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Simple and quick, the dish bitoque can be found all over Portugal. Its origins are a bit murky, but seem to be connected with the Galician immigrants from Northern Spain who moved to Lisbon during the Spanish Civil War. It consists of a small, thin steak surrounded by carbs (fries and rice), cooked vegetables or a salad of sorts, and topped with a fried egg. The essential ingredient is the sauce, however, and across the city of Lisbon are several variations and styles – all are generous and comforting, all are thick, and many include ingredients like bay leaf, garlic, and white wine.

This kind of fast food dish is a cheap and easy find in Lisbon, and we are big fans of the dish at Adega Solar Minhoto and Galeto. But we’re partial to the version served at O Bitoque, a classic tasca in Campo de Ourique with a handful of tables and coveted counter seating, especially at lunch time. The eatery has more than made the dish its namesake – like the meal, it represents traditional, institutional Portuguese cuisine in an ever-changing neighborhood.

“Bitoque was founded in 1983 by some folks working at the now-closed Café Gigante down the same street,” Margarida Costa, the current co-owner tells us. “It was my brother-in-law, Adelino Tomás, who took over with his partners in 1987. “He kept the name and the decor, but changed the menu and made this place what it is today.”

The eatery has more than made the dish its namesake – like the meal, it represents traditional, institutional Portuguese cuisine in an ever-changing neighborhood.

“I came here to help, and kept coming until I decided to work here full time,” Margarida says. She’d been working at her brother-in-law’s restaurant for 20 years before she took it over in 2021. After the terrible year of 2020 and the Covid-19 lockdowns, Tomás decided to retire. Margarida started a partnership with two of the kitchen staff members, Rosa Lino and Raul Gonçalves, to keep the business alive. The menu hasn’t changed a bit, nor has the longstanding counter and the blue and white tiles. The one new – and frankly, delightful – addition is the terrace, which we can blame on the pandemic. “It brings some joy to Bitoque, having tables outside,” Margarida says.

At O Bitoque, there is much more to enjoy than the signature dish. Each day has its own specials on offer, and loyal clientele know the menu by heart. Thursdays seem to be the biggest hit as it’s the day the cozido à Portuguesa (meat and vegetable stew) is served. A favorite of ours is Sunday: monkfish rice or grouper with pasta and roasted lamb. The bright cilantro O Bitoque adds to its bacalhau à lagareiro (oven-baked salt cod loins dressed with olive oil and garlic) makes it one of our beloved specials (Tuesdays), as well as the arroz de pato (duck rice, Wednesdays).

It almost goes without saying, however, that we are very partial to the bitoque: the ratio of steak to sauce is just right, and delicious. The steak is a cut of pojadouro (topside) from a neighboring butcher, but  – like any good Portuguese restaurant – it’s the sauce that holds all the secrets. We taste garlic, perhaps some Worcestershire sauce (known as English sauce in Portugal). Unable to pinpoint just what makes the bitoque so good here, we ask Margarida. All she would do was agree that yes, they are doing something, dropping hints about cream and Port wine, but no more. At the very least, we can say that the homestyle potato chips, rice and vegetables hold no mysteries, and balance the dish out quite nicely.

Certainly the dish will have us coming back to decipher what else could be in that sauce. Margarida says she has her fair share of regulars, and has watched young couples grow up and become parents, who then bring their children to O Bitoque as well. “We have many loyal customers. It’s like a family. At lunchtime, people who work in this area come in a rush. At night, it’s the residents that come, with more time for a chat and a meal,” she says.

For some elderly residents, stopping by O Bitoque has become a part of their daily routine – like Sr. António, the 93-year-old owner of the nearby grocery shop who comes by each day. “We also deliver meals to many senior people in the neighborhood,” Margarida adds. “They say our meals taste like proper, traditional food, like homemade food,” she tells us with pride. “If they don’t come for one or two days, we worry.”

Busy shredding duck for the arroz de pato, Rosa has been working at O Bitoque since 1987 – the only original of the three partners. “It’s been a lifetime, and I have worked in all the sections of the restaurant,” she says. “Now I’m in the kitchen, where I was needed.” Dressing the salad cod with a final touch of olive oil is Raul, the cook. He worked for 35 years at the now-closed restaurant Retiro do Chefe Costa in the Alcântara neighborhood before arriving at O Bitoque in 2020.

The trio are enjoying being their own bosses, but Margarida says this means they also work longer hours now. She starts at 7:30am, and only leaves after the dinner service. “I thought a lot about all of this, but I couldn’t miss this chance to stay at Bitoque,” she says.

With the good weather now upon us, the terrace will be the perfect place to enjoy some petiscos. In the summertime, snails, cockles, clams, steak sandwiches and bifanas will attract a small crowd – especially at the end of each day. From the counter, Margarida has watched the changes in the neighborhood: “Many new faces, many new nationalities and some new clients,” she says. “Many new restaurants and cafés are opening here as well, but all are neglecting Portuguese food.” Not O Bitoque. That’s what we like about it. Here, we can always find the same dishes, with the same flavors. And every time we come back, we can work on figuring out the secret of that sauce.

Published on April 07, 2022

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