Carla Santos is a busy woman. On the day we go to meet her, it is pouring rain in Porto and Adega Vila Meã, the restaurant she runs, is full. Carla doesn’t stop for a second: “One of those pork firecrackers with potatoes?” she asks a customer as she swings through the dining room.
She’s not alone in this mad dash. Carla works the tables with her youngest daughter, while the oldest, who learned how to cook from her mother, mans the kitchen. Even Carla’s 7-year-old granddaughter helps out, clearing tables. “It costs nothing to start learning right now,” says grandma Carla, already certain that “we are moving Adega from one generation to the next.”
Adega Vila Meã, one of the oldest restaurants in Porto, has long been charting a steady course. Having worked in the restaurant since she was 13 years old, when her parents were at the helm, Carla now captains this small yet popular spot, which attracts thousands of locals and visitors to Rua dos Caldeireiros each year.
We take a peek at the walls, proudly dressed in newspaper cutouts – many of them already yellowed with age – telling stories about Adega Vila Meã and revealing the restaurant’s success in the process. Carla likes to call them “little wonders.”
As the last of the lunch customers trickle out, and before resuming the rush to prepare dinner, Carla sits down with us. She begins by explaining that the restaurant was already named Adega Vila Meã when, nearly 40 years ago, her father, Armando, bought the house for a thousand contos (slang for escudos, the pre-euro currency of Portugal), which today translates to less than five thousand euros. The family is not from Vila Meã, a small village in the northern city of Amarante after which the place is named, which leads to occasional confusion, Carla says.
From then on, Armando was running the house in his own way. The “house” is to the right when climbing up Rua dos Caldeireiros, one of Porto’s steep streets; if you get distracted, you can easily miss the entrance (although if you follow the smell, you’ll likely find the right place). On the day of our visit, the aroma of Cozido à Portuguesa (succulent country-style Portuguese stew) welcomes us in. As is common in northern Portugal, practically all the dishes served at Adega Vila Meã are “half a portion for two,” meaning that half a portion is enough for two people. In the case of the stew, only a quarter of a portion is served “and people still go home with food,” says Carla.
Armando already had some restaurant experience, but his wife, Maria Francisca, had only worked in the fields before entering Adega’s kitchen. Carla was right there by her mother’s side, taking her first steps in the kitchen and eventually learning to cook there. “How many times she went running to school, eating a sandwich on the way, because she had been working here,” says Maria Francisca, who is retired but still hangs around the restaurant (the family lives upstairs).
At the age of 13, Carla knew what she wanted. “‘Mom, I want to stay here,’ she told me,” Maria Francisca remembers. So Carla dropped out of school to pursue the family business, and she has no regrets: “I didn’t need school to grow up,” she explains. “I grew up here.” She even learned English and French from her customers. Yet when in doubt, Carla shows them photos of the dishes – no ceremonies required. “[It’s] the best way to deal with a foreigner, because people see the look of the food right away,” she says.
“Just like plants, food needs love and long talks.”
Maybe, we wonder, we picked the wrong day to visit Adega Vila Meã, because the most famous dish of the house – the roasted lamb – is served on Thursdays and Sundays. “Half a portion for two,” of course, but what’s the secret behind this dish? There are no secrets here; everything comes from the love with which things are handled.
“People talk a lot about our roasted lamb. It must be because it’s treated so well, both at the time it’s killed, and during the time it cooks in the oven – we are careful not to let it burn,” says Carla. At Adega Vila Meã, the roasted lamb is cut in the kitchen, covered in sauce, and then goes back to the oven. It comes to the table with the skin crackling and the sauce bubbling, accompanied by rice, roasted lamb offal and potatoes, all finished in the oven. Throughout this whole process, “we talk to the roasted lamb to make it taste good,” she says. “Just like plants, food needs love and long talks.”
In addition to Adega’s stew and roasted lamb, one should not miss the roasted veal, octopus baked in the oven, and the Minho-style pork firecrackers (rojões), fried cubes of spiced pork. What we usually call grandma’s food. “We don’t have a chef-named restaurant, but we have good food,” says Carla. She knows that her food, which is made from fresh products (“frozen food doesn’t come in here”) bought from the same old vendors (“those we know who really care about quality”), “is what satisfies people.”
Carla confesses that she is often asked how she can satisfy a consistently full house without getting tired. “I know that when the food is good and people are greeted with a smile, the customer doesn’t mind waiting,” she says. After all, the praises plastered to the wall do not appear by chance, “they appear because we always work with love.”
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