Lunch at Casa Guedes is one of our favorite culinary rituals in Porto: After snagging a seat at the bar during the midday rush, we sit, mesmerized, as Mr. Cesar nimbly cuts slices of roasted pork shank, then places them on bread and moistens it all with his secret sauce. While not the only item on the menu, the famous sande de pernil (roast pork sandwich) is Casa Guedes’s raison d’être. After taking in Mr. Cesar’s entrancing sandwich-making choreography, we order the upgraded version of the sande, which is topped with gooey queijo Serra da Estrela, a creamy sheep’s milk cheese.
Seating at this humble and low-cost eatery used to be minimal, and Casa Guedes’s popularity had long outstripped its capacity – fans could be found waiting patiently in queues stretching down the block. A few years back, around the time when Porto started being anointed such things as “Best European Destination,” the space expanded to include a small outdoor terrace. Now, though, the pork shank sandwiches are served in two locations: at the original tile-lined eatery and at a three-story building just two steps away, where you can wash down your sande de pernil with a cocktail on a terrace overlooking the square.
The investment for this new branch, which opened in September, came from Vinícius Fraga and Leonardo Bevilacqua, two Brazilians who have lived in Porto for two years and own 18 restaurants in Rio de Janeiro. However, counter to the established gentrification narrative of property investors wiping out classic spots, tradition remains paramount at Casa Guedes: Fraga and Bevilacqua, who also bought the building where the original location operates, have said they want to maintain the restaurant’s status as a local institution, albeit with expanded production. The pork shank sandwich isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Mr. Cesar, who has operated Casa Guedes with his brother Manuel Correia for over 30 years – he still has a hand in the secret sauce.
It’s a common story in Porto, a city inundated with tourists. Even though the streets are crowded, sometimes unbearably so, many of the city’s culinary institutions welcome the renewed attention. Rather than view visitors as a threat to their business and way of life, they turn them into allies by expanding or getting a facelift – fueled by hungry investors – while still staying true to the culinary traditions that earned them their good name in the first place.
While an influx of capital has helped elevate traditional cuisine, it has also made Porto fertile ground for innovative gastronomic offerings, many of which are helmed by young chefs. Although unwavering in their loyalty to the city’s unpretentious fare, Porto’s residents seem open to this new wave of restaurants washing over their hometown.
Yet a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats – as money is poured into trendy eateries and iconic local dishes that people are willing to queue for, many other downhome spots, often without an overly popular signature dish or recognizable name, are struggling to keep their heads above water. In fact, some have already gone under.
Although the spiffed-up cityscape suggests otherwise, a favorite pastime of portuenses is eating the most finger-soiling treats in the most squat and hidden places on out-of-the-way streets. Take the example of Gazela and its cachorrinhos, the “hot dogs” that the Porto beer house has been serving for over five decades. Even though they are most certainly not photogenic – a baguette oozing with Portuguese sausage, cheese and pepper sauce, all overflowing and nothing symmetrical – these rough-looking hot dogs were recognized as one of the top five “house specialties” last August by a jury at The World Restaurant Awards, the latest in a long line of Gazela admirers. But while the kitchen is cranking out more of these snacks to meet the growing demand, they’re thankfully still using the traditional recipe.
Similarly, Conga’s bifanas, a deceptively simple sandwich they invented that features pork cooked in a spicy mystery sauce, remain the same – the output just continues to increase. The legendary sandwich is an anchor for a restaurant that has been reimagined: The space has grown, sideways and upwards, the décor has followed the trends and the menu offers gourmet-style suggestions.
Reimagining and repurposing space in Porto is practically a national sport, often to the benefit of restaurants, in that expanded venues hold more customers and, presumably, bring in more revenue. While diners also sometimes bask in the updated digs, the experience is never quite the same in these modern spaces. We used to go to Tasca A Badalhoca, a small spot in an alley on the outskirts of Porto that only held a few people inside. There was no time for indecision because the pace was always hurried, with customers streaming in and out. We would order the famous ham sandwich (or two), a glass of wine and quickly down them both, because behind us there was a never-ending stream of workers with little time for lunch. Now we go to A Badalhoca’s second branch downtown, a much larger space with an elegant entrance and swanky seating, on Picaria Street, a steep road that is emblematic of downtown Porto’s development boom. Today, several new and ambitious restaurants have replaced the apartment buildings and small businesses that used to line this formerly nondescript street.
Traditional cuisine continues to flow forth, helped along by the fact that offering the “authentic” has become good business.
Indeed, new spots seem to pop up every day in Porto. Some of them really shine, with the Michelin stars to match. This is the case with Pedro Lemos, a civil engineer turned chef who earned the first Michelin star in Porto with his eponymous restaurant, and Antiqvvm, led by chef Vítor Matos, who also oversees Largo do Paço in the northern Portuguese city of Amarante, which has been hailed by many as one of the best restaurants in Europe.
