broa (salt cod with corn bread) on Mondays, cozido à portuguesa on Wednesdays, and duck rice on Fridays. And many more special dishes that can show up on any given day, such as perna de porco no forno (roast pork leg with potatoes), favas guisadas (fava bean stew with chouriço), galinha de campo de cabidela (free range chicken with rice stewed in blood), and grouper rice with shrimp. The grilled fish is also very popular at Adega Solar Minhoto – it’s especially fresh since the Alvalade Market is so close by.
But many people come here for bitoque, which some argue is the best in the city. It’s a simple but popular dish all over Portugal, a kind of fast food that is easy to get and affordable – usually a thin and small steak with a garlicky sauce, an egg on top and French fries all around. Sometimes pickles, too. Most places load up on the carb side dishes, serving it with a portion of rice as well. Very often everything comes on the same plate, the fries drowned in a pool of greasy and tasteless sauce.
But not here: A generous portion of steak comes on one dish, while the fries come on another. Plus, the sauce, which is garlicky and meaty with a hint of bay leaf, is lovely, much better than you’ll find elsewhere. “The secret is the quality,” adds Joaquim. “We want to serve a high-quality bitoque with a good steak, high-quality homemade fries. And of course the sauce is excellent too.”
No wonder the tasca is always so busy. Even during dinner, when many popular lunch spots are quieter and operate at a more relaxed pace, it’s business as usual at Adega Solar Minhoto, with hardly a free table in sight. We’re happy to wait, though, dreaming of the meal to come with an imperial draft beer in hand.