Just like at Porto’s central Campanhã train station on Rua da Estação, O Astro Cervejaria Petisqueira on the other side of the street is reliably crowded every day. Its strategic location near the station helps account for that. But what really draws the crowds in is O Astro’s reputation as a must-stop for the definitive take on the bifana, one of Porto’s signature sandwiches. Much like the train station, O Astro brings locals and visitors together from all over Portugal, in search of one of Porto’s essential bites.
At the most elemental level, the bifana is a pork sandwich, and in its most traditional form it includes thin slices of braised pork shank tucked into a crusty roll called a carcaça. But it is much more than a simple sandwich, especially in Porto, where a bifana packs a mighty punch of flavor. Here, the meat is simmered in a spicy and intense red sauce that drips from the bread to the fingers – proof of absolute satisfaction. This is unlike other regions in the country, where a bifana can include a pork fillet and mustard – and no sauce! (Looking at you, Lisbon.)
“Bifana is a food staple in this city, and it’s our flagship,” says Clara Rocha. She is a part of the second generation of the Rocha family, who have been running O Astro for more than 40 years. “No one comes in without ordering at least one. And we wouldn’t allow it to be otherwise,” she jokes.
Opened in 1979 by Albino Rocha, Clara’s uncle and godfather, O Astro was named after a famous Brazilian soap opera that was very popular in Portugal that year. At first, the small space had one long counter where you could only eat standing up. Over time, it gained fame, attracting locals and Porto visitors looking for a good meal between their comings and goings – rather uncommon for a venue close to a train station, which are often notorious for being blackholes when it comes to food.
A few years after opening, Albino’s brother Armando joined the business. The two were in charge of everything: cooking the meat, preparing the sauce, filling the bread, serving the guests. “Our recipe is a legacy from that time, when my father and uncle started making the first bifanas,” Clara recalls. “One can’t mess with tradition,” she adds.
“Our recipe is a legacy from that time, when my father and uncle started making the first bifanas.”
The meat is cut by hand into very thin pieces – “we don’t use those cutting machines here” – and the sauce blends garlic, olive oil, wine, beer, tomato, paprika and chile pepper. More attentive patrons can taste bay leaves and notes of black pepper. “The recipe is a family secret; it is our trump card,” Clara says. Passers-by can look into O Astro and see the pot, with its mysterious and tempting recipe bubbling up behind the big glass window facing the street.
Although bifanas are its claim to fame, O Astro has a more extensive menu that also pulls in travelers on their way to and from Campanhã station. One standout is their homey caldo verde, the classic Portuguese soup made with potatoes, kale and sausage. But also worth ordering is a tasty version of the famous papas de sarrabulho, a traditional porridge made out of bread and pig’s blood, rissois (savory fried turnovers filled with meats like shrimp or beef), breaded pork (a kind of local schnitzel) and the freshly boiled chicken gizzards.
With Albino’s death six years ago and their parents’ retirement, Clara and her brother Rui took over the business. Under their command, O Astro expanded, adding an outdoor area. Just before the pandemic, in February 2019, they opened a new dining room and another counter with draft beers. “It was my uncle’s dream. Once we had the opportunity, we couldn’t let it slip away,” Clara tells us.
For her, it was difficult to see the pretty new chairs sitting empty during the lockdowns. “We had just [re]opened; it was a great pity.” Now, three years later, things seem to be back on track. With trains from Campanhã station running all over the country once more, customers are once more coming into O Astro – though they are sure not to depart before having a bifana.
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