But more Portuguese chefs keep entering the race: José Avillez, the owner of more than a dozen restaurants in Porto and Lisbon who seemingly collects Michelin stars, opened Cantinho do Avillez as soon as the street that runs from São Bento train station to Ribeira was renewed; José Cordeiro, a star on various cooking TV shows, reopened the doors of Porto Sentido next to Rivoli Theater; and Rui Paula, another Michelin-starred chef, stays true to the culinary heritage of his home city with his DOP restaurant. Whenever we see a street under construction, we take bets as to which chef will surrender to Porto this time.
It’s not only the big names who are drawn to the city – Porto’s dynamism and openness to tourism is also attracting young entrepreneurs with a global outlook who are hoping to get in on the action, whether by opening new restaurants or revamping older spots like Casa Guedes and A Badalhoca.
Take the example of Pedro Oliveira, the son of former Portuguese soccer coach António Oliveira: He restored the historic café A Brasileira, which opened in 1903 and closed in 2009, at which point the space was rented to another entity and eventually abandoned. He attached a hotel to the café, which now offers a chef-designed menu of traditional dishes, including some specialties that had been served there for more than a century, such as 4 de Maio, a cake of dried fruits, and the toucinho do céu dessert.
But if it’s hard to keep track of all the new restaurants opening in the city over the past three years, it’s not any easier to keep count of the many that are closing. With euro signs in their eyes, many landlords are either raising rents or renovating their spaces into hotels or short-term rentals. The turn of events at A Regaleira, the spot where many believe the culinary pride and joy of Porto (do we need to say that we are talking about the francesinha?) was invented, has been particularly difficult to digest.
It was at A Regaleira that, in 1950, a restaurant employee, after living abroad in France, built on the concept of the renowned croque monsieur, adding a unique and now famous spicy sauce, to create the francesinha, the gooey, meaty, cheesy sandwich served with a mountain of fries.
Sadly, A Regaleira closed its doors in 2018 because the building owner decided not to renew the restaurant’s lease, a common problem in the city. The construction workers came, another building was born, and the promise that A Regaleira – the birthplace of Porto’s most iconic dish – would open in another space is still nothing more than that. [Update: In Summer 2021, A Regaleira reopened a few doors down the street.] This is the new reality for the city’s older establishments: The increase in tourists and, consequently, the conversion of spaces into accommodation threaten those who have fewer means to either pay a higher rent or undertake expansion work.
Ironically, A Regaleira’s demise has coincided with a growing appreciation of the francesinha – perhaps another indication of locals’ commitment to their homegrown dishes. In 2019, there was even a francesinha festival in Baixa (Downtown Porto) that attracted thousands of revelers. The participating restaurants are not particularly known for this delicacy, but attendees didn’t seem to care. The truth is that, in the north, you can hardly find a bad francesinha. Look no further than the success of various spots with noted renditions of this sandwich: The queues for Santiago (I and II, because the space has begun to feel cramped here, too) continue to reach the corner, and the reservations list at the rustic-chic Brasão is always full.
But perhaps an even better example of Porto’s commitment to its sometimes unlovely native dishes is tripas à moda do Porto (Porto-style tripe). The story goes that when Infante D. Henrique, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator, a key player in the 15th-century European maritime discoveries, set off from Porto to conquer Ceuta, the people, as generous then as they are today, offered all their meat to his troops, leaving only the less desirable tripe for themselves, which they cooked in stews (hence the nickname for the city’s residents – tripeiros).
It’s not the most elegant dish, but still, we’re not surprised that Porto’s most traditional restaurants, run by those who were born and raised here, continue to offer it, crafting mouth-watering versions with their usual mastery. And there is even the Confraria das Tripas à moda do Porto (the Brotherhood of Tripas à moda do Porto), a kind of brotherhood whose mission is to defend and promote this dish, which enforces a traditional dress code for its ceremonies and which counts among its founders the portuense chef Hélio Loureiro and the former Olympic athlete Rosa Mota.
Tripas à moda do Porto, along with the rest of the city’s gastronomy, continues to survive in a way that mirrors the image of the river Douro that runs through the city: certain of its origins and (almost always) faithful to its path. There are certainly obstacles in the way, from flashy culinary trends to unbridled tourism, but traditional cuisine continues to flow forth, helped along by the fact that offering the “authentic” has become good business, spawning marketing campaigns that steer audiences to traditional rather than trendy fare.
The recipe for long-term success still remains elusive, for both the most old-school spots and the most gourmet chefs, and the city is still looking for the balance between staying true to tradition and opening the door to a new world of gastronomy. But we tripeiros will continue to have a stomach, as the Portuguese expression goes, for these changes, as long as there are still places for restaurants to open and affordable (and maybe even finger-soiling) meals to be had.
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Published on January 07, 2020