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We were somewhat intimidated by doing a profile of Nova Pombalina, a snack bar in Lisbon’s Baixa neighborhood. When we stopped by to arrange an interview and shoot, the staff – when they finally had a spare second to chat – seemed slightly suspicious and generally disinterested. And our first attempt at a shoot and interview was postponed for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to us.

It isn’t much different when we ultimately arrive. It’s 11 a.m. on a Saturday, but the place is already buzzing with customers – a slightly rowdy group of Irish bros, a local who had stopped in for breakfast, a couple Spanish families. Eventually, when things slow down, we sit down at a table with co-owner, Manuel Maurício. He tells us that in 1980, he and his brother, Virgílio, took over the space, which had been in operation since 1938.

“It was a place that used to serve drinks,” he tells us, of Nova Pombalina’s origins. “Especially lemonade, but also capilé [a drink made from maidenhair fern syrup] and groselha [a drink made from redcurrant syrup]. There was no food served at that time.”

 Manuel and Virgílio kept the lemonade. But in an effort to distinguish the place from others in the neighborhood, they introduced a menu of soups, savory snacks and sandwiches.

“From the beginning, we wanted to provide an alternative, we wanted to be different. People who wanted a sandwich could come here, people who want cozido could go there,” says Manuel, gesturing outside and referencing Portugal’s infamously heavy “boiled meal.”

The sandwich the brothers introduced in those early days is the sandes de leitão, a suckling pig sandwich. Today it’s Nova Pombalina’s best-selling item, and is arguably the most famous one of its type in Lisbon.

“The suckling pig is from Sintra, but it’s prepared in the style of Negrais,” Manuel tells us, referencing one of Portugal’s most famous destinations for suckling pig. “It’s cooked in a wood-burning oven, and arrives here every day.”

That suckling pig is then sliced, put on a roll of rye bread baked in Mafra and is drizzled with the sauce that typically accompanies the dish in Portugal. The skin is crispy and fatty, and there’s a subtly peppery, garlicky, salty sting from the sauce. It’s delicious, but like most Portuguese sandwiches, is an exercise in minimalism.

“Here in Portugal, sandwiches only have one or two things, there’s no mix of ingredients,” Manuel tells us. “For the Portuguese, if it’s a ham sandwich, it has ham.”

That suckling pig sandwich seems to have given Nova Pombalina a new identity, and in the decades since, the menu has come to span more than 20 types of sandwiches.

“Nowadays we also have a vegetarian sandwich, with avocado,” Manuel tells us. He goes on to describe a sandwich of queijo fresco, Portuguese-style fresh cheese, supplemented with tomato and oregano, and a tuna sandwich. But the majority of the sandwiches at Nova Pombalina exist at the carnivorous end of the spectrum. There’s the sandes de fígado, which revolves around suckling pig livers, onion, garlic and that suckling pig sauce, an occasional special that Manuel tells us was popular in the Lisbon of the 1960s. The sandes de lombo assado takes the form of a whole wheat roll stuffed with thin slices of roast pork and sliced onions. And there’s the sandes de presunto e queijo, slices of cured ham from Spain topped with sheep’s milk cheese from inland central Portugal. Salty, creamy and fatty, it’s utterly delicious, arguably Nova Pombalina’s sleeper hit.

But it’s not only about sandwiches. The Portuguese love their soup, and there’s two on the menu every day at Nova Pombalina, typically some sort of vegetable-based soup and canja, Portugal’s take on chicken soup. Here, the latter takes the form of a pleasantly salty, savory broth studded with strips of chicken, rice pasta and a few slices of carrot, garnished with mint leaves as tradition dictates.

“Our canja is very famous,” Manuel tells us of the dish that’s been on the menu since the beginning. “It has to do with the quality of the chicken and the seasoning.”

A classic Lisbon pairing is soup and a savory snack, and the brothers also make codfish cakes, croquettes, hand pies and samosas in-house. Virgílio, Manuel’s brother, oversees sweets, and estimates that he’s served over 100 different varieties of cakes over the decades. And, of course, any of these items can be paired with a freshly-squeezed juice.

“In the beginning we only had lemonade,” Manuel tells us. “But later we served more – pineapple, ginger and mint, ‘tropical,’ strawberry. It depends on the season; if the strawberries are good, we’ll use them. We always use fresh.”

This emphasis on quality is quite literally written on the wall at Nova Pombalina. On a chalkboard above the cash register, handwritten in large letters in Portuguese, are two not-so-subtle mission statements: “OUR JUICES ARE A SYMPHONY OF FLAVORS ORCHESTRATED BY THOSE WHO KNOW,” and “THE DEEP KNOWLEDGE OF RAW INGREDIENTS AND AN EDUCATION IN THE SENSE OF TASTE TRANSLATE TO AN EXPERIENCE OF FLAVORS.”

“It’s our policy to maintain quality, for the customers,” Virgílio tells us. “Some people haven’t been here in a couple years, and when they come back, it’s exactly the same.”

This has drawn loyal locals for more than 40 years, but Manuel estimates that these days the customer base has shifted significantly.

“More than half of the customers are foreigners: seventy percent,” he tells us. And indeed, on the day we visit, Vítor Almeira, who works the floor at Nova Pombalina, could be heard taking orders in English, French and Spanish (“I speak Portuguese poorly,” he quips).

It’s a bit of a hectic visit, but by the end, we get what we need. Our camera and notepad packed, Manuel is bringing us samples of dishes and drinks, and we’re slapping backs and trading jokes with Virgílio and Vítor. What started out as something intimidating ended with us feeling like part of the family.

Austin BushAustin Bush

Published on May 01, 2024

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