At restaurants, many meals start with a tempting array of breads, olives, cheeses, sardines, etc. Be aware, however, that these are not free. You may ignore them and then when your food arrives ask that they be removed and you will not be charged. Eat one olive, however, and everyone at your table may be charged an extra euros for the treat (although many restaurants outside of tourist areas will only charge a flat amount for each item tasted.)  Sometimes, it is well worth the extra small bit of change to have a large basket of bread or a bowl filled with olives. BEWARE eating butter with your bread - you may be charged as much as a euros for a single pat of butter!  

Overall, you can eat like a king for next to nothing in many local restaurants. Portions are often so large that you can easily split an entree with a companion and have plenty to eat.  In Coimbra, we stopped into this small cafe next to the charming Coimbra Penitentiary. For 5€ we had an amazing dish of Osso Bucco(beef bones baked and then stewed in wine until the meat is falling off the bones) that was amazing and enough for two people!

It's not aways about the food

Most of our meals in Braga have been descent – cheap, and to be honest, uninspiring…your basic bacalhau com natas, overcooked roasted veal in gravy, but always good soup.  

Our final meal was in a very friendly little tasca that served just to prata da dias each day – your choice of option A or option B. Today, the options were bacalhau curry or turkey roll stuffed with nuts and dried fruit. I got the curry, Mom went with the turkey. The carrot soup was, of course, very good – the Portuguese pride themselves on good homemade soups. 

The food was tasty enough, but nothing to blog about. The best part of the meal was the friendliness of the owner and his willingness to make change for a 200€ note that our bank at home had given us when we bought Euros in advance of the trip. He even checked to see if he had change for our even larger 500€ note. This was a much-appreciated gesture, as most businesses did not want to cash more than a 20 note unless you were buying more than 20 worth of goods.

Tip of the day: If you’re picking up cash for your trip in advance, be sure to ask the bank for small bills. Without the help of our generous host in Braga, we would have had to go to a money exchange and PAY to have a 500€ note broken down into smaller bills.

Coimbra hospitality

Coimbra has many places to dine - from humble tascas to fresh grills to fine dining overlooking the city. Excellent meals are available at a reasonable cost, even in the fanciest of restaurants.  Three that we ate at were especially memorable.

Adego Paço do Conde
Our first night in Coimbra demanded grilled fish. Our guidebook had suggested this busy, loud and friendly spot. Not someplace you go for a quiet conversation, it was quite loud inside. But you could tell you were in the right place as soon as you entered, the owner was busily turning meat and fish on an open fire just inside the entrance. There was no English menu, but that wasn't a problem, we just pointed to what we liked in the meat case and they slapped it on the coals and brought it to our table.

Maybe it was because it was the Queima das Fitas and everyone was feeling festive and generous. Maybe it was the sight of a college senior traveling with his mother. As we were leaving, the owner asked where we were from. When we said "the US" he mentioned that he had a friend there - Donald Trump. My mom, of course, stuck out her tongue. He laughed and insisted and getting us each a free beer and a picture with him.

And that wasn't our only free drink in Coimbra. The next day, we headed down from Alto past the old cathedral. It was a bit early (11:30 a.m.) so not all of the small restaurants along our route were yet open. We happened into Maria Portuguesa and were her first customers. Maria, a lady about my mom's age, had Queen's greatest hits blasting out from the kitchen, and was singing along with Freddy Mercury and David Bowie (Under Pressure). She wasn't bad, either. 
We ordered a platter of sausages and cheese and talked with Maria about our plans for traveling in Portugal. She was very friendly. As we finished up and had a cafe (a shot of strong espresso, no milk, but sugar if you needed it) she ran to the back and brought out a special bottle and a couple of glasses - "A slightly sweet white wine that made an excellent dessert.  

Our third great meal in Coimbra didn't feature free alcohol, but was really good and included a great view across Baixa to the hills across the way. Terraco Da Alta featured game on its menu, so I had lamb shanks and Mom had venison. Both great! It also featured a few special guests - slugs that lived in the planters next to our patio table decided to see what we were having for dinner.  

Eating off the beaten path

The best place to eat is where the cops go to eat…

After enjoying the botanical gardens of Coimbra on a Sunday morning, we found ourselves outside the tourist zone in a residential neighborhood of the city.  Our guidebook had suggested one tasca not too far from where we were. We headed to it, which, like everything else, was uphill. 

It looked promising from a block away, situated on a corner, bright and cheerful looking from the outside – less so up close where it was obviously closed. We looked around us for alternatives, as the window for getting lunch (noon – 2 p.m.) was quickly closing. Across the street was some large facility – a military barracks, perhaps? Then luck was with us as we noticed a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that was half-filled with families having an after-church lunch and half-filled with…prison guards.  That facility across the street was the Coimbra Penitentiary. 

We were seated and handed menus – none in English, this was not a tourist stop. Our waiter also spoke no English. I recognized the word “chorizo” and ordered what I thought would be a platter of sausages. Mom got a half-order of what translated to “meat bones”. We both had soup.  While the chorizo ended up being cold-cuts and cheese, the “meat bones” were what a fancier restaurant would call Osso Busco – meat simmered for hours in a wine broth. The half-order was enough for the two of us – and cost just 5!

The table of police and prison guards sitting across from us were unironically enjoying a whole roasted suckling pig between the six of them.  

Cooking Class

In Portugal, a steak is not generally the same thick slab of grilled meat that you would enjoy in the US. To begin with, “bif” (beef) does not always mean beef, it can be a steak slice of nay meat – pork, beef, or even salmon. A grilled skewer (name) of meat such as veal is the closest in flavor and texture to what we think of when ordering steak.

Beef steak is not generally served as a thick slab of prime meat, but rather thin slices of less expensive cuts that are then marinated in wine an herbs to enhance the flavor and tenderness.

In our “chef’s table” cooking lesson at Time Out Market, we learned a tasty, and pretty typical way to enjoy Portuguese steak. The raw beef – something along the lines of thinly-sliced flank steak – was marinated in white wine and garlic before we began. We next heated a pan over medium-high heat and added a splash of olive oil and more garlic, for good measure.
The meat is taken from the marinate and blotted dry, then seared very briefly in the hot oil and garlic – less than a minute per side. From there a splash more wine, a tablespoonful of butter and a crack of fresh pepper finish the dish, which is served over oven-roasted potatoes (small potatoes covered in a bit of olive oil, garlic and, of course salt), with a garnish of serrano ham and the pan juices poured over all.

This was all served with fresh-baked bread with olive-oil infused with thyme for dipping, a glass of wine, beer or fresh tea, and a dessert of individual lime cheesecakes with red fruit (raspberry) puree or cookie crumbs.
 A cooking lesson and a delicious meal for about the same price as we would have paid for a sandwich and fries at one of the other Time Out food court restaurants!

It's not aways about the food, part 2

Jam Club  The friendliest bar in Bairro Alto. 


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