For the last of my Portugal roundups, how could I not blog about the food? Though peri-peri chicken was half of the dynamic duo that drove me to the Algarve (the other half being ‘over a hundred beaches), Marlon and I found way more than we bargained for. I’ve decided to classify our culinary outings into five categories; it must be all the doctoral dissertation reading I’ve been doing lately.
1) Tasteless tourist traps. The Algarve is a mixed bag of culinary offerings, and the lazy foodies who don’t reach deep enough into the bag get the chaff up top. It’s the easiest to find if you’re not a local, but it’s certainly not the best. I only bring this up because Marlon and I had a nightmarish peri-peri chicken in Lagos’ picturesque old center. The moment I saw the huge serving of fries that came with it, I dreaded the worst—a fear that was confirmed with my first bite of dry, flavorless chicken. After that day I vowed never to take the easiest option when it came to finding a meal.
2) Transplanted expat cuisine. A significant distance up the culinary ladder are restaurants opened by the many foreign retirees that have made the Algarve their home. I lost count of how many listings for British-owned restaurants I saw.
Don’t get me wrong, the food can be really good… like Kathleen’s home cooking at The Village Inn in Estombar, where we had dinner the night we arrived. And where we saw the biggest-ass glass of port ever.
Restaurante No Patio, owned by a British chef, also gave us a great meal at a good value. It was tucked into a narrow side street away from the Lagos town center.
Let’s be clear: it wasn’t British cuisine, haha. The menu was a mixture of international dishes using local ingredients, paired with some great Portuguese wines.
Zero complaints about the quality of the food; in fact, both restaurants offer excellent meals. It’s just that I didn’t come to Portugal craving for food cooked by a Canadian and a Brit.
3) Peri-peri perfection. The vile peri-peri imposter I forced myself to eat in Lagos triggered an obsession with finding the genuine article. Going online after a few days without Internet access, I found numerous discussions that revealed the reality that peri-peri is actually not an Algarve specialty. Nevertheless, I managed to satisfy my cravings by downloading directions to O Jorge, a snack bar (what must be the Portuguese equivalent of Singapore’s kopitiam) in a residential neighborhood in the town of Albufeira.
O Jorge fulfilled my cravings on every level. From the little old men just hanging out and smoking by the door, to the big ol’ Portuguese mamas cooking in the kitchen, to the juicy chicken clothed with spice and smoke… this was authentic Portuguese goodness.
The owner noticed us enjoying the chicken so much that he gave us a big extra helping of the peri-peri sauce, which is basically chili oil. He also agreed to bottle a little for us to take home.
We had to leave it at the airport though, which both of us got really upset about. We didn’t talk to each other for a full hour until we both realized it was pointless to fight over chicken drippings.
4) Spectacular seafood. While peri-peri chicken may not be an Algarve specialty, seafood most definitely is. Before it became a retirement boomtown, the Algarve was all about fishing—and still is in many towns.
At a restaurant overlooking Praia da Rocha in Portimao, I had cataplana, a hearty seafood stew served in a big domed dish. My favorite ingredient was the tiny baby clams that were so juicy and sweet.
Grilled sardines are an Algarve specialty, and we had them at a harborfront restaurant in Portimao. They’re tasty, rubbed with coarse sea salt and grilled, but I found the many fine bones made them difficult to eat. Still, the sardines are much bigger than the canned kind we usually get, and were reasonably priced.
We drove west to the fishing village of Salema, where one of our best meals was in a small shack facing the sea.
Everything we had at this place was awesome. From the sangria tinta (sangria with red wine), to the octopus salad we had as a starter…
… to the seafood rice we had for our mains. Somewhere between a paella and a risotto, this dish alone was worth the drive.
On our very last morning in the Algarve, we drove circles around the town of Quarteira before finding La Cabane, a restaurant highly recommended by the travelers on Tripadvisor. The meal we had at La Cabane tied with our Salema meal as the best of the trip.
A steaming, flavorful broth of garlic, clams, lemon and parsley…
… a big pot of monkfish rice…
… and the best freaking bacalao I’ve ever had in my life. It had a thick, salty crust from being dried in salt, but was fat, tender and juicy at the same time.
The sizzling olive oil with garlic that we were encouraged to drown it with probably helped, too.
As did the cold, refreshing pitcher of sangria branca (sangria with white wine).
What a great way to say goodbye to the Algarve: by taking home a wonderful culinary memory.
4) A taste of home. Ironically, our furthest-flung meal was where we were surprised by the familiar, reminding us of the intertwined histories of the Philippines and Portugal. At Jardim das Oliveiras in Monchique, way up in the mountains of the Algarve, we ordered a few random selections from the menu of the day.
Our starter, the carne asada, was only slightly reminiscent of home, but when our order of “oven-roasted kid” was delivered to the table, the similarities between our two cuisines could not be denied. Kalderetang kambing in the highlands of Portugal, who woulda thunk?
After chortling over the irony of coming all this way to eat a carinderia staple, we fell upon dessert: a caramelly-dark, moist tart made with figs and almonds, which are grown widely across the Algarve.
And for the first time, I found a digestivo that I actually like: a homemade concoction of schnapps, lemons, honey and cinnamon, my favorite flavors blended into a powerful little sip.
Tsokolate na lang ang kulang! But then, that would be overkill. And we’re all about balance and moderation here. Right